Excerpt: Inside the breakup of Coach K and Bobby Knight's complicated relationship

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski,
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, "Coach K," left, talks with Bob Knight after Duke defeated Michigan State 74-69 in an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011, in New York. Krzyzewski earned his 903rd win, passing Knight for the most Division I victories. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

(From Coach K by Ian O’Connor. Copyright © 2022 by Ian O’Connor. Reprinted by permission of Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.)

Indiana coach Bobby Knight walked up to Duke special assistant Colonel Tom Rogers, his former officer representative at West Point, and handed him an envelope to give to Mike Krzyzewski. Inside was a clipping and a note that would represent the beginning of the end of the Knight-Krzyzewski relationship.

The Hoosiers were about to play the Blue Devils in the national semifinals in the Minneapolis Metrodome, where Krzyzewski was making his fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four, and his sixth in seven years. The last man to stop Coach K short of this point in the tournament was his West Point coach and mentor, Knight, who hadn’t reached this weekend since 1987, when the Hoosiers knocked out Duke in the Sweet 16.

The Knight-Krzyzewski dynamic was so much simpler then. Knight, the teacher, had proudly worn a “Go Duke” button around Dallas during the 1986 Final Four while serving as his student’s lead cheerleader. The following March, when they met for the first time, some close Coach K observers thought he was deferential to his former coach, to his team’s detriment. Knight had expressed his pride in Krzyzewski’s accomplishments and his dismay in having to face him in such an important game.

But by April 1992, Duke had surpassed Indiana as an elite program, and Krzyzewski had surpassed Knight in Final Four trips, 6–5 (though the Indiana coach held a 3–1 lead in national titles and had already been inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame). Coach K was being widely portrayed as everything that was right about major college sports, and Knight, increasingly, as everything that was wrong about them.

Over the years Krzyzewski had explained to recruits, and to media members, that he was his own man, and published quotes from Coach K surfaced here and there that showed him carefully, and respectfully, trying to distinguish his approach from Knight’s. On a number of levels, Krzyzewski needed some separation from the Knight Way as he built his own legacy. And yet all of the pregame focus in Minneapolis would revolve around the two coaches, as illustrated in newspaper headlines such as “Krzyzewski Out from Under Shadow of Knight,” “Knight-Krzyzewski Matchup a Battle of Mirror Images,” and “The General, Coach K Behave Differently.”

Before their Saturday night game, the Duke and Indiana coaches offered no hint of a rupture in their relationship. Krzyzewski called the Blue Devils and Hoosiers his two favorite teams, and Knight said he shared that sentiment.

“But I don’t think I’m going to wear my Duke button to this one,” he quipped. Knight said that his former player “has a side that’s very loyal, very understanding. He’s a great friend to have because he’s going to tell you the truth.” Knight also emphasized that Krzyzewski had put his own program together, and that he would have had the same success at Duke “regardless if he would have played for me or not.”

Coach K called himself a good friend of Knight’s and promised, “We’ll be good friends after the game is over.”

One newspaper report said that Coach K had “privately bristled” over the constant media references to Knight’s enormous impact on his career as far back as 1987. “It was as if Mike owed his whole career to Coach Knight,” a Krzyzewski associate had told the Baltimore Sun. The paper also quoted Krzyzewski saying of Knight, “I can call him and talk to him as a friend, and I was privileged to learn a lot from him. But by now, I’ve figured out how to put together my own game plan. I don’t call my mother and ask her what to eat for dinner.”

It was unclear if Knight ever saw that story. One story that Knight most certainly did see before Duke-Indiana was a Final Four preview piece written by Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick that included this paragraph:

“In 1987 Indiana beat Duke in the Midwest Regional semifinals, a crucible that a friend of Krzyzewski’s describes as the ‘divorce’ between the two coaches, because Krzyzewski wanted so badly to eliminate the notion that he was nothing without Knight’s patronage. Since then Coach K has taken every opportunity to outline their many differences while still staying on Knight’s good side — wherever that is — undoubtedly a stickier task than teaching dozens of trophy makers how to spell his name.”

