The relationship goes back more than 25 years, when Mike Krzyzewski left the West Side of Chicago to play for Bob Knight at Army. It has grown, as the player became a coach and is now considered to be among the best -- if not the best -- in his business. This week, there will as much focus on Krzyzewski and Knight as there will be on their respective basketball teams, Duke and Indiana, going into Saturday's NCAA semifinals at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
It is a study in contrasting personalities: Krzyzewski, intense but seemingly always in control, a players' coach to the core. Knight, manipulative and maniacal, constantly pushing his teams to the brink of excellence as well as exhaustion. Krzyzewski, always stepping out of the spotlight to let his team enjoy the moment. Knight, somehow finding his way back in the middle of one controversy or another. Krzyzewski, at ease with the national media. Knight, constantly at odds with those around him.
"I can call him and talk to him as a friend, and I was privileged to learn a lot from him," Krzyzewski recently said of Knight. "But by now, I've figured out how to put together my own game plan. I don't call my mother and ask her what to eat for dinner."
Said Knight, of Krzyzewski: "He surrounds himself with good people. He doesn't worry about whose idea it is, just is it the best idea? You have to have a lot of confidence in yourself to do that. He has a side that's very loyal, very understanding. He's a great friend to have because he's going to tell you the truth."
"They're very different," said Illinois State coach Bob Bender, who played a season under Knight at Indiana and later served as an assistant to Krzyzewski for seven years at Duke. "I'm sure that Mike has been influenced by Coach Knight in terms of what he does with his teams, but Mike is very much his own person. He has a very strong personality, but he comes across in a different way than Coach Knight. That's how a lot of friendships are."
When their teams first met, in the 1987 NCAA tournament, with Indiana winning a Round of 16 game in Cincinnati, much was made of their friendship, of Krzyzewski the student trying to beat Knight, his mentor. He answered those questions politely, but those who know the Duke coach say that he privately bristled at the suggestion that he learned everything from Knight. "It was as if Mike owed his whole career to Coach Knight," a coaching associate of Krzyzewski's said at the time.
This time, it is different. In the five years since, Krzyzewski has become one of the sport's biggest (and not-as-difficult-to-pronounce) names, leading the Blue Devils to the Final Four in each of those seasons, helping Duke to its first national championship, last year in Indianapolis. Knight hasn't been back since the Hoosiers beat Syracuse that year -- it was his third NCAA title -- but hasn't been too far from the tumult that comes with March Madness.
Take last week in Albuquerque. As Krzyzewski was quietly letting his players, namely Christian Laettner, become the focal point of the East Regional in Philadelphia -- for his game-winning shot against Kentucky in the final and the step he took on the chest of a Wildcats player -- Knight had turned the West Regional into his personal sideshow. It became, until Duke's near-defeat, the biggest story of the weekend.
Asked yesterday whether he regretted any of his actions, which included playfully tapping the rear end of Indiana star Calbert Cheaney with a bullwhip given to him by the players, Knight said, with more than a touch of sarcasm: "I regret everything. Sometimes, I regret some things I had for breakfast. I think the thing I regretted the most is when I had my teams swimming moats when they were filled with sharks. We had an old castle here and the mistake I made is that we had two really tough players and we lost four sharks."
In truth, Knight is tired of all the questions about the bullwhip and the insinuation that he is a racist. When the NAACP in New Mexico protested his actions last week, he pointed out his graduation rate of black players and what they have gone on to do after receiving their degrees. During a national teleconference yesterday, he said of his most recent accusers: "I feel sorry for anybody who is trying to make something out of that situation. They're kind of sad people."
While there is an intense dislike for Knight among some in the coaching profession, particularly in the Big Ten -- Illinois' Lou Henson calls him "a classic bully" -- there is nothing but admiration from Krzyzewski. Certainly, he has filtered out many of Knight's bad traits, but some personality characteristics linger. Krzyzewski can be just as sarcastic as Knight, but it just comes off a whole lot kinder and gentler.