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Coach K, Duke Doing It Their Way in NCAA

Is this college basketball’s best coach? Third best? Fifth best? Is this guy as competent and comical as he seems? Is this our next Olympic coach--and, if so, is there something to be said for finally having an American coach who is as pleasant to be around as the Soviet coach?

His unspellable, unpronounceable name is Mike Krzyzewski--"shah-shev-skee"--and what we presently know about him is that he demands and commands superior scholar-athletes at Duke University, vaguely resembles the actor Sam Waterston, and at face value is a kinder, gentler gentleman than the guy for whom he once worked, Indiana’s Bob Knight, or the guy he confronts today in the fight for the Final Four, Georgetown’s John Thompson.

Word has it that Krzyzewski and Lute Olson of Arizona are the likeliest successors to Knight and Thompson as coach of the 1992 squad that would represent the U.S. in the Olympic Games at Barcelona, and a better choice than the K man we cannot imagine. In amassing six straight 20-victory seasons at Duke against awesome competition, Krzyzewski, or “Coach K,” as Blue Devils everywhere call him, for understandable reasons, has demonstrated both style and substance.

We have here a prim, proper, penny-loafered, practically genteel individual who once, waxing rhapsodically in the course of an otherwise ordinary basketball conversation, said: “I love trees and birds and flowers. I love the ocean, just to watch the ocean. I guess nature really is so fascinating to me because it’s as unpredictable as people.”

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These are sentiments he actually shares with fellow West Pointer and notorious tough-talker Knight, who has always seemed more comfortable in “nature,” catching a salmon in a cold stream or aiming a rifle at a rabbit, than he has in human company.

Like that other Coach K, Krzyzewski does display occasional fits of temper. He is no Captain Kangaroo. He can snap now and then. Generally, however, the Duke coach is a man of manners, matured by age and success, who never embarrasses his university and usually can charm his way through even the most tedious situations.

Consider what happened here when a photographer abruptly stepped right in front of the coach and popped a flashbulb, only to experience a malfunction that triggered an odd, whirring noise.

“Is that a Polish camera?” Krzyzewski asked.

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He shows little stress. Take this tournament, for instance. Sure, Duke could go to the Final Four for the third time in four years by beating Georgetown in the East Regional final today. Coach K’s program is a big success. Except it has not escaped everyone’s attention that Duke has never won a national championship, the Holy Grail of college basketball.

To some, that is relevant. To the coach, it is not. “To me, there’s no sense of urgency in sport,” Krzyzewski said here Saturday. “We’re trying to attain excellence, that’s all. If your goal is to win a national championship, you’re really losing sight of the things you should be enjoying from coaching. So, no, I’m not frustrated. I’d love to be frustrated every year the way we’ve been frustrated this year, win or lose against Georgetown.”

Duke’s undeniably dedicated and adorably demented fans are happy to be in this man’s camp. Before a Jan. 18 game against North Carolina, when their Blue Devils were still undefeated, an estimated 1,500 of them pitched tents--10 to a tent--outside the Cameron Stadium box office for remaining available tickets, eight days before tipoff. The campsite was officially christened “Krzyzewskiville.”

The coach had 50 pizzas delivered to them one night. “Some coaches have gyms named after them,” Krzyzewski said. “Others have hobo camps named after them.”

He has a wit and native intelligence that nicely accommodates this No Dummies Allowed institution of learning. Duke students know where the library is. They rarely call it the “li-barry,” either. They even know their faculty deans better than they know Dean Smith. The best way to describe a typical Duke student, we suppose, is that he or she probably can pronounce their coach’s name.

Krzyzewski is the kind of guy who appeals to them, the kind who claims that the worst thing about tournament-time pressure is that his acne acts up. Not that he doesn’t take his basketball business seriously. Far from it. It is just that one gets the feeling that Coach K could lead a very full, quite contented life if he threw away his chalk and whistle and never stepped inside another gym.

Speaking of John Thompson, whom he will be opposing head-to-head for the first time--Duke and Georgetown haven’t met since 1933, in fact--Krzyzewski said: “He seems to me very intelligent, not just focused on sport.” The same holds true for the man doing the speaking, as well as for his and Thompson’s respective universities. Georgetown, too, gives diplomas to relatively few morons.

Duke recruits heavily in the District of Columbia area, even finding All-America forward Danny Ferry there, but Coach K gets around. He went all the way to Mercer Island, Wash., to land scrawny playmaking guard Quin Snyder, who hopes the Final Four at Seattle will become his own personal homecoming. Someone wondered what was so special about Snyder that the coach traveled nearly 3,000 miles to bag him.

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“Oh, he’s cuter than most players,” Krzyzewski said. “My wife made me recruit him.”

In National Collegiate Athletic Assn. postseason play, Mike Krzyzewski’s winning percentage (.750) is better than any active coach who has been involved in 10 or more tournament games--better than Knight’s, better than Thompson’s, better than anybody’s. Should he win today, so much the better. Should he lose, well, it won’t mean anybody will be wasting away in Krzyzewskiville.


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