Krzyzewski wasn’t quoted as confirming what his anonymous friend claimed, but Knight took the piece as gospel. He was originally leafing through Sports Illustrated to find some tidbit that might help or motivate his players, only to accidentally stumble upon these 79 words that angered him. Knight clipped out the offending paragraph, wrote a note to Krzyzewski, and stuffed both inside an envelope before he boarded the Indiana bus for the ride to the Metrodome and his encounter with Coach K. Knight gave the envelope to Rogers before the game. The colonel would not give it to Krzyzewski until the Blue Devils and Hoosiers settled things on the floor.

After Duke fought off Indiana for an 81-78 victory, all that was left was the handshake between two titanic coaches. Krzyzewski marched purposefully toward the Indiana bench, then slowed down, extended his right hand and waited for the affectionate exchange of words that normally punctuate a spirited contest between old friends.

Only Knight did not break stride when grabbing and releasing Krzyzewski’s hand. It was a drive-by handshake, meant to send a clear and cold message.

Coach K said a few words as their hands met; the losing coach seemed not to say much of anything at all. Krzyzewski looked shaken as he walked away.

Knight attended the postgame news conference with a couple of players, fielded questions about one of his most bitter defeats, and then, while exiting the interview room, congratulated the Duke players waiting behind a curtain, Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner, before making yet another decision on Krzyzewski. Mike was right in front of him, again, hoping this do-over would go better than the on-court drive-by. This time Knight walked right by him without saying a word or shaking his hand.

In his presser, a rattled Krzyzewski was asked about the conspicuous lack of warmth from Knight after the final horn sounded. “He just said, ‘Congratulations and good luck,’ ” the Duke coach said. “That was about all I expected.”

As instructed by Knight, Rogers gave the note to Krzyzewski, who all but buckled upon reading it. Yes, Coach K wanted some independence from his college coach. No, he did not want this fight. Krzyzewski never forgot how Knight treated him and his mother after his father died during his senior season at West Point. Coach K brought that up all the time with his friends. In his darkest hour, Krzyzewski had seen Knight’s considerable capacity for kindness. And now his old West Point coach was declaring war on him.

As much as Coach K wanted to downplay the whole thing, his pain was obvious. “I’ve never seen Coach K hurt by anything like that,” said his sports information director Mike Cragg.

Coach K had tears in his eyes and sure did not look like a man who had just advanced to the national championship game for a third straight year. When his wife Mickie asked what was wrong, Krzyzewski answered, “Knight,” and then told her about the note. Knight later said that he pointed out in the letter that he’d always had a great relationship with Krzyzewski, and that, in the event of a Duke victory over Indiana, he would be rooting hard for the Blue Devils to win it all.

But, no, the note didn’t read quite like a Christmas card. Knight wrote that if Krzyzewski wanted to sever their relationship, that would be easily arranged. “He wrote that you should remember how you f***ing got your job,” said one prominent friend of both men.

This is an excerpt from “Coach K” by Ian O’Connor. Copyright © 2022 by Ian O’Connor. Reprinted by permission of Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
This is an excerpt from “Coach K” by Ian O’Connor. Copyright © 2022 by Ian O’Connor. Reprinted by permission of Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Team USA slight angered Bob Knight

Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight were locked in a warm embrace, their hands around each other’s necks courtside at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15, 2011, when the Duke coach broke his old Army coach’s all-time Division I record with his 903rd victory, a five-point win over Michigan State.

It was a great moment for college basketball, and for Duke, its signature program, and a legion of former Krzyzewski players were in the crowd to witness it. After he shook hands with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, Coach K headed back toward his bench before crossing the court and making a beeline for a certain ESPN analyst. The 64-year-old Krzyzewski told Knight, 71, that he loved him. Knight responded, “Boy, you’ve done pretty good for a kid who couldn’t shoot.”

Coach K would say in his postgame news conference, “I took that to mean I think he loves me too.”

