Mike Krzyzewski's Humble Beginnings as Duke's Basketball Coach

The record-breaking coach almost took a different job—and even when he arrived in Durham, he struggled at first


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Walking across the Madison Square Garden court Tuesday night after winning a record 903rd game, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski finds Bob Knight, his mentor. Coach K embraces Knight with the same kind of hug a prizefighter gives his trainer after a bout that's been going on for 36 years.

"Just keep it going," Knight tells Krzyzewski, still holding the back of his friend's head. His star protégé—whom he coached and worked with for five years at West Point and Indiana—has just passed him for first on the men's college basketball coaches' all-time wins list.

It could have been different if the man once tabbed "the brightest young coaching talent in America" took the other offer he was given in March of 1980. Krzyzewski, then the coach at Army, had finished a disappointing 9-17 that season.  But nonetheless he was on the move. The landing place—Duke or Iowa State—remained uncertain.

For all the attention given to the relationship between Krzyzewski and Knight, the role that Col. Tom Rogers had in shaping Krzyzewski's basketball trajectory cannot be understated. When Krzyzewski first arrived at West Point as a student in 1965, Rogers was his officer representative, a liaison for the institution's military administration, much like the colonel had been for Knight when he was the freshman coach years prior. Their relationship became even closer during Krzyzewski's senior year in 1969 when Mike's father, Bill, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. From there, Krzyzewski leaned on Rogers and Knight, turning tragedy into motivation.

"Dad always thought of Mike as a son and that's the kind of way Mike saw Dad," says Marleah Rogers, daughter of the colonel, who now suffers from Alzheimer's.

There's little doubt that Krzyzewski would have indeed taken the Iowa State job if the Duke offer never came to be, says Jamie Spatola, the youngest of Krzyzewski's three daughters and an author of two books about her dad. Her mother has told her as much. "But I know they wanted the Duke job very badly," she says. So when the time came in 1980 to make the jump from West Point like Knight had done nine years earlier, he turned to Rogers, who would lay things out for Coach K in a pre-Coach K world.

"Sometimes I wonder where I would have been if I hadn't listened to Tom Rogers, my officer rep, when I asked him if he thought I should take the Iowa State job when it was offered in 1980," Krzyzewski wrote in the foreword for John Feinstein's Last Dance: Behind The Scenes At The Final Four. "'I think you need to follow this Duke thing through to the end,' Colonel Rogers said. I guess it's fair to say he gave me good advice."

The Duke offer was appealing for a number of reasons: It meant coaching in the ACC, plus the university was undergoing dynamic changes in philosophy and long-term strategy that would have made it tempting for any coaching candidate at the time. The university was bringing in high-profile faculty and a more well-rounded student body to help shed the school's image of it being a place exclusively for affluent, southern, white kids. "He came to Duke at the right time," says Murray Sperber, visiting professor for the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education. "Duke was in ascension as a national institution. He was able to take advantage of all of this."

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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