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Coach K and his early days of ACC men's basketball

Krzyzewski and Dean Smith battled throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Krzyzewski and Dean Smith battled throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

“You guys don’t mind if every once in a while I reminisce, right?”

In the moments after Duke’s hard-fought January win against Georgia Tech, head coach Mike Krzyzewski walked to the podium and said that to the media. In his opening statement, Krzyzewski readily admitted the game’s “exhausting” nature—after all, the Blue Devils were just returning from a 12-day COVID-19 pause that cost them much of the holiday break, and it took a great deal of intensity for them to overcome a plucky yet overmatched Yellow Jackets team.

Duke most always gets its opponents' best shot in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and in the final season of Krzyzewski’s career, that has remained true as ever. For the Blue Devils—ranked second entering the Jan. 4 matchup—that game was just another step toward the goal of an ACC title. But for the Yellow Jackets, it was one last chance to go up against the Hall of Fame coach in the house he built. Perhaps that’s overstating things, but the significance of each team’s last meeting with Krzyzewski has certainly been there throughout the season.

That sentiment was not lost on Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner, who had secretly planned to bring along Bobby Cremins, a former Georgia Tech head coach himself and an old coaching foil of Krzyzewski’s, to sit on the sidelines as a “going-away present.” An untimely sickness kept Cremins from making the trip to Durham, but the thought was more than enough to get Krzyzewski on the path down memory lane.

“That was a moment, a decade, [when] the Georgia Tech-Duke games from about ‘85 to the early ‘90s were some of the elite games in the history of this league,” said Krzyzewski. “And Bobby was not only a great coach but he—Bobby is genuine.”

Today, with the vast majority of Krzyzewski’s career behind him, it’s easy to forget the beginnings that preceded the five-time national champion’s legacy. It’s easy to overlook the trials it took for him to become the winningest head coach in college basketball history—that first national title came more than 30 years ago, after all—but that wasn’t always the case.

So, like Krzyzewski on that January night, let’s take a moment to reminisce.

‘A sensational year’

Krzyzewski had just turned 33 when he became the head coach at Duke. Young and fresh off of five years of coaching experience at Army, his alma mater, he took over a program from Bill Foster that had just won the ACC tournament. 

Duke’s new coach saw scattered success in those first few seasons, dipping below the .500 mark in his second and third seasons before rising stronger than ever. By 1986, Krzyzewski’s first highly-touted recruiting class—Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas comprised the famed “Class That Saved Coach K”—had come of age, and after a remarkable regular season title run that ended with a win at home against North Carolina, the Blue Devils found themselves up against Cremins’ Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament final.

Cremins isn’t the most notable of adversaries from Krzyzewski’s storied career, but the two young coaches had already built a compelling rivalry by that time. Even then, a story in The Chronicle claimed Duke and Georgia Tech to be “inexorably linked” by their star recruiting classes: the Yellow Jackets had star guard Mark Price and big man John Salley, who in the years prior, had proven worthy opponents for their Blue Devil counterparts. The two sides really were a perfect match, splitting their 10 meetings in the four years leading up to that moment.

Duke, though, got the last laugh, squeaking by in the title game 68-67 to give Krzyzewski his first conference tournament championship.

That year, the Blue Devils would go on to make their first Final Four under Krzyzewski before eventually falling short in the title game against Louisville. By year’s end, they had compiled a then-NCAA-record 37 wins, and Krzyzewski had established himself as much more than just Duke’s young head coach. 

“To say it was a sensational year may be a little mild,” said Krzyzewski after the loss in the national championship. “We won the NIT, the [ACC] regular-season title, the ACC tournament and set a record for wins. How could it be anything but sensational?”

While Cremins and Krzyzewski would remain worthy adversaries well into the next decade, Duke’s vindictive win at that year’s ACC tournament pushed its young coach past one of his first true obstacles. In one sensational swoop, Krzyzewski had distinguished himself and his program, laying the foundation for decades more of unprecedented winning.