Krzyzewski told media members what he was expected to tell them — that he wouldn’t have been in this position without Knight’s guidance, and that he was proud to have studied under the very best. But Krzyzewski was upset about Knight’s comment and found it inappropriate for the occasion.

“Why does he keep saying that?” he asked a member of Duke’s traveling party. “I could shoot. He just didn’t let me.”

The Duke staff also noticed Knight was wearing a green sweater that night — green being Michigan State’s color. Maybe it was coincidence, maybe not. Either way, Knight told associates that he was in no mood to celebrate a former protégé he believed to be ungrateful and, worse yet, disloyal.

“The biggest word that Bob looks for in relationships is loyalty,” said former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, Knight’s longtime friend. “And if you violate that, you’re going to violate Knight, and that’s how he is.”

Krzyzewski’s violation, in Knight’s mind, was not accepting his offer to scout international opponents for Team USA. That was clear in conversations between Knight, who had stopped coaching at Texas Tech in the middle of the 2007–2008 season (handing off the job to his son, Pat), and a friend who spoke with the coach nearly every day for years.

Krzyzewski had been genuinely touched the year before the 2008 Olympics when Knight told him, “Just remember, Mike, you are as good as they are,” a piece of advice that gave Coach K confidence when dealing with the NBA stars he was charged to lead. But Knight told friends that when he made an offer to scout for Coach K’s Olympic team, Krzyzewski did not even return his call. “The Olympic deal was a big thing for Bob,” said one Knight associate, “and he was really looking forward to doing some scouting. He never heard back from Mike, and he was clearly offended.

“The thing about Coach [Knight] . . . he has like the heart of gold on one side. So Coach K would come to him and go, ‘Can I be a student assistant?’ Yes. ‘Can I go to the Pan Am Games with you?’ Yes. [Knight] goes, ‘Every time I talked to Mike, it was like he wanted something. I was doing something for him. I was taking him to the Olympics. I was taking him here. I did more s*** for him, and I’m not going to say he wasn’t good at what he did. But every single one of those things was literally a favor to him.”

A few decades later, the associate said, Knight wanted Krzyzewski to act in kind. “Knight said, ‘You know what, Mike, if you want, I’ll go over there with you. I’ll scout the other teams. I’ll do this, do that, and we can talk about the other team before the games.’ And he never got back to him, which was literally the worst thing he could’ve done. ... Coach said he did more s*** for [Krzyzewski] than he did for his own kids, or as much.”

Some Coach K friends thought that the Team USA coach was afraid Knight might cause an international incident while representing the program and the United States. That was hardly an irrational fear, but no matter:

Knight was not the forgive-and-forget type, and Krzyzewski was not exactly alone on his s*** list. “That list is forever,” the associate said. So was the list of coaches who owed him, Knight felt, a debt of gratitude, including a certain former New York Giants assistant looking for his big break through Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, who had received a recommendation from the Indiana Hoosiers coach. “I got f***in’ [Bill] Belichick his f***in’ Browns job,” Knight said.

But Knight’s resentment of Krzyzewski was in a league of its own. At some point, Krzyzewski called his former coach to ask him to serve as a radio voice for some Duke event, a request that left Knight angry and incredulous.

“He dug all the skeletons out,” said a Knight friend. “It was, ‘No, but I wouldn’t have minded going to Russia, and I wouldn’t have minded scouting these people, and I wouldn’t have minded going to Italy. But if you think I’m going to sit on the sideline at some f***in’ game and call the radio for you ...’ ” Knight told the friend he would never again take a call from Krzyzewski.

Knight also railed against Coach K for accepting USA Basketball’s offer to coach again in the 2012 Olympics in London. Krzyzewski would also accept USA Basketball’s offer to go for a three-peat in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

“Oh, he went crazy,” said a Knight associate. “He was like, ‘You do it once. It’s the United States of America. I did it in 1984, I got done with it, I won the gold, and now, goddamn it, now it’s someone else’s turn. You don’t do it more than once, and I told f***in’ Mike that. You do it once. What about [Gregg] Popovich? What about this person, what about that person? . . .You should do it once, and then you should pass it to the next guy. It’s not his until he’s f***in’ 90 years old.’ He went crazy over that. Crazy. Crazy.”

