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How Duke’s Coach K Was Almost Fired in 1983

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 24, 2024 3:01 am

How Duke’s Coach K Was Almost Fired in 1983

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 24, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, John Feinstein is a sportswriter of 42 books, 23 of them New York Times bestsellers. He is also the friend of Duke University’s legendary basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski (also known as “Coach K”). John tells the story of how Coach K’s five national titles at Duke almost never happened.

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To search for the Our American Stories podcast, go to the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts. John Feinstein is a sports writer of 42 books, 23 of them New York Times bestsellers. His first book about Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers, A Season on the Brink, is the best selling sports book of all time. He's also the friend of Duke University's legendary basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, otherwise known as Coach K, who won five national titles at Duke and three consecutive gold medals as the head coach of the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team.

John's here to tell the story of how that almost didn't happen. I actually first met Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Valvano on the same day when I was a senior in college. Duke was playing Connecticut in New York City at Madison Square Garden. Duke was bad in those days.

People refuse to believe that Duke was ever bad in basketball, but they were bad. In fact, the Duke-UConn game was the first game of the Garden double header. The feature game was Fordham and Rutgers.

That's how different times were. And I flew into New York, which was my hometown, with Bill Foster, who was then Duke's coach, Tom Mikkel, who was Duke's sports information director, and Kate Armstrong, who was the star of the team who had played on the 1976 Olympic team for Dean Smith. And there was a media lunch every Tuesday in those days in New York for the New York basketball coaches. And Jim Valvano was coaching at Iona, and Mike Krzyzewski was coaching at Army, his alma mater where he had played for Bob Knight. And when the lunch was over, Valvano came over to see Bill Foster because he played for him at Rutgers. And he brought along with him Krzyzewski and Tom Penders, who was then the coach at Columbia, who would go on to win 648 games in his career. And as we were talking, I mentioned to Krzyzewski that I had seen his greatest game in the 1969 MIT when I was a kid in New York, when Army had upset South Carolina, and he had guarded John Roach, South Carolina's All-American, the whole game, and held him to 11 points. So that sort of got us off to a good start, although we did vehemently disagree on the subject of the Cubs and Mets.

He's a Chicago kid, Cubs fan, obviously New York kid, Mets fan. But after I got to the Washington Post a year later, I kept in touch with both Krzyzewski and Valvano. So I knew them both when they were hired respectively at Duke and at North Carolina State in 1980. And by then I was covering ACC basketball for the Washington Post. And so I dealt with them a lot.

And I think it's fair to say I became close to both of them. I later, years and years later, I wrote a book called the Legends Club, which was about Krzyzewski, Valvano, and Dean Smith, all of whom I was fortunate enough to deal with quite a bit in the 1980s when they were coaching against each other in the Research Triangle in North Carolina. And Valvano, of course, was a rocket.

His team won the national championship in 1983, the famous survive and advance team, the championship ending with Lorenzo Charles's dunk off of what Derek Wittenberg still insists was a pass. And so Valvano, because of his personality, because of his success, was a huge star. Krzyzewski, not so much. He used to joke about how he had to follow Valvano at ACC media days.

Jim would get up, do 20 minutes of stand up, leave everybody on the floor. And then Mike would follow and talk about the battle for the center position between Mike Tisaw and Alan Williams, which didn't exactly rock the room. So Krzyzewski's first recruiting class was the bust. They finished second for a bunch of very good players, the most notable being Chris Mullen, who went to St. John's. But then the second year, they had a better recruiting class, a very good recruiting class, in fact. But that, in Mike's third season, 1983, the team was divided, seniors and freshmen resenting one another. They lost a game early in the season to Wagner at home. And the drum beats were getting louder that the alumni thought that Krzyzewski was a bad hire.

And you have to go back. The two real heroes of this story, other than Mike, are Tom Butters, the athletic director, and Steve Visendak, who was the number two guy in the athletic department, who had been a star at Duke in the 1960s under Vic Bubas, played on Final Four teams there. And it was Visendak who first brought Krzyzewski to Butters' attention. Butters knew that Bill Foster was going to leave for South Carolina at the end of the 1980 season. And he put Visendak in charge of the coaching search because Visendak was a basketball player.

