Coach K’s heartfelt Army days paved the road for 1,000 wins
As Mike Krzyzewski stood for the national anthem in front of a capacity crowd of more than 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden — the self-titled World’s Most Famous Arena — flashbulbs popped and the former Army officer stood still.
His facial expression didn’t change. He stood at rapt attention, reverently observing the American flag, as he always does.
Leading up to this moment of 1,000 career victories, Krzyzewski has dismissed the notion of it being anything more than a round number of wins. But maybe, just maybe, at that moment of saluting the flag, he allowed himself to think back to his first win as a head coach.
It happened nearly 40 years ago in a fieldhouse on the Hudson River in West Point that seats a mere fraction of Madison Square Garden’s capacity — 3,500.
It wasn’t completely full — the Army-Navy football game was happening the next day in Philadelphia, and many of the corps of cadets had already left. His friends and family, though, were there, including many of his officer friends that would wait to make the trip to the football game the next morning.
In advance of the 1,000th win, there have been specials, feature stories and signs and chants throughout Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium home — even countdown signs. It’s been all Krzyzewski can do to avoid it.
And he’s tried.
Maybe Krzyzewski would rather it have been more like it was for his first game as a head coach, when no one was really paying attention at all.
"The Army and Navy game was that Saturday, so all the news was surrounding the Army-Navy game that weekend. And here’s Coach K starting an unbelievable career that Friday night," said former Army guard Pat Harris. "It wasn’t like the place was vacant. Coach was fortunate enough to have a bunch of his classmates stationed at West Point at the same time. The fieldhouse was filled. It was like the starting of something special."
Upon first taking the court with his team that night, as a 28-year-old head coach — and leading his alma mater, no less — if he was nervous, Krzyzewski didn’t show it. Just like now.
"Coach has always been an individual that’s always been in control. He’s got a sureness about him that I think he’s probably like anybody else, he probably gets nerves that are going on and in different directions, but he always, always, always looks like he’s under control," said Harris, a former point guard. "You can tell by the look in his eyes that he’s ready to coach, ready to have his teams playing well."
Against St. John’s on Sunday afternoon, millions of eyeballs were on him in that moment. Even as Krzyzewski was just 56 miles away from his first home of Gillis Field House in West Point, he was basically a world and a lifetime away from that.
That old fieldhouse, though, was a part of something for Krzyzewski, too. He realized the importance of venues at an early stage of his coaching career, and he had two great ones. Cameron Indoor Stadium now seats more than 9,000. The field house sat less than half that. One of his first objectives when taking over at Army, back in the fall of 1975, was to make the field house a fearsome place to play again.
"It had a feel. It was a place where, previous years while Coach K played and Coach (Bobby) Knight coached, opponents feared to go to it. In other words, you were going to play against an opponent that was going to take away your candy. They were going to play man-to-man defense. They were going to dive for loose balls. They were going to take charges," Harris said.
"It was an environment that evoked sometimes — I wouldn’t necessarily say fear, but it certainly did get the conscience of your opponents. In other words, you weren’t going to walk out of here with an easy game. That was the culture that Coach K wanted to put back into West Point environment, into the West Point basketball environment. Don’t come into here thinking that you’re going to win."
In the 1960s, Army had gone to the NIT pretty consistently and had some good teams under Knight in the 1960s, including Krzyzewski’s teams. But the program had been struggling. Harris and Matt Brown, a forward who started as a freshman in Coach K’s first game, were integral parts of that first crop of recruits.
When Brown initially visited Army, the previous coaching staff had been fired, but the replacement had not yet been hired. He loved West Point, so that helped.
"Then the coach was named. No one could pronounce his name," Brown said. "But Coach K then came down to my high school, visited me at my high school and visited me at my parents’ house. What I was so impressed with was that he was young. He was 28 years old at the time. And he was a graduate of West Point and that really sealed the deal, let’s say."
A 28-year-old head coach might not have been taken so seriously in normal circumstances. But being at West Point, the cadets are used to accepting authority, even if it comes from a classmate only a few years older. And it helped from a basketball perspective, too: He might have been tough on them, but Krzyzewski could relate to the players.
"He understood what West Point and West Point education is all about. That, I think, assured a lot of us that we believed in him and trusted him because he was a graduate," Brown said.
Krzyzewski had to return Army to its winning ways. And to do that, he took a page from the book of his mentor, Knight — man-to-man defense, and a team that would relentless strive to out-work its opponent.
Defensive drills were always part of his practices. He worked his team hard in the lead-up to the first game, and engrained those defensive principles into their minds and bodies.
"The first three weeks of practice, I thought I was at soccer camp. We did nothing but defense, defense, defense. And we broke down every component of defense. We knew where we were supposed to be," Harris recalls.
And they had an early chance to see it pay off against someone other than themselves, too — a scrimmage against Penn State a few weeks before the official start of the season.
"We had a scrimmage about two weeks before. We scrimmaged Penn State. Back then, you could do that," Brown said. "You could scrimmage other Division-I teams. We held Penn State scoreless over 10 minutes. That set the tone, I think, for us that hey, we can be very successful if we play team defense."