So back in New York in 2011, on a historic night in college basketball, it came as no surprise that Knight was telling friends he didn’t want to be working the game in the Garden. Nonetheless, before Duke beat Michigan State to make Krzyzewski the sport’s most prolific winner, Knight released a statement through ESPN:

“After reading about Roger Bannister and the Four Minute Mile, I thought it would be neat to be the first coach to win 900 games. Once I reached that, I was hoping Mike would be the first person to surpass it. I also think it is neat for a coach and his former player to have the opportunity to win this many games while each one was coaching at nearly the same time. He made great contributions to our Army team as a player, and has been a great example as a coach of how to do things the right way. There is no one I respect more for the way he went about coaching and following the rules than Mike. The history of college basketball has had no better coach than Mike Krzyzewski.”

Knight genuinely believed that Krzyzewski was an excellent coach. And he genuinely respected his former protégé far more than he had respected John Wooden, whom he saw as an unworthy beneficiary of rule-breaking conduct within his program. But the first part of Knight’s statement bothered some who were close to Coach K. Just as he had told others that he cared only about being the first man to 900 victories, Knight made sure to point out for the record that he had beaten Krzyzewski to that benchmark. It seemed yet another unnecessary jab from someone who couldn’t handle being supplanted by a onetime subordinate.

A few years later, after everything Knight had done for him professionally — and personally after the death of his father — Coach K would decide to give his old coach one last chance. He would regret that choice.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski directs his team against Presbyterian during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011. Duke won 96-55. Krzyzewski tied Bob Knight atop the Division I men's career wins list with 902 victories. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski directs his team against Presbyterian during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011. Duke won 96-55. Krzyzewski tied Bob Knight atop the Division I men's career wins list with 902 victories. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

'I’ll have nothing more to do with him'

Mike Krzyzewski does not always get back what he gives.

“People have no idea what a great man he is, and how much he does to help people,” Jeff Capel said. “If he hears a coach is on the hot seat, he calls them or texts them and asks, ‘What can I do to help?’ If a guy loses a job, Coach helps him. Players that reach out for help, even at other schools, it’s unbelievable the amount of stuff he does privately for people. …And if a coach wins a championship, or wins something, one of the first to call is Coach K.”

But not a lot of people are as quick to congratulate Krzyzewski for being Krzyzewski.

“I was with him when he broke Coach Knight’s record,” Capel said, “and the amount of people that did not reach out to him then, or when he won 1,000 games, or when we won the championship in 2015, or when he won the Olympic gold medals . . . it’s jealousy.

“I know it hurts him. It did hurt him.”

The slights that hurt Krzyzewski the most, however, were generated by the man who had taught him the college game, Bob Knight, who was being honored in September 2015 at Pinehurst, North Carolina. His former Army players were gathering there to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first college team and victory. Unaware that Knight was so angry about several perceived slights, Coach K decided to join his former teammates for the reunion.

“And it was a disaster,” said Krzyzewski’s former Army teammate, John Mikula.

Knight was such a volatile personality, even on occasions designed to celebrate his life, that nobody had any idea what they were walking into when arriving at a Knight-centric function. Dick Simmons, the accomplished Army player whom Knight used to call “Alice,” or “Mary Alice” — because he wasn’t physical enough for the coach’s liking — once walked into a reunion of former Knight players in Bloomington, Indiana, and heard the coach blurt into a microphone, “Here comes the biggest p***y to ever play college basketball.” Simmons had been a company commander in Vietnam.

Krzyzewski did not tell friends he was concerned about how he would be greeted by Knight at the Pinehurst event. According to people in the hotel ballroom where the event took place, Knight was holding court with friends at his table when his former point guard approached. “Mike came in and said, ‘How are you doing, Coach?’ ” recalled Jim Oxley, Krzyzewski’s close friend and old backcourt partner. “And [Knight] barely even hesitated and continued with his story, that kind of thing. That was the start of it.”

