Mike Krzyzewski's road to immortality started on a minor note Nov. 28, 1975

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  • Mike Krzyzewski
    Mike Krzyzewski
    American basketball player and coach

On Nov. 28, 1975, a college basketball game was played that resonated almost nowhere:

Army 56, Lehigh 29.

Nobody knew that game played in the dark, dingy old U.S. Military Academy Field House on the banks of the Hudson River in West Point, N.Y., was the start of something big.

Well, maybe Bo Gill, sports editor of the Evening News in Newburgh, N.Y., had an inkling, given the breathless first sentence of his story on the game in the next day’s paper: “They ran with gusto, they swarmed over the enemy offense like hornets, they drove for the loose basketballs and did just about everything that could be expected of a first-game team Friday.”

But the story got second billing to the upcoming Army-Navy football game. The basketball news was shouldered onto the page alongside a series of bowling notes. Faye Peters bowled a 601 series to grab an Evening News headline.

Not a big deal.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski in the Army media guide from 1976-77, his second season coaching the Cadets. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
Coach Mike Krzyzewski in the Army media guide from 1976-77, his second season coaching the Cadets. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

Army-Lehigh matched a pair of frighteningly young rookie head coaches with long and interesting roads ahead – divergent roads that would lead them to far bigger venues and brighter stages.

The 28-year-old Lehigh coach would go on to win nearly 300 games in the NBA, taking Orlando and Shaquille O’Neal to the 1995 Finals. His name is Brian Hill.

The 28-year-old Army coach would go on to win 998 more games – the most in men’s Division I college basketball history – and counting. Sunday in Madison Square Garden against St. John’s, just 54 miles but several light years from where he earned his first victory, he will go for No. 1,000.

His name is Mike Krzyzewski.

Backup Army forward Joe Barto was a small part of that small first game, scoring two points against Lehigh. He remembers Krzyzewski going to the chalkboard and writing the jersey numbers of the five Army starters, and next to that the jersey numbers of the five Lehigh starters they would be guarding. Defense was all that mattered. Fellow backup Paul Aiello recalls that Lehigh ran two sets for a hotshot freshman guard to get open, and Army had scouted the sets so thoroughly that the Engineers’ guard was totally shut down.

Hill, Lehigh's coach, believes it might have been more a case of freshman nerves.

“We won the opening tip exactly the way you practice it,” said Hill, now a TV analyst who works Magic games. “We passed it ahead to that freshman guard for a wide-open layup, and it hit the glass and went three feet over the rim. We got off to a horrible start, missing layups and easy shots, and it was a disastrous opener for us. But they were obviously very well-coached.”

If there was any soaring pregame or postgame oratory in that locker room, any revelatory glimpse of the man who would become the winningest college coach of all-time, it’s been lost amid the fog of time.

It was an unremarkable beginning to a most remarkable career. The only thing those first K-coached Cadets knew for sure was this: The new guy was unbelievably intense.

“From the first meeting, you knew he was business,” Aiello said. “Practice was unbelievable – all defensive stuff. The first two weeks was all half-court drills and box-outs. It wasn’t until the third week that we played full-court.”

Barto was a shooter who had been recruited out of Atlanta in 1973 to the U.S. Military Academy Prep School by Krzyzewski. At one point during his recruitment, K told Barto, “It’ll be the best decision you ever make in your life. I guarantee it.”

More than 40 years later, Barto laughed at the memory.

“Over the next four years, I thought about 1,000 times it was the worst damn decision of my life.”

Practices were relentless. Critiques were frank and profane.

“You rarely had a conversation with Coach that didn’t have a four-letter word in it,” Barto said. “The master stroke was having Pete Gaudet as an assistant. Pete was the relationship guy. It was a good cop-bad cop situation, and Pete was the good cop.”

The bad cop was busy driving a team that went 3-22 the previous season to 11 wins that first year. That was followed by seasons of 20-8 and 19-9 – great years after the low ebb of the early ’70s, but still not enough to get Krzyzewski to ease up.