And there were a bunch of names that were out there. Bob Weltlich was at Mississippi. Bob Knight was pushing him hard. Weltlich had coached under Knight, as had Krzyzewski, of course. Bob Wenzel was Bill Foster's number one assistant and helped build the program. People forget that the year Foster left, Duke lost in the Elite Eight. They were good. But most of their key players graduated off that team.

Not all, but most. And there was a guy named Paul Webb who had great success at Old Dominion. In fact, the day that Duke hired its new coach, the Durham Morning Herald, had a story saying that the new Duke coach's last name would start with a W. Wenzel, Webb, or Weltlich. But Visendak had met Krzyzewski when Krzyzewski was coaching in Army.

He was living in Annapolis. Went and spent some time with him as he was preparing for a Navy game, Army-Navy game, and was blown away by him. He was very young, but very much in command of his team and was clearly, in Steve's opinion, a great defensive coach. So he brought Krzyzewski's name to Butters. Butters had never heard of him.

Literally had never heard of him. And he said, OK, what was his record in Army this year? And Visendak went 9 and 17. And Butters said, I can't hire a coach at Duke who was just 9 and 17 in Army. Visendak convinced him to meet Krzyzewski. And he did, twice, and was blown away by him. And said to Visendak at one point, I think this is the next great coach. And Steve said, good, hire him. He said, I can't hire a coach from Army with a 9 and 17 record. And that is indeed true. 9 and 17 at Army isn't exactly what you want to bring to an ACC program that had just gotten to the Elite 8. True, they were losing many of those star players who got them to the Elite 8.

But my goodness, 9 and 17 from Army, no powerhouse when it comes to NCAA basketball, that's for sure. When we come back, more of this remarkable story of how Coach K's career almost didn't come to be here on Our American Stories. Music Music From BBC Radio 4, Britain's biggest paranormal podcast is going on a road trip. I thought in that moment, oh my God, we've summoned something from this board. This is Uncanny USA.

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All you can stream with Zoom or Play. And we continue with our American stories. We last left off learning that Duke athletic director Tom Butters saw Coach K as the next great basketball coach. Talk about some vision. But he couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger on a coach from Army with a 9 and 17 record. Let's return to a friend of Coach K's and sports writer of 23 New York Times bestsellers, including the one he wrote about Coach K, the Legends Club.

Here's John Feinstein. Butters did hire Krzyzewski and in fact he shocked the basketball world. It was completely unexpected. As I said, he'd been 9 and 17 at Army and Knight, interestingly, was pushing Weltlich for the job. Butters had spoken to Knight about who he should hire and Knight had told him Weltlich. And Butters said, well, what about Mike Krzyzewski because Steve Visendek had brought him up.

And Knight said, well, I don't think this is the time for Mike, but he's got all of my good qualities and none of my bad, which was a very accurate statement as it turned out. But the other thing is that when Krzyzewski got the job, he literally had to spell his name for the media at his opening press conference. And he said that one of his goals as a coach was for his players to be able to spell his name by the time they graduated.

Of course, this is in the days when players did actually graduate. The next day, the student newspaper at Duke, The Chronicle, which is where I started my career, had a headline that said, not a typo, Krzyzewski. And most people had not heard of the guy.

I mean, basketball junkies like me had heard of him and knew him, but nobody in the ACC had any idea who he was. And again, it took a lot of guts for Tom Butters to hire him at that moment. In fact, after Krzyzewski's third year, when Butters didn't fire him, he got death threats, literally, from boosters.

And in fact, I met with him, Tom Butters, when I was working on my book, The Legends Club, on Krzyzewski, Jim Belvano, and Dean Smith. And he brought with him a box. And in the box were letters. And one stack of the letters were from boosters written in 1983, 1984, saying, fire him or I will never give another dollar to Duke. In the second stack of the letters were letters sent in 1990, after Duke had turned it around and Krzyzewski had become a star. And he was offered the Boston Celtics job by none other than Red Auerbach.

And the letters were from essentially the same group who had written in 1983, 1984, saying, get rid of this guy, saying, whatever you have to do, whatever you have to pay him, do not let him leave. And fortunately for Duke, it wasn't about the money. Mike felt he hadn't won a national championship yet. And so even though he'd grown up as a Celtics fan and worshiped Red Auerbach, he said the job's not done yet and turned it down and, of course, won his first national title the next year.