Oxley recalled that Krzyzewski had come in for the whole day. “It just didn’t turn out good, and it really wasn’t because Mike wasn’t being totally gracious, because he was,” Oxley said. “He wasn’t trying to steal the spotlight, he never does. He didn’t sit with Knight at his table because Knight was there with all his guys. . . .That was one of many straws that broke the camel’s back. I remember Mike walking out of there saying, ‘That’s it. I’ll never do this again.’ ”

Mikula’s version of the interaction went like this: “Knight was sitting in a corner table with [former Army coach] Tates Locke, and I think [former Army assistant] Don DeVoe was there, and Mike went over to him and got down on a knee just to see him eye to eye, and everyone else kind of continued their conversations. Mike got up, walked away, and went over and stood outside the room and said, ‘That’s the last f***ing time. That’s it.’ ”

Two former Army players said that Knight had taken ill that weekend, and that his behavior might have been affected by his condition. A third, Dennis Shantz, said that he wasn’t comfortable with a speech that Knight made at the event “because it was in mixed company and he used the same sort of language he would use in the locker room.” Bob Seigle, who played for Knight and who later helped Krzyzewski land the head coaching job at Army, had his son and daughter with him and called the speech “cringeworthy.”

Whatever it was that aggravated his former coach, Seigle said, “That night at Pinehurst was tough for everybody.”

But toughest for Krzyzewski.

“There was a general feeling of a disconnect,” Oxley said. “Mike was involved with the Olympics then, and Knight might have said something derogatory about Jerry Colangelo to Mike, and Mike thought a lot of Jerry and what he did for the Olympics. It was a combination of things, but I think in general Knight didn’t even acknowledge Mike when he came into the room.”

The friction that night, and other nights, made it beyond awkward for the players and coaches who had relationships with, and respect for, both Knight and Krzyzewski. Most blamed Knight for the damage done, and many felt that he simply couldn’t handle the fact that he had been surpassed in every way by one of his former players and assistants. Coach K broke his former mentor’s records in part because he adapted with the times and tweaked his methods to become more user-friendly — adjustments that Knight never made.

Some mutual friends attempted to serve as mediators between the two iconic coaches; others didn’t bother trying because they knew it would be fruitless. Asked if he had ever attempted to make peace between his former coach and Krzyzewski, former Indiana point guard Quinn Buckner said, incredulously, “Are you crazy? These are two very strong-minded men. That would definitely fall on deaf ears.”

DeVoe, a Division I head coach at five schools over 31 years, was among those with West Point connections who thought Knight was the one — and the only one — who should have borne the burden of repairing the relationship. “As far as I’m concerned, Mike has always reached out to Coach Knight and given him credit, where most coaches and players do not do that,” DeVoe said. “I think Mike has done everything he can to show his appreciation for what Coach Knight has done for him, and it’s up to Coach Knight to be mature enough, in my opinion, to acknowledge that. I heard Mike say, ‘I love you,’ to Coach Knight, and I don’t think that would ever be in Coach Knight’s repertoire to ever say the same to Mike.”

Coach K was still telling people a year later that he would never again speak to Knight. When he ran into Mikula and some other old West Point grads at the December 2016 funeral for Colonel Tom Rogers, the man who had handed Coach K that divisive note from Knight at the 1992 Final Four, Krzyzewski said of Knight, “I’ll have nothing more to do with him. But if you guys need anything, call me.”

In the past, when Knight had done him wrong, Krzyzewski would tell Mickie and others close to him that he was done with his former coach. He would talk about the incidents, and about how Knight was being so unfair to him, working through the problems out loud. And then, usually, Krzyzewski would try to fix what was broken.

This time was different. “The Pinehurst one was never talked about,” said Chris Spatola, Coach K’s son-in-law. “It never came up again with family. That was it. It was clear-cut. He finally said, ‘OK, that’s the end of that.’

“He was finally done with Coach Knight.”