Impatient Duke fans once wanted Mike Krzyzewski fired
Three years into his tenure at Duke, the man now known as his era's most successful coach didn't appear to be on the road to shattering records or hoisting championship trophies.
In fact, a vocal segment of the Blue Devils fan base wanted Mike Krzyzewski out.
One of Duke's Tobacco Road rivals had just completed a stunning championship run under beloved coach Jim Valvano. The other was at the apex of its power under legendary coach Dean Smith. The Blue Devils on the other hand had just concluded back-to-back 17-loss seasons under Krzyzewski culminating with a 43-point shellacking in the 1983 ACC quarterfinals against Virginia.
"Durham was not a pleasant place to be in 1983," said former Duke forward Jay Bilas, a freshman on the 1982-83 team. "There was a lot of discontentment around the program, and it was vocal. Heck, there was a petition circling around calling for Mike to be fired. I saw it. One of the Iron Dukes showed it to me, which I thought was kind of a classless move. But there were a lot of people who were really unhappy."
Duke is very fortunate its athletic director had more patience and foresight than most of its deep-pocked alumni did at the time. Tom Butters' faith in Krzyzewski was so unwavering that he called the Duke coach into his office a few weeks into the 1983-84 season and awarded him a five-year contract extension to drive home the message that no change was imminent.
The same overzealous alumni who wrote Butters angry letters calling for Krzyzewski's firing later wrote fawning letters urging the athletic director to pay his basketball coach whatever it took to keep him from leaving. Krzyzewski gained the support of Duke fans by taking the Blue Devils to 11 Final Fours and capturing four national championships, winning so many games along the way that he could become the first Division I coach to claim his 1,000th college victory on Sunday against St. John's.
"Someone who never gets enough credit is Tom Butters," said Bobby Dwyer, an assistant coach under Krzyzewski his first three seasons at Duke. "When we struggled a little bit our second and third year in particular, he never wavered. He was rock solid. I look around nowadays and it seems like people aren't as patient with coaches as they used to be. Tom Butters deserves a lot of credit for the success Duke basketball has had the last 30 years."
If Butters warrants more praise for standing by Krzyzewski during his early struggles, he also should receive more recognition for making the unpopular decision to hire him in the first place.
When Duke coach Bill Foster resigned in 1980 to accept the same position at South Carolina, Butters began a search to find a replacement. Krzyzewski became a candidate despite going 9-17 at Army the previous season because Duke associate athletic director Steve Vacendak urged Butters to consider him.
"Tom turned to me and he said, 'How bad do you want my job?'" Vacendak said. "He said, 'Let me see if I've got this right. You want me to hire a coach whose name I can't pronounce, I can't spell and who has a losing record at Army to be the head coach at Duke?' I said, 'Yup, that's your man.'"
Vacendak's recommendation stemmed partially from the glowing praise of his high school coach, a good friend of Krzyzewski's. The Duke associate athletic director also had witnessed one of Krzyzewski's practices in advance of a game against Navy and emerged impressed with how the Army coach assessed the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent and prepared his team.
Open-minded yet unconvinced, Butters consulted with Bob Knight and then flew Krzyzewski to Durham for an interview. The Duke athletic director came away certain Krzyzewski had the potential to be an outstanding coach, yet he let the 33-year-old leave for the airport without a job offer because he was fearful of how the public would perceive such an off-the-radar hire.
Only minutes later, Butters reconsidered. He dispatched Vacendak to bring Krzyzewski back from the airport, so he could offer the job in person.
Duke's student newspaper proclaiming this is not a typo the morning after Krzyzewski was hired in 1980.
"I wasn't too surprised because if you know Tom Butters, you know that perception is never going to trump reality with him," Vacendak said. "He probably did anticipate this wasn't going to be what the public expected or even wanted but he was going to hire the best man for the job."
The hiring indeed inspired disbelief, especially after the Durham papers had reported that the new coach would be chosen from among Old Dominion's Paul Webb, Mississippi's Bob Weltlich and Duke assistant Bob Wenzel. Butters joked with reporters that they had gotten the first letter of Krzyzewski's surname correct before introducing him as ''Coach Who?''