That certainly helped build trust between players and coach, which is big under Krzyzewski. Even Coack K’s modern-day players talk about the importance of trusting their head coach. But it’s probably a lot easier for an 18-year-old today to buy in to a coach that’s won multiple gold medals, and now 1,000 games.
Back then, there was nothing but a year of being an assistant coach at Indiana to suggest Krzyzewski was worthy of trust.
"In the back of your mind, you know that he’s not that much older than you. … I don’t think anybody looked at him and said ‘Oh, we’ve got this kid coaching us’ or ‘we’ve got this young guy coaching us.’ He was in control. There was never any doubt. He was in control back then as much as he is today," Harris said.
"I think we trusted him. He understood basketball. No doubt about it. Even though he might have had limited experience, his background was still impressive," Brown said. "But I think it’s a case of him being direct with you and direct in his mannerisms, and you having that trust and faith that he’s been there, he understands and he just wants you to be a better basketball player and a better person and a better cadet."
The initial buy-in, then, was easy for them. The Penn State scrimmage helped, too. As they took the court for the Lehigh game on Nov. 28, 1975, they were a little nervous — but more excited. And confident.
"Our game plan was to play tough man-to-man defense and motion offense," Harris said. "We spanked (Lehigh), 56-29. From the time the ball went up, the game was over."
It was a culture change — the previous Army teams had played zone and gone up-tempo on offense. But if the Penn State scrimmage hadn’t validated Krzyzewski’s philosophy, the Lehigh game certainly did. The Army Sportsletter wrote that Army held Lehigh to 9-of-44 shooting (24%), and in spite of shooting just 39% themselves, that was more than enough to win easily.
Harris was right — it had been over from the opening tip. Krzyzewski’s team led 35-18 early in the second half, according to The Army Sportsletter, and "coasted the rest of the way."
"I wasn’t surprised that we had dominated. I was totally surprised by how much we dominated. In other words, we were well- prepared. We knew that if we played to the backbone of our program — tough, man-to-man team defense — that we were going to win. I never fathomed that we would win 56-29," Harris said.
"I just think that so early in a season, I don’t think our opponent was so well-prepared for a team that would play defense that well."
While he always exuded a calm, confident manner to his team, Krzyzewski’s sideline demeanor was a little bit different back then. He’s still engaged — he broke an expensive watch earlier this season slapping the floor to encourage his team, and he yells at referees — but it’s not quite the same as the boisterous, energetic, restless 28-year-old Krzyzewski was.
"He was very, very active on the sidelines. He was much more active than what he is today. He had a completely different demeanor. He has more control of the surroundings now, I guess you could say. He’s become such a great teacher, it’s like his players know what to expect, he knows what to expect," Harris said.
"Back in those days, he was up off of his seat a lot more, more or less going up and down the bench or whatever it was. … He was active. He made sure the refs knew that he was there and he was going to be there the entire game."
Krzyzewski still does that. He chased the officials down at halftime against St. John’s, asking why they wouldn’t review a shot-clock violation (the three-pointer could not be reviewed).
This win — No. 1,000 — didn’t come as easily as that Lehigh win did back in 1975. Not by a long shot.
St. John’s was likely annoyed at the pregame hype for Krzyzewski’s 1,000th — it looked like it, anyway, as the Red Storm had primary control of the game, leading by 10 points more than once, including 61-51.
Then Duke buckled down and starting getting stops, not to mention getting to loose balls quicker than St. John’s, and the Blue Devils used an 18-2 run to go ahead by six, and held off St. John’s down the stretch.
It’s somehow appropriate that it was Marshall Plumlee, who officially joined the Army the day before, was the spark that lit the Blue Devils — and Krzyzewski said as much after the game.
After Tyus Jones hit a 3-pointer to put Duke up by seven with 60-plus seconds remaining and the roof nearly tore off Madison Square Garden, as his team ran back to the huddle, Krzyzewski held out his hands flat as if to say, Calm down. We’re not done here.
Krzyzewski didn’t let himself smile until Rasheed Sulaimon secured a rebound with 32.4 seconds left and Duke up by eight. His players embraced the coach as the final buzzer sounded and then donned hats that read, simply, "K" on them.
He still went through the handshake line and chest-patted many of the St. John’s players, his regular custom, particularly when an opponent has a good game. Krzyzewski went through the mandatory postgame interview. But he just wanted to move on.
So in some ways, Coach K’s the same. And in others, he’s changed, either by necessity or just with time.
Krzyzewski’s Duke teams now are still known for that tough man-to-man defense that they were in his early days, even if they have thrown in zone every now and then.
But they’re also known for being well-prepared. Krzyzewski and his staff are very adept at figuring out what the opponent does best and taking that away, whether from an individual or a team standpoint.
"He did his thorough research about who you were guarding, his tendencies, what he did well, what he didn’t do well, what the team did well, what the team didn’t do well. It’s evident even today that his teams going into games are so well- prepared," Brown said.
