Duke coach who couldn't now has won the Big One The key: refocusing players after UNLV

April 03, 1991|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Correspondent

INDIANAPOLIS -- In the hours after his team's upset of Nevada-Las Vegas Saturday at the Hoosier Dome, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff were doing what they had done many times during the season, what college students everywhere do before final exams.

They were pulling an all-nighter.

It wasn't unusual for Krzyzewski to do this; he had, after all, done the same thing after a Thursday night win over Virginia in early February with Maryland coming into Cameron Indoor Stadium less than two days later.

"He has an amazing ability to put one game behind him and move on to the next," said associate head coach Pete Gaudet, Krzyzewski's longtime aide-de-camp. "I think it goes back to his military background. He is always thinking about the next game, the next play."

It was Krzyzewski's ability to get his players refocused after their remarkable achievement against the Runnin' Rebels that helped Duke beat Kansas, 72-65, Monday night in the men's championship game of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.

The victory -- coming a year after the Blue Devils had been on the losing side of the biggest blowout in the history of an NCAA final, a 103-73 loss to UNLV -- ended a string of Final Four disappointments at eight for Duke and five for Krzyzewski. The school had lost four previous finals, the coach two.

It also validated what most already knew: that Krzyzewski, 44, belongs at the top of his profession and, perhaps, among the game's all-time best coaches.

He is no longer the best coach never to have won championship, a distinction that arguably was attached in recent years.

"I won't have to introduce myself anymore as Mickie, wife of Mike (I've Never Won The Big One) Krzyzewski, coach of Duke (We've Never Won the Big One) University," Mickie Krzyzewski said in the hallway outside the team's locker room. "I felt we had to apologize for making the Final Four five of the last six years. But the parentheses have been erased."

Throughout his team's trips to the NCAA semifinals -- the Blue Devils were the first team since UCLA in 1973 to appear in four straight -- Krzyzewski emphasized how wonderful it was just to get that far, how many coaches dream of making the Final Four. Though publicly he wouldn't, and still won't, admit it, winning a national championship had become important to him.

"Of course, he wanted it," said Mickie Krzyzewskii, who has known her husband since he was a sophomore basketball player at the U.S. Military Academy. "But it had never reached the point where it was an obsession. I think one of the reasons he wanted it this year was the depth of love he had for this team."

This season's team was one of the youngest he has had in 11 years at Duke. It might not have been as talented or seasoned as the team that lost to Louisville in the 1986 final at Dallas; nor was it as cliquish and headstrong as last season's team, where the split between upperclassmen and underclassmen, as well as with the coaching staff, caused friction on and off the court.

There were times this season when Krzyzewski thought these Blue Devils had a chance to be very good. There were also times, as recently as last month's 22-point loss to North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game, when he thought they might be a year, and a player, away.

"They showed me in the NCAA tournament how tough they were," said Krzyzewski, who loses only four-time Final Four participant Greg Koubek, a late-season starter, for next season's team.

That attribute came through osmosis, from being around a man whose quest for perfection, or near-perfection, came from his Polish-immigrant parents and has followed him through his playing career for Bob Knight at Army and throughout his own coaching career, first at Army and then at Duke.

It helped him survive a couple of tough seasons when he first got to Durham, and more significantly, the disappointments of coming close but falling short. Asked about getting the proverbial monkey off his back, Krzyzewski said: "It's never been a monkey. I'm just happy for my players. Did you see their faces?"

As the celebration began on the court after Monday night's game, Krzyzewski was hugged off the floor by his center, junior Christian Laettner, and then signaled for his family to join him on the court. But as the players were cutting down the nets, Krzyzewski stood off to the side, a look of satisfaction on his face.

Krzyzewski eventually joined his players, beaming an infrequent smile, in the net-cutting ceremony. But that is not his style.

"I'd rather watch my players. I like being a spectator. I like watching people. I'm not the kind of guy who needs to join in the celebration," he said.

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