Though Butters defiantly called Krzyzewski ''the most brilliant young basketball coach in the country," the Durham media was skeptical this unknown coach could hold his own in the cutthroat ACC. The Duke student newspaper summed it up best the morning after the hiring of Krzyzewski, running a headline that read "This is not a typo."
Enough talent remained from the previous season for Krzyzewski to lead Duke to 17 wins and an NIT bid his first year, but the threadbare roster he fielded in year two simply wasn't ACC-caliber. Foster had endured some lean recruiting years late in his tenure and Krzyzewski and his staff had struck out in their pursuit of Chris Mullin, Jim Miller, Bill Wennington and a handful of other premier prospects.
Duke went 10-17 that season under Krzyzewski, its worst record since the 1920s when the Blue Devils weren't even members of a conference. Fans clamored for Krzyzewski to abandon his trademark aggressive man-to-man defense for a zone that would better hide the team's lack of talent but the second-year coach wouldn't budge, instead opting to work even harder in recruiting to find players who better fit his system.
The string of near-misses in his first recruiting cycle taught Krzyzewski not to cast such a wide net the second time. He targeted only eight elite prospects even though he had six scholarships to fill, selling them on his vision for the program and what they could build together at Duke if they came.
Winning a recruiting battle against some prominent Midwest programs for Weldon Williams gave Krzyzewski credibility even if the career reserve never made the impact projected. Outdueling Syracuse and Arizona for Bilas was significant too. The key to the class, however, was landing coveted shooting guard Johnny Dawkins because fellow top prospects Mark Alarie and David Henderson both were eager to play with the high-scoring Washington D.C. native.
"I think everyone would agree the lynchpin was Johnny," Dwyer said. "Once we got those kids, they were the foundation. They weren't just great players. They were great people. They had all the intangibles you could want."
In today's era of college basketball, a star-studded No. 1 ranked recruiting class like that would probably win right away. In an era when college basketball's best players stayed in school for three or four years, it was much harder for a freshman-heavy team no matter how talented they were.
Duke endured another 17-loss season in Krzyzewski's third year and went 3-11 in ACC play. The embarrassment of a 24-point drubbing at home against rival North Carolina in the regular season finale was only trumped by the humiliation of a 109-66 mauling from Virginia in the ACC quarterfinals.
Hours after suffering what still stands as the most one-sided loss in Duke history against the Cavaliers, Krzyzewski and a handful of Duke staffers went out for a late-night meal at a nearby Denny's.
Johnny Moore, Duke's sports information director at the time, tried to lighten the mood by raising his glass of water and saying, "Here's to forgetting tonight." Krzyzewski then raised his own glass and famously answered, "Here's to never forgetting tonight."
Later in the meal, Dwyer suggested an uncommitted prospect that Duke could still pursue.
"Mike said, 'No, we're going with what we got,'" Dwyer recalled. "He said, 'We've got good kids. We've built a good foundation. If we can't win with what we've got, we deserve to get fired.'"
Of course, Krzyzewski did not get fired thanks to the Butters' faith in him. He got a contract extension, much to the relief of many of the talented young players who would eventually form the nucleus of the 1985-86 Duke team that won 37 games and lost in the national championship game to Louisville.
"He came into the locker room and we had a very short meeting before practice," Bilas said. "He said, 'Look, I just signed a new extension. If any of you were concerned in any way, there's nothing to be concerned about. Now let's go practice.' Everybody felt better after that. It was never a problem, but you just felt better."
The notion of Krzyzewski ever getting fired became more and more laughable as years went by and the Duke coach began his assault on the record books. By 1992, he had won his second championship. By 1994, he had been to seven Final Fours in nine seasons. By 2005, he had been appointed the savior of USA Basketball.
In an era of instant gratification when coaches seldom get more than a few years to prove themselves, Krzyzewski's success serves as reminder of the value of patience.
The no-name coach many Duke fans wanted gone three years into his tenure is now one of the legends of his sport 900-plus wins later.
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