And the way Krzyzewski built a successful basketball empire was a combination of that preparation with the psychological part of it.
Brown says: "It’s something that (Krzyzewski) just endears in you that you can beat anyone. You play your game, you do what he tells you to do, you experience success. It’s happened 1,000 times, almost. So you become a quick believer in Coach K. He knows how to connect with his players. I think he knew how to connect with everyone, even at that early part of his career."
Of course, with that expectation and with that self-belief comes consequences. Like, when his teams lost a game or didn’t play as well as they could have, even in a win.
Brown said that to demonstrate the toughness his team needed, he would take charges in practice at times. "Now, most of the time, he would step away depending on who was coming down dribbling the basketball. But there were times when he would take the charge and roll around and then get up and tell everybody ‘now that’s the way you take a charge.’"
There’s a familiar feeling that washes over Coach K’s former players as they watch his current Duke teams, even now, after a loss.
"After a tough loss that Duke has, and maybe they didn’t play well, I know exactly what the players are going through the next day at practice," Brown said.
"I have to say, we were afraid to lose. We were afraid to lose because practice was not going to be kind the next day. You were not going to eat lunch because you would see it again," Harris said.
With schedules being what they are, Krzyzewski has had to be a little bit more lenient in that aspect. He can’t run his team to death after a loss on, say, a Sunday if they’re playing again that Tuesday.
But they’re still going to experience something close to it, and his former players at Army remember it well.
"He had a system of defensive games where you would play against, it would be almost like in those days, it would be a black and gold team. Whatever team was the starting team was probably not going to win a single game that day. Hence you weren’t in purgatory, you were in hell," Harris said.
"You know something? And you look back at that, you think, you developed a cohesiveness on the team and you understand what’s expected of you, but it’s like a lifelong lesson. You always give your best. You always work as hard as you can. Not that we didn’t work hard. And you always expect to be good."
One reason this particular group didn’t get subjected to a hellish Krzyzewski practice after one loss earlier this season — at NC State — was partly the schedule (they played Miami at home Tuesday, also a defeat). And it was partly Krzyzewski having a good feel for this group.
This team is young, and he knows what it can and can’t handle mentally. That’s been a gift of Krzyzewski’s since his early days.
"What Coach is very good at — very, very good at — is every team is different. Every year, every team is different. And so he has an innate ability to understand the team makeup and what motivates them," Brown said.
"So if you have a junior or senior-dominated team, you probably don’t have to be rah-rah. If you have an underclass team, you probably have to be more rah-rah. And you have seen that not only with the Army teams, but also with the Duke teams. He has a tremendous skill to understand the teams."
Krzyzewski has never been one to attach extra significance to a victory — whether it’s No. 1,000 against St. John’s … or No. 1 from 39-plus years ago.
"We have worked extremely hard to prepare ourselves for this season’s play, choosing to look ahead rather than behind," Krzyzewski told The Army Sportsletter after his first win in 1975. He knew that Army had gone five seasons without a winning record.
Army would go a sixth without one, too — finishing 11-14 in 1975-76 — but his next three teams finished with winning records. His final team at Army went 9-17, leading to a lot of confusion when Duke athletic director Tom Butters chose to hire the young head coach to lead the Blue Devils.
His former players watched from afar, excited for their former coach but nervous about his future in Durham. It seemed tenuous as his first three teams went 17-13, 10-17 and 11-17, with rumblings about his job security beginning in earnest.
"There was a period where we were concerned as former players whether or not he was going to be able to survive at Duke. It’s a great story of an AD (Butters) having confidence in not just a good coach at that time, but a great person. That’s the story," Harris said.
"It was almost like, you never thought that he would leave West Point, being a graduate. He totally believed in the West Point motto. He is West Point, which is always taking the harder right rather than the easier wrong. He lives West Point. So to see him coach at another place was difficult at first.
"And then to watch him go through some things, it was tough. You wanted him to survive and you wanted him to be successful. It took one smart man to make that decision at Duke, his boss. And the rest is history."
When Army came to Duke earlier this season for a game, Krzyzewski was visibly emotional after the game and proud of his alma mater. Head coach Zach Spiker has the team playing up-tempo, often full-court pressing the Blue Devils and showing no fear, ever.
Krzyzewski had to see a reflection of himself in that. His former Army players still follow Duke closely, obviously. And Coach K keeps in close contact with them.
They feel as if when it all started against Lehigh on that November night in a fieldhouse on the Hudson River, they had something to do with helping create the legend that Krzyzewski has become. Even if it was just a small part.
"I always tell folks, we are so appreciative, those of us who played for him at West Point, that he remembers us, keeps in close contact with all of us," Brown said. "That’s a special relationship I think we have is his former Army players and him have a special relationship because he started out that way. He started out at West Point to build where he is today.
"We kind of think we helped him get to Duke University."
And to win No. 1,000. Because after all, a journey to 1,000 has to start with a single triumph.