And that's how much it turned around. When Mike was offered the Lakers job in 2004, he was offered $40 million for five years. And he wasn't going to take it, but he had to give it some thought, given the money, and it was the Lakers. And he called Butters. And he said, what do you think, Tom? And he said, I think you should give me a 10% finder's fee if you take the job. And Mike said, OK, I'll send you $4,000 because his first year salary was $40,000.

And so they flailed for three years. And in 1983, Mike's third year, they lost their last game of the season, 109-66 to Virginia in the ACC tournament, Ralph Sampson. If you walk up to Mike Shefsky right now and say, what was the score of the game against Virginia in the ACC tournament 1983, he can tell you what it was in an instant.

He's never forgotten. And the fourth game that night, first night of the ACC tournament, was Georgia Tech and Maryland. And I was the Maryland beat writer for the Post.

And Bobby Dwyer, who was Mike's number one assistant at the time, who'd come with him from Army, came into the Omni, the old arena there, which is now long gone, and found me. And Keith Drumm, who was the sports editor of the Durham Morning Herald at the time and was probably the only member of the North Carolina media who hadn't attacked Shefsky and hadn't called for him to be fired. North Carolina media then as now is made up largely of North Carolina graduates.

The school has a great journalism school and many, if not most, stay in the state. Keith had also gone to North Carolina, but he liked Shefsky, liked and respected Dean Smith, too. But he liked Shefsky and thought he was going to be a great coach someday. Keith ended up being an NBA scout.

So his level of understanding of basketball was different than most sports writers. So Dwyer came to the press table where Keith and I were sitting and said, when this game is over, you both need to come with me back to our hotel. And we said, why? And he said, because Mickey, Mike's wife, is in the room crying because she's convinced they're going to get fired.

All the alumni and boosters have Tom Butters backed up against a wall in the lobby demanding that he fire Shefsky immediately. And Mike is pacing around trying to figure out who to kill first because he's so angry with everybody. And so when the game was over, Keith and I, it was after midnight by then, got in a car with Bobby and we drove to the perimeter of Atlanta where Duke was staying and went to the hotel. And it was pouring down rain. And we drove to a Denny's nearby. It was Mike. It was Bobby, Keith, me, Tom Mickel, the sports information director, Keith's wife, Barbie, and Johnny Moore, who was Tom Mickel's assistant. And we walked into the Denny's. We sat down and they gave us water.

And by now it's two in the morning. And Tom Mickel held up his glass and said, here's to forgetting tonight. And Shefsky held up his glass and said, here's to never blanking forgetting tonight.

Blanking is one of his favorite words for the record. And so we didn't laugh because he was dead serious. And then the discussion went on and Dwyer mentioned that Tom Sheehy, who had verbally committed to Virginia, very good player, might be thinking twice about that commitment and maybe they could get back involved and try to recruit Sheehy. And Shefsky shook his head and said, no, no, first of all, we don't do that. Second of all, if we can't win next year with these four freshmen, Allory, Billis, Dawkins and David Henderson and Tommy Amaker, who was coming in as the point guard, then we should get fired. And in many ways, that statement to me, having known Mike for as long as I have, that's who Mike Shefsky is. It's never someone else's fault. Mike Shefsky has always taken the approach. What did I do wrong?

How do I get better? Now, some of that is his West Point training, because when you're a plebe at West Point and an upperclassman speaks to you, you're allowed three answers. Yes, sir. No, sir.

No excuse, sir. And Shefsky's life has been built on no excuse, sir. I never met a coach who uses failure to his advantage more than Shefsky. And that night was a perfect example. So the next year, of course, with those five guys I mentioned, they went 24 and 10. They beat North Carolina with Michael Jordan in the ACC tournament.

And that was the turnaround. And you've been listening to John Feinstein tell a heck of a story about how Coach K's career at Duke almost didn't happen. After year three, still not winning at the heart of Tobacco Road, the heart of ACC basketball country, Coach K loses to the University of Virginia and Ralph Sampson's team by an epic, epic blowout 109 to 66.

It does not get worse than that. And losing it in of all places in the ACC tournament, everyone was sure that was it. The boosters were coming after Coach K. Everyone was. The wife was crying and he was just mad. And who was he mad at?

He was mad at Coach K in the end. And he was taking responsibility and ownership for that loss, as he was taught to do at West Point. Three answers to a question at West Point by an older person.

