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Coach Komeback : Krzyzewski Returns, and He Brings Blue Devils With Him

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He entered Cameron Indoor Stadium to a standing ovation at 6:59 p.m., took his customary seat on the bench and picked up where the legend left off.

Nearly 11 months after he was forced to walk out on his team, an act of betrayal in his mind no matter how dire the circumstances, Mike Krzyzewski returned to the Duke campus arena to restore order to a program that had gone adrift without its mast.

To the hoots and hollers of the Cameron Crazies, and the kind of pressure defense Blue Devil fans remember, Duke continued its return-to-normalcy campaign with a 71-57 victory Wednesday night against North Carolina Greensboro before a sellout of 9,314.

“Yeah,” Krzyzewski said afterward, “I was ready to play.”

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Coach K had already returned in triumph, having led Duke to three victories and the Great Alaska Shootout championship last weekend.

If you don’t think a great coach makes a difference to a team, think again.

When Krzyzewski left the team last Jan. 6, to recover from exhaustion brought on by his early return from back surgery, the Blue Devils were 9-3.

Without him, they went 4-15 and finished with 18 losses for the first time in school history.

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With Coach K back, Duke is 4-0 and ranked 12th nationally with a team supposedly weakened by the loss of last year’s senior leaders, Cherokee Parks and Erik Meek.

“Today he was more fired up than we were,” sophomore guard Ricky Price said after Wednesday’s victory.

With his team sluggish and losing grip on a nine-point halftime lead, Krzyzewski ignited the Blue Devils when he was called for a technical with 15:25 left.

“One thing he proved is that he’s going to fight for us,” senior guard Chris Collins said. “I think that was the biggest play of the game.”

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A year ago at this time, Krzyzewski was a coach in mind, but not in body.

Rushing back from October back surgery, Krzyzewski, the former Army captain and Bob Knight disciple, felt obligated to be there for his troops.

This goes back to basic training.

He had never missed a roll call in 14 previous seasons at Duke during which time he went on a coaching run exceeded only by John Wooden. The Coach K file is voluminous: seven Final Fours in 10 years, consecutive national titles, 153 consecutive weeks ranked in the top 25, 11 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

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When doctors said it would take six weeks to recover from back surgery on Oct. 21, 1994, Krzyzewski pretended he was listening.

He was back on the practice floor 10 days later, leading by example. Players play hurt, why shouldn’t coaches?

Everything was fine except that Coach K was a wreck.

On Jan. 6, he stumbled out of bed, shaved, then crawled back under the covers. It was horror film, Krzyzewski looking more like Coach Q (Quasimodo) as he dragged a weakened leg across the floor to make a second run at pulling on some sweat pants.

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Then, it was back to bed.

Krzyzewski was exhausted and hollow-eyed.

Mickie Krzyzewski, Wife K, could stand it no more. She gave her husband an ultimatum: Meet her at the doctors at 2:30 p.m. or else. Mike said no, that 2:30 was practice time.

Mickie said he could make a choice: It was basketball or her.

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When she pulled her car into the doctor’s parking lot, she was more than relieved to see Mike’s car.

It was a first wobbly step back. Krzyzewski spent five days in the hospital and was subjected to a battery of tests.

On Jan. 22, he told his team he would not return that season. Like a defeated soldier handing over his sword, Krzyzewski offered his resignation to Duke Athletic Director Tom Butters, who did not accept.

What happened to Duke on the court, in hindsight, should not have come as a shock given the psyche of 19- and 20-year-olds.

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They had come to Duke to play for Coach K, and he was gone.

“You can look at it like kids of divorce,” Krzyzewski said, “or if a parent passes away. Kids are affected and impacted by that kind of stuff.”

It was the same group of players, but not the same team.

Pete Gaudet, a restricted-earnings assistant making $16,000, took over as interim coach and stood by helplessly as Duke plummeted.

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The Blue Devils finished 2-14 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

It wasn’t as though the team wasn’t trying under Gaudet.

“We did play hard last year,” junior Greg Newton said. “But sometimes, when you start losing so many games, you start saying, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ We know Coach [Krzyzewski] would never let us do that.”

It didn’t help that Krzyzewski decided to stay away during his recovery.

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“If you can’t be there every day, you shouldn’t be there,” he reasoned.

But his absence fueled speculation that something was seriously wrong, a possibility the coach did not discount.

“Absolutely, I was worried about my health,” he says now.

Pam Valvano, wife of Jim, the former North Carolina State coach who died of cancer, called Mickie and wondered if the Krzyzewskis were concealing some darker truth.

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There was even speculation that Krzyzewski had contracted AIDS.

“What made things worse were all the rumors,” Krzyzewski said. “We tried to let our team know they were false, by having the kids over to the house.”

Krzyzewski felt horrible leaving this mess in Gaudet’s hands.

“Pete and the staff were placed in the worst of positions,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve said it publicly, and I’ll say it until I die, if my staff had been with my team from Oct. 15 [first official day of practice], they’d have been an NCAA tournament team.

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“I don’t hold anybody accountable for what happened except myself. It’s good to flush all of that, not to blame anyone. There is no blame. It was just like an earthquake, it happened.”

Gaudet elected not to return as an assistant this season, but remains in the athletic department as a teacher.

At 48, Krzyzewski returned this season renewed and invigorated, vowing to curtail outside distractions that played a part in his self-destruction.

“I still do everything I did, but less,” he said.

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Like a good captain, he doesn’t like to look back.

“I don’t feel like I’ve been away,” he said. “Last year happened eons ago in my mind. Now, it’s the next thing. I’m conditioned to do that.”

The affect his return has had on Duke players cannot be underestimated and best illustrates the impact one great college coach can have on his players.

Without Parks and Meek from last year’s 13-18 team, not much could have been expected from the Blue Devils this season.

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For the first time in recent memory, Duke was without a dominant big man, having to make do with Newton, a skinny 6-10 junior.

The Blue Devils would be a perimeter team, soft in the middle.

So guess what?

In his first weekend back on the bench, Coach K took this untested group to the Great Alaska Shootout and walked out with the trophy after defeating Old Dominion, Indiana and Iowa.

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It was the victory over highly ranked Iowa that raised eyebrows, given the Blue Devils rallied from 11 points down in the second half with eight minutes of the best pressure defense Krzyzewski had ever witnessed.

At times, Krzyzewski had five guards in the lineup.

“Five players,” he corrected, “not five guards.”

So how does the same cast of characters pull off such an Alaska sweep?

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“It’s like starting over,” Krzyzewski said, “and this is the new coach.”

As fast as they were buried, the Blue Devils have returned to the national spotlight. Coach K is back and so, apparently, is Duke.

“I’m realistic about my team,” Krzyzewski said. “Whether we’re the 112th team in the country or 12th, we’re neither. What we have is a team that can compete with a lot of people, but can lose to anybody. My job is to understand that all year.”

Ricky Price, who scored 10 points in Wednesday’s victory, has a simpler explanation what is happening under Krzyzewski.

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“He’s the best coach in America,” Price said.


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