Mike Krzyzewski’s ability to adapt separates him from mentor

GREENVILLE, SC — In his first-ever victory as head coach, West Point man Mike Krzyzewski made poor Lehigh wish he had never taken up the sport at the turn of the 20th century. His army players guarded their opponents as if their academy appointments depended on it, chasing every loose ball with ruthless abandon and nearly chasing the overwhelmed engineers from the old field house down by the Hudson River.

Army scored 56 points on that historic Friday night, November 28, 1975. Lehigh had 10 points at halftime and never made it to 30.

“I got what I wanted,” Krzyzewski said afterwards. “Full commitment.”

Nearly 47 years later, with the chance to grab victory #1,200 before leaving the left leg, the retiring coach still demands the same of his team.

“We played a pretty good defense that night,” Krzyzewski recalled on Saturday. “Twenty-nine points. I was hoping they would all be like that.”

Nothing in basketball or life ever comes that easy. To carry 1,199 career wins into the second round of Sunday’s NCAA tournament against an old foe, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Krzyzewski had to constantly adapt and evolve in ways his mentor Bob Knight never did.

He also had to heed the advice of two of Knight’s own sages, Hall of Fame coaches Hank Iba and Pete Newell. Coach K mentioned Saturday that Iba and Newell had told him many years ago to be true to himself and not try to copy another coach’s approach. “Take good lessons from a bunch of people,” they said, “but don’t try to be someone else.”

Mike Krzyzewski
Mike Krzyzewski
AP

Krzyzewski left out the little nugget that the Wise Men referred, at least in part, to the Vulcan knight who hired his former Army Point Guard as a grad assistant in Indiana in 1974 and showed him how to run a Powerhouse Division I program — and how to do it not power Run a powerful Division I program. When he later recommended Krzyzewski for the Duke job, Knight admitted to Tom Butters, the athletic director who would be hiring, that the candidate had “all my good qualities and none of my bad ones.”

Though he could berate a player with the best of them, and though his profanity dwarfs that of a drunken sailor, Krzyzewski has become increasingly user-friendly over the years, at least when it comes to tracking and managing talent. His experience coaching the Kobe Bryants and LeBron Jameses at the Olympics inspired him to embrace the unique reality of the sport and the fact that he couldn’t be the one always challenging the other party in the coach-player relationship to to change . Krzyzewski also had to change, as each generation of recruits brought new challenges.

“In my first eight years, we were 111-106 … five at West Point and three at Duke,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve learned a lot in that time and I’ve been able to reach a higher level of talent to be able to teach and pretty much I’ve been able to do that over and over again and that’s made me better.

“But it has also given me a chance to think about how I can use this talent in different ways. I love that. Every team is different, especially in the last decade. They need to develop a system that suits their personality and be agile enough to enable growth during this time.”

At Michigan State, Izzo has held a front row seat to Krzyzewski’s growth for nearly three decades. Although the Spartans gave Coach K one of his most devastating losses three years ago and prevented his team Zion Williamson-RJ Barrett from reaching the Final Four, Krzyzewski stands 12-3 against him and beat him in 2011 to break Knight’s all-time wins Record with his 903.

College Hall of Fame head coach Bob Knight (R) congratulates Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski on his 603rd win
Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight in 2011.
Jason Coal/NY Post

“It was in Madison Square Garden,” Izzo recalls. “So maybe the NCAA decides I’m the sacrificial lamb or something.”

Izzo joked that Krzyzewski has more career wins than career practices. “To get 1,200 wins or 1,199 wins is just incredible,” he said.

“Man, if that record is broken – and I know they’re all destined to be broken – but someone has to start straight from the womb to break that record.”

In other words, good luck with it.

Krzyzewski claimed he doesn’t care about his winning history against Izzo or anyone because “you don’t hang a banner with your record against a certain team or a certain coach”. But even if they don’t admit it to the public, the big ones always know where they stand on the old scoreboard.

Coach’s 1,199 K’s and counting look pretty good compared to Knight’s 902 wins, Dean Smith’s 879, John Wooden’s 664, and Tom Izzo’s 666.

“I have to be his favorite coach because he beat us like a drum,” Izzo said.

He credited his signature opponent for making countless adjustments over his legendary 47-year head coaching career. And yes, that’s how you go from a stunning opening win over Lehigh in 1975 to a shot at 1,200th place over Michigan State in 2022.

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