In 1980, Duke University graduate students could purchase basketball season tickets for $25. The seats in Cameron Indoor Stadium were reserved and required only one overnight wait before the season to make the purchase. I sat in section ten and up pretty high.
It was from that vantage point that I watched Mike Krzyzewski’s 74th career win – his first for the Blue Devils – as Duke beat Stetson 67-49 on November 30, 1980 behind Tom Emma’s 19 points. I saw every home game from his first season from up there.
Coach K had been a surprise hire the previous March when Bill Foster left for South Carolina and another rebuilding project at the end of the 1979-80 season. Foster had brought the Duke program back to prominence with a championship game appearance in 1978, a #1 ranking in 1978-79 and an Elite Eight team in 1980.
Duke Athletic Director Tom Butters insisted that he was getting the “brightest young coaching talent in America” to lead his basketball program (video from the hiring news conference here – notice how “Krzyzewski” is mispronounced in the report) when he hired Coach K. Wags had suggested that Bob Weltlich of Ole Miss or former Foster assistant Bob Wenzel were likely to get the job. But Butters hired Coach K, then 33 years old and coming off a losing season at Army. Butters had ultimately listened to Bob Knight, who told him that Krzyzewski had his own good attributes without the bad. The headline in The Chronicle (Duke’s student newspaper) was “Krzyzewski: This is Not a Typo.”
Krzyzewski installed his mentor’s signature motion offense and wanted to play his constant man-to-man defense, even if he didn’t really have the players to do it well…yet.
It was clear that first season that Krzyzewski could really coach. His undermanned team played hard every possession and worked tirelessly on the defensive end. The ACC was loaded that year with players like James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Al Wood of Carolina, Ralph Sampson and Jeff Lamp at Virginia, Buck Williams and Albert King for Maryland, Larry Nance at Clemson and Frank Johnson of Wake Forest. But Duke was competitive under its fiery young coach and finished 6-8 in conference – an excellent result given how thin Foster had left the Blue Devils.
Final proof of Krzyzewski’s coaching prowess was offered, if it was still needed, on the last day of that first regular season, February 28, 1981 – Senior Day for Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Banks began the festivities by throwing roses to the crowd.
Duke played hard and well against a Carolina team that would reach the national championship game and kept the score close throughout. But when Sam Perkins hit two free throws with two seconds left for a two-point lead, all seemed lost.
Duke only had one time-out remaining and Coach K waited to see if Dean Smith would call time-out himself to set the defense, as was his wont. Dean obliged.
So Krzyzewski drew up a play that had Chip Engelland coming off a screen at midcourt and catching a pass from Kenny Dennard. While catching the ball, Chip called the time-out that Coach Smith graciously allowed Duke to keep. You can see what happened next and listen to the call by Jim Thacker and Billy Packer here. Once Gene Banks hit that shot, the end result seemed inevitable, and Duke went on to win in OT, 66-65. Tinker Bell scored 25 that afternoon.
It was clear at that point that this Krzyzewski guy could coach. The only open question – and it was a big one – was whether he could recruit. That question was soon the be answered too, but not before rivals UNC and North Carolina State had won NCAA championships in 1982 and 1983 and some Duke boosters had sought to oust the Duke mentor. Happily for Duke fans everywhere, Tom Butters held firm and gave Coach K a crucial contract extension in January of 1984, after three straight conference losses.
I was in the house to see the vaunted class of 1986, the group that proved that Krzyzewski could recruit, beat terrific St. John’s and Kansas teams in Madison Square Garden and win the inaugural pre-season NIT in 1985. Sadly, I will be home in California watching on television when Coach K seeks record-breaking win #903 in MSG today against Michigan State.
Nobody could have predicted anything like 903 wins back in 1980. But I am grateful for having been in the stands for #74, a precursor of things to come.
Business Insider published a version of this piece here.