And that is an older student, folks, when you're a freshman. A senior has to be addressed as sir. Yes, sir. No, sir. Or no excuse, sir.

And as John Feinstein said, no excuse, sir. Those were the words that Coach K lived by. And by the way, I love that scene in that Denny's. It's pouring rain and there's one coach toasting to forgetting the game. And what does Coach K say? Reflecting his true character, his competitive nature and a little bit of his Irish Catholic, well, let us just say fanciful nature with some swear words. He says, here's to never blanking forgetting tonight. Never forgetting.

And that's what animated Coach K. That loss, that failure drove so much of his life. When we come back, more of this remarkable piece of storytelling by the great American sports writer, John Feinstein, here on Our American Story. I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years, I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why and what it all means. Follow The Global Story from the BBC wherever you listen to podcasts. So what are you waiting for? Start streaming at or download from the app and Google Play stores today.

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Also available in grapefruit and lavender scents at a nearby retail store. And we continue with our American stories and with John Feinstein. Duke's head basketball coach, Coach K, was almost fired in 1983, as we learned, but the following year he went 24 and 10. This was the turnaround season for Coach K. Let's return to his friend and sports writer of 23 New York Times bestsellers, including the one he wrote about Coach K, the Legends Club.

Let's return to John Feinstein. From there, again, they made the tournament the next year, and in 1986, they went 37 and three, went to the national championship game, lost. I will say on a bad call, Krzyzewski would never say that, but I will. It became college basketball's next great dynasty. It's my opinion that the only coach who you can put ahead of Krzyzewski on Mount Rushmore is John Wooden. But five national championships, 13 final fours, more than Wooden even, and ACC championships. I mean, he went to 23 Sweet 16s.

That's just stupid. Twenty three. And in every one of them, because in the old days, of course, you know, before they expanded the tournament, conference champions went straight to the Sweet 16. But starting in 1985, you had to win two games to get to the Sweet 16 and six to win the championship.

So 23 Sweet 16s. I mean, Dean Smith, great coach, longevity, all that went to 18, which is a great number. And but the first three, he didn't have to win a game to get there because once they won the ACC, they were in the Sweet 16. So his numbers are just ridiculous. Twelve hundred and five wins.

I mean, the numbers just go on and on. And but to me, the one thing about Krzyzewski that shouldn't be forgotten, he went to his first final four in 1986. He went to his last final four 36 years later in 2022. And think about how much college basketball changed during those 36 years. There was a 45 second clock for the first year in 1986. There was no three point shot in 1986.

There was no one had ever heard the phrase one and done in 1986. And the game, the way the game was played has changed so much since Mike first started coaching, which was at Army in 1976. And he adapted. He kept saying, if I want to continue to coach, I have to change.

Not I'm going to sit here and say it's terrible that change has taken place. I'm like that myself. But 2022 is last year he goes to a final four with the youngest team he ever coached. So I could see that in him very early on.

I really believed if Duke gave him the time, he was going to become a great coach. That night at Denny's was sort of a key moment. In fact, so in 1991, when they won the national championship for the first time, I walked on the court after the game and I walked up to Mike and I put up my hand and I said, hey, congratulations.

I'm so happy for you. And he pulled me in and he said, we've come a long way from the blanking Denny's haven't we? And 20 years after that, I was working on a book called One on One, which was sort of about my experiences with the people I dealt with in my first 10 books.

It was a professional semi memoir. And one of the people obviously I wanted to talk to was Mike. And I called him and I said, look, next week. When you play at UNC Greensboro, you're going to go past Dean Smith on the all time wins list.

And if you go back to those early days at Duke, there's no way we would have ever thought about you and Dean Smith in the same sentence, much less you going past Dean Smith. And I'd like to come down and just hang out with you and talk to you about those early days and things like that. And he said, sure, come on down. Meet me in my office at two thirty. You can ride the bus to Greensboro with us. We'll talk then. And once we get there, we'll have time in the locker room before the game starts. Does that is that OK for you?

And I said, great. So I drove down to Durham and met two friends for lunch. One was Bill Brill, who was also a Duke graduate. And the other was Mike Craig, who's now the athletic director at St. John's. But back then, he was kind of Sheshevsky's man Friday.

