Top dogs, new tricks

Krzyzewski: Duke's biggest name survives changing cast, painful year off to return as a Final Four fixture.

Ncaa Tournament

The Final Four

March 27, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

DURHAM, N.C. - As the image of each coach flashed on the huge screen high above the Georgia Dome during this year's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, there was a smattering of applause as a short public service announcement was made. When Mike Krzyzewski's face appeared and the Duke coach started speaking, the crowd seemed to pay more attention.

His words were drowned out by a chorus of boos.

Such is the price of fame these days. The Blue Devils have been college basketball's most successful program over the last 15 years and the 54-year-old Krzyzewski has been its transcendent figure. They will take center stage again Saturday in Minneapolis, when Duke plays Final Four newcomer and sudden ACC nemesis Maryland in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

As the stars here have changed - from Johnny Dawkins to Danny Ferry, from Christian Laettner to Grant Hill, from Elton Brand to the team's two current All-Americans, Shane Battier and Jason Williams - the one constant has been Krzyzewski. Is it any coincidence that the Blue Devils nearly fell off the radar screen when their coach was forced to sit out a good part of one season after complications from back surgery?

That was in 1995, three years after Duke had won its second straight national championship. (It happened at the Metrodome, site of this year's Final Four.) After 12 games, which included nine wins and a long, arduous and foolhardy trip to Hawaii, Krzyzewski could barely walk. And, without the coach whom many considered the John Wooden of his generation, the Blue Devils collapsed.

"I hated that," Krzyzewski said in an interview earlier this season, sitting outside his team's locker room the day before a home game against Maryland. "I don't think people realize how fragile any program is, even one which had the success we did. ... In many ways, the maintenance of excellence is much harder than the achievement of excellence."

Suddenly a program that had been to seven Final Fours in nine years was scraping the bottom of the ACC. Suddenly a coach who had equaled or surpassed the accomplishments of nearly all of his peers, including those of his estranged mentor, Hall of Famer Bob Knight, as well as legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith, was forced to start over.

It was not easy; nor were some of the moves Krzyzewski made very popular.

Gaudet departs

The most difficult decision came when Krzyzewski reorganized his staff, bringing in a steady line of former players looking to start their coaching careers. The shuffling eventually led to widely respected assistant Pete Gaudet leaving the program after serving as the team's interim coach during Krzyzewski's absence. It was also decided that Gaudet's 4-15 record would not count on Krzyzewski's career mark, now 604-223 in 26 seasons.

"It was a very hard time for everyone," Mickie Krzyzewski, the coach's wife, recalled last Saturday night after Duke's 79-69 victory over Southern California in the East Regional final in Philadelphia. "We didn't know if he was going to have to stop coaching and find something else to do. But the year he came back, it was almost like an experimental program. It was a year that he had to find out if he could build the program back again."

There were still questions when the Blue Devils finished 18-13 and lost to Eastern Michigan in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament. It was Duke's worst record since the 1982-83 team finished 11-17 in Krzyzewski's third season here and the first time the Blue Devils had been knocked out of the tournament so early since the 1983-84 team lost to Washington in its first game.

But the doubts about whether Krzyzewski had the same fire were slowly extinguished.

After losing to Providence in the second round in 1997 to end a 24-9 season, Duke made it to the Elite Eight in 1998 (losing to eventual champion Kentucky), lost to Connecticut in the 1999 championship game and, after Brand and three other starters left for the NBA, lost in the Sweet 16 (to eventual runner-up Florida) last year.

"That is the No. 1 program in the country," USC coach Henry Bibby said last week of the 33-4 Blue Devils.

Restocking Cameron

The wild setting of Cameron Indoor Stadium that had made Duke a magnet for McDonald's All-Americans returned with a recruiting class that included Brand, Battier and William Avery. Williams, who was not considered one of the premier high school players in the country until the summer after his junior year, was followed by freshman Chris Duhon.

"It's a lot easier to do it when you have the instruments," Krzyzewski said after the USC game, his ninth victory in 10 NCAA tournament regional finals.

Not only does Krzyzewski credit his players for the program's resurgence to a No. 1 ranking, but a staff that now includes three former players. Dawkins returned after his injury-plagued NBA career, former Cardinal Gibbons star Steve Wojciechowski came on last season and Chris Collins joined this year.

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