There was one night, after a bad loss, when Barto remembers the bus pulling back onto campus at 2 a.m. and Krzyzewski ordering everyone into the gym to practice. Right then and there.

Coach K will go for victory No. 1,000 on Sunday. (USAT)
Coach K will go for victory No. 1,000 on Sunday. (USAT)

Some players thrived. Forward Gary Winton, who scored 13 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in that Lehigh game, became a star. He went on to become one of the best players in Army history and might have made the 1980 Olympic team, if not for the U.S. boycott of those Games.

Others struggled. Barto was one of them.

“I didn’t play for Bob Knight, but after playing for Coach, I’m not sure it could have been worse,” he said.

After coaching Barto, Winton and others on the Prep School team in ’73-74, Capt. Michael Krzyzewski resigned his artillery commission and jumped into civilian coaching. He joined his mentor and former coach, Knight, at Indiana as a graduate assistant. That Hoosiers team went 29-1, being upset in the NCAA regional finals after forward Scott May broke his arm. But when the varsity job at his alma mater came open that spring, Coach K left a juggernaut that would go undefeated the next season to rebuild Army basketball.

(Interesting aside: Krzyzewski and another member of Knight’s staff were hired the same day – April 16, 1975– for their first college head-coaching jobs. That’s when Dave Bliss went to Oklahoma. While Krzyzewski would go on to coaching immortality, Bliss would find infamy for his role in the awful Baylor scandal of 2003.)

Shortly after Krzyzewski returned to West Point, Barto walked into his office to get reacquainted. He was coming off a season averaging 18 points per game for the Army junior varsity and feeling good about his chances of making an impact on the varsity under the coach who recruited him.

“I understand you had a pretty good year,” Krzyzewski told him. “So I guess I’m going to have to teach you to play defense.”

Said Barto: “I don’t think I touched the ball the next six months.”

He never touched the ball much more after that. Barto’s two varsity seasons under Krzyzewski were spent primarily on the bench, watching others play.

“We had a tough relationship,” Barto said. “I didn’t understand. I didn’t get it back then.”

He would get it more than a decade later. By then Joe Barto was serving in the Middle East, part of Desert Storm.

Barto was the Chief of Operations for the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) during the Persian Gulf War. It was during the stress of combat with the Iraqi Republican Guard that the hard lessons learned in Gillis Field House began to hit home.

“My experience playing basketball for Coach Krzyzewski better prepared me for Desert Storm than any other experience I had at West Point,” Barto said.

He would retire a lieutenant colonel and start his own business – TMG, a Virginia-based company that specializes in talent acquisition and retention, as well as leadership development. And in 1995, when Krzyzewski was inducted into the Army Sports Hall of Fame, Barto and his coach were at last able to come to an understanding.

One thing that has never changed about Mike Krzyzewski: his intensity. (AP)
One thing that has never changed about Mike Krzyzewski: his intensity. (AP)

“I wasn’t ready to be the right coach,” Krzyzewski told him. “And I don’t think you were ready to be the right player.”

Said Barto, “He became a much better friend and mentor after playing basketball than while he was coaching me.”

Krzyzewski has an undying loyalty and affection for almost all of his former players, but perhaps an especially soft spot for some of the first guys, from back in the mid-’70s. Aiello, who was a coach at Wagner and Colgate after his military career, has worked Krzyzewski’s Duke camp from 1983 to the present – though his old mentor regularly needles him that they’d never give him one of the defensive drill stations.

Barto also visits Durham annually, and has sent his kids to Krzyzewski’s camp. When K broke Knight’s victory record by winning his 903rd game in 2011, Barto was one of a handful of players from that first team to present their old coach with a different game ball.

One commemorating the first win: Army 56, Lehigh 29.

Nobody knew what it meant on that November night in 1975. But it was the first step down a path that would lead Mike Krzyzewski to the brink of 1,000 wins, a place no coach has gone before.