He was his chief fundraiser. And if you watch Mike walk off a court after a game, two feet behind him was Mike Craig at all times. And so we went to lunch and Mike Craig said, so when are you going to talk to Coach K? And I said, well, on the bus going to Greensboro. And he said, you came all the way down here just to talk to him on a cell phone? I said, no, I'm going to talk to him from the next seat. And he said, no, no, no, no. You misunderstood something.

Nobody who's not part of the team rides that bus except for Mickey. He said, I don't even ride that bus. So you misunderstood something. So I walked him through what Mike had said.

I said, what did I misunderstand? And Mike Craig shaking his head and he goes, I don't understand it. Why would he let you do that?

Why would he let you do that? And I said, because I was in the blank and Denny's and that. And to this day, Mike will bring that up to me when we're just talking about how important that night was in his life.

Mike will tell you. And Dean Smith said the same thing about his first three years at North Carolina. That in today's world, with with with social media, with the Internet, with sports talk radio, with 24 hour sports networks, he probably would have been fired by the end of his third year. That, you know, I got emails and tweets from North Carolina fans during this past season when North Carolina was 16 and 16 and seven. But they had just lost to Duke by 20 at home saying Hubert Davis can't do this. Hubert Davis was the wrong guy. We got to get rid of Hubert Davis. Well, they ended up in the national championship game and beat Duke twice along the way to get there. So that's the way the world is today.

It's knee jerk reactions. It wasn't that way. There weren't nearly as many games on television in those days. Sports talk radio hadn't started yet. 1987, WFAN was the first all sports talk station in New York City. There was no social media.

There was no Internet. So Mike was able to fly pretty much under the radar other than with Duke people during that time. And even then, it took a lot of guts for Tom Butters to stand by him throughout that period. And like I always I always say this to people that he's a better guy than he was a coach.

And that's a hell of a statement if you think about it. But he's still digging out right now from all the emails and cards and letters that he's gotten from people. He said he had three thousand of them after the season ended. And he's he wants to answer every one of them. And the things that he's done for people that nobody knows about goes on.

The list goes on and on and on and on. My brother had cancer 21 years ago. And he's also a Duke graduate. And I called Mike and I said, listen, would you mind giving my brother a call? You know, because it would cheer him up just to hear from you right now. Mike said, sure.

So we called them and they were on the phone for about an hour. And my brother is a typical fan. You know, he knows better than the coach. So he said, coach, can I give you some advice? And Mike said, yeah, sure, Bobby. And he said, you need to play Casey Sanders more. Casey Sanders was the backup center.

And Mike said, OK, I'll give that some thought. Well, in February, Carlos Boozer got hurt. So Sanders became a starter while Boozer was out.

And then when Boozer came back, because they'd been playing well, Sanders continued to start, although Boozer still got the bulk of the minutes. And when they won the national championship that year. And to this day, my brother takes credit for that national championship. And every once in a while, he'll call me and say, Krzyzewski should do this. And I'll say, here's his cell number.

You give him a call and tell him that. And a terrific job on the production and the editing by Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to John Feinstein for sharing this remarkable story about his friend. And what a thing to be able to say after years of writing sports is that these weren't mere subjects you were writing about, but friends. And that shows the character and nature of John's work and his commitment to telling the story of American sports and the people who make it home.

And it's a business, but it's more than a business. My goodness, we learn that from the passion, from the fans, their knee jerk reactions to losses. It's overwhelming. I listen to sports talk radio sometimes and I just pity any head coach of anything. The relentless criticism and the desire for immediate gratification is almost unrelenting and how to manage it in today's environment.

Well, kudos to the people who do. And that night at Denny's that stuck with Coach K all the way through. He never did forget.

John Feinstein, the story of Coach K and how his career almost didn't happen here on our American story. From BBC Radio 4, Britain's biggest paranormal podcast is going on a road trip. I thought in that moment, oh, my God, we've summoned something from this board. This is Uncanny USA.

He says somebody's in the house and I screamed. Listen to Uncanny USA wherever you get your BBC podcasts, if you dare. Zoom or play is your destination for endless entertainment with a diverse lineup of 350 plus live channels, movies and full TV series, you'll easily find something to watch right away.

And the best part? It's all free. Love music? Get lost in the 90s with I heart 90s. Dance away with hip hop beats and more on the I heart radio music channels.

No logins, no signups, no accounts, no hassle. So what are you waiting for? Start streaming at play dot X, you mo dot com or download from the app and Google Play stores today.

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