The new standard

When it comes to ACC basketball, though, no look down memory lane is complete without Dean Smith.

In those early years, with Krzyzewski coming up in the conference alongside Cremins and N.C. State’s charismatic Jim Valvano, Smith—North Carolina’s long-established and respected head coach—and his program were the league’s gold standard, a dynamic captured beautifully in John Feinstein’s The Legends Club. The Tar Heels were perennial contenders, and their coach was a proven winner.

Smith was the benchmark, and Krzyzewski witnessed that firsthand in a 1984 matchup against the Tar Heels—the nation’s top team led by Michael Jordan—in Cameron Indoor Stadium. After a mid-game outburst by Smith at the scorer’s table went unpunished by the officiating crew, Krzyzewski fumed to the media after the game that there was a “double standard that sometimes exists in this league,” noting that Smith seemed to operate under a different set of rules.

There were bigger stories that day—fan behavior was the focus as the Blue Devils almost took down North Carolina—and Krzyzewski’s postgame comments were relegated to page 13 of that day’s edition of The Chronicle. But all these years later, with Krzyzewski as the clear benchmark in not just ACC basketball, but college basketball, that moment perseveres as a reminder that in order to become an icon of the sport, Krzyzewski had to go head-to-head with one.

Of course, Krzyzewski has now won more games than anyone, including Smith. By the time that the Duke coach passed Smith for second all-time with his 880th win, there was no doubt that Krzyzewski was the gold standard of his era, if not something more.

"I don't want to take any of that too seriously, but rather say, 'I'm one of the guys who's won a lot of games,''' Krzyzewski said after passing Smith. “To share a spotlight with Dean [Smith] and [Bob Knight], that's a great honor.''

‘The ACC I know’

In one of the final road games of his final season, Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils traveled up to Virginia looking for revenge after a 69-68 loss in Durham two weeks prior. Duke got the job done, winning 65-61 in another chapter of what has become one of the ACC’s most closely-contested rivalries.

“Just another Duke-Virginia game,” said Krzyzewski after the game.

To Virginia head coach Tony Bennett—like Pastner and so many others—it was not just another game, but likely the final meeting with Krzyzewski. Bennett took center court just before tipoff to honor Krzyzewski’s “monumental contributions to the basketball world,” presenting the coach with a plaque that Krzyzewski would later joke “weighs about 800 pounds.”

“Look, I’m not looking for a farewell tour or anything like that,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “But it is my last year, and if there’s some ways that we can celebrate the brotherhood that’s in the game, that’s a good thing.”

A pair of familiar faces sat in the crowd that night. Krzyzewski met with former Virginia head coach Terry Holland, who coached the Cavaliers from 1974-90, and 7-foot-4 Virginia great Ralph Sampson was also in attendance.

So, as Krzyzewski reflected on the meaning of Bennett’s pregame gesture, he once again got to reminiscing. This time, he recalled how a TV program on the team bus that day had jogged memories of his earliest days at Duke, going up against the likes of Sampson, Jordan and the rest of the ACC.

“It made me think of Terry [Holland] and Dean [Smith],” Krzyzewski said. “My wife, Mickie, and Ann Holland are really close friends, and Ann had texted her last night saying that they would be at the game, and that’s the other camaraderie. You can’t believe the wives of Bobby Cremins and Jimmy Valvano and Dean’s wife, Linnea—they were all friends.

“That’s the way it used to be, and so tonight was, to me, I was a little bit emotional about it because that’s the college game and that’s the ACC I know.”

No matter how Krzyzewski’s final season comes to a close, he’s sure to leave behind a legacy of camaraderie, especially at the program so fondly referred to as The Brotherhood by all who pass through it. 

Above all the wins, all the championships, that might be why his legacy is built to last.

Editor's note: This article is part of The Chronicle's Coach K Commemorative edition. Please click here for more content. An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to North Carolina as reigning national champions in the 1984 season. The article has been updated to correct this. 


Jonathan Levitan | Sports Editor

Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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