When Army beat Lehigh 56-29 in November 1975, nobody knew it would lead to this.
Mike Krzyzewski was only 27 years old then, a rookie head coach nobody was talking about or paying attention to. The first season would end 11-14, not exactly auguring greatness.
But 36 years and 902 victories after beating Lehigh, Coach K has become the winningest men's coach in Division I college basketball history. Victory No. 903 came Tuesday night in the Champions Classic against Michigan State in Madison Square Garden.
And now, Krzyzewski will proceed to put the record out of reach.
Unless something unforeseen happens – and after watching the unceremonious end for another iconic college coach last week in State College, take nothing for granted anymore – he will keep coaching until he has more than 1,000 victories.
Records like these are always testaments to longevity. But in K's case, it's also a testament to adaptability. That he has thrived over time in a sport that has massively evolved is an object lesson in flexible thinking.
Krzyzewski's first 10 years as a college head coach came before the 3-point shot was put into nationwide implementation. The advent of the 3 was a demarcation for some coaches who wouldn't embrace it or defend it – Louisville's Denny Crum went to six Final Fours from 1971-86, none thereafter. Coach K adapted, and most of his teams in the past 25 years have used the 3 with deadly efficiency.
His second national championship came in 1992 against Michigan's Fab Five team – a group that would help permanently alter the mindset of when players were ready to leave college for the NBA. Krzyzewski loves his seniors to an almost maudlin degree – but when the landscape shifted and elite programs had to recruit short-term collegians who would never see a senior day, K made the transition and kept winning.
He's always recruited players who actually liked being in college – guys such as Shane Battier and Jay Williams and J.J. Redick, who would stay in school longer – but Krzyzewski knew he had to take some studs who would only be in Durham a year or two. It worked.
As dominant big men have become increasingly more rare commodities in college hoops – nobody wants to be a low-post center, and the best of the few who do stick around college for about 15 minutes – Krzyzewski put his offensive emphasis on skill. He'd always had frontcourt players who could shoot (from Mark Alarie to Danny Ferry to Christian Laettner to Battier), but K spread the floor and opened his offense even more to players who could drive, pass and shoot.
At a time when a collegiate emperor-coach seemed like the last guy who should coach the United States in the Olympics, Krzyzewski took on the no-reward job. If America won the gold medal in 2008 in Beijing, it was due to the players putting aside their egos and playing together. If America somehow lost, everyone would point at the coach who screwed up a sure thing with overpowering talent.
Onetime mentor Bob Knight, whose record he will break this week, won an Olympic gold medal in 1984 – but that was a different time. The players were still collegians, not multimillionaires as concerned about maximizing their own brand as representing their country. A guy who built a program based on floor burns and taking charges was going to tell Kobe Bryant and LeBron James what to do?
Krzyzewski adapted his coaching style. Learned what would work with pros and what would not. He won the gold medal, and the respect of the players in the process.
And in 2010, with a team that probably didn't rank among his 10 most talented at Duke, Krzyzewski recognized the Blue Devils' offensive limitations and made them a bunch of defensive zealots. A program that has always been offensively pretty got defensively gritty, grinding out low-scoring victories on the way to K's fourth national title.
[Recap: Duke 74, Michigan State 69]
You have to admire a guy who can win it all with LeBron and with Brian Zoubek. (Hey, who else has won it all with LeBron?)
That adaptability has led to a seemingly endless run at the top of the sport. The span from Krzyzewski's first national title (1991) to his most recent (2010) is the longest in college basketball history. The span from his first Final Four (1986) to his most recent (2010) is the third-longest on the books, behind only Dean Smith (1967-97) and Eddie Sutton (1978-2004).
John Wooden's 10 national titles will never be equaled – but it was a concentrated era of dominance, from 1964-75. Then Wooden retired.
Adolph Rupp is the only other coach to have won four or more national titles – but they came in a relatively condensed time frame as well, from 1948-58. Rupp had some very good teams thereafter, but no titles.
I believe there will be a fifth national championship for Mike Krzyzewski before he retires. Maybe a sixth, too.
I believe that because he's the best basketball coach ever when it comes to staying current. It's been a long road from beating Lehigh in 1975 to now, but Coach K seems to have plenty of tread left on his tires. The record will not just be broken, but put out of reach.
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