Mike Krzyzewski On Early Struggles At Duke: ‘Never Felt That I Would’t Make It Here’

Mike Krzyzewski spoke with the Seth Davis Show about his early years and struggles at Duke. Though it was a difficult beginning, Coach K says he never felt that he wouldn’t make it in Durham.

The nature of coaching in the modern era of sports is one of impatience and short leashes. Fans hammer disappointing programs in real time. Boosters, themselves merely fans with a lot more money, throw weight (and dollars) around, all in the name of success. Athletic directors and university presidents, fearful of fickle benefactors and watchful of dwindling gate numbers, act quicker than ever in canning an underperforming coach.

The template these days seems to be around three years – less than a full recruiting cycle. In discussing his early Duke tenure with The Seth Davis Show, head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski acknowledged that after his first three years many people were calling for his head.

“We all need somebody to believe in us at sometime, and it happened here at a real critical time.

“I never felt that I would not make it here. When I walked out of the Omni after losing by 43 points to Virginia and finished my third year at 38-47, I got angry at the people who wanted to get rid of me.”

While certainly not as omnipresent as it is today, the internal pressures of being a coach were still existent in the 1980s and before – especially on Tobacco Road. Dean Smith was once hung in effigy following a loss to Wake Forest, and Coach K was scrutinized for not building upon the successes of Bill Foster – who resurrected the program to heights not seen since Vic Bubas’ decade of dominance in the 1960s.

Ultimately, the Duke administration stood beside its young basketball coach, and the good faith paid off. Krzyzewski guided the Blue Devils to the NCAA Tournament the following year, and every year since*. Only three seasons after folks were clamoring for his head, a Duke squad led by Johnny Dawkins, Jay Billas, Danny Ferry and Tommy Amaker reached the national championship game.

*Krzyzewski missed part of the 1994-95 season after undergoing back surgery. Duke did not make the NCAA Tournament, and wins/loses during Coach K’s absence were attributed to interim head coach Pete Gaudet.

It’s difficult nowadays to fully conceptualize that the winningest coach in men’s basketball history was once on the hot seat at the program with which he is now synonymous. Krzyzewski, for his part, has forgotten neither the naysayers, nor those that were fully invested in him.

“There’s still people that I have nothing to do with, who now want to cuddle up and say, ‘We believed in you.’ No you didn’t. Besides my family, there are two people who believed in me: my AD and my [university] president. And it’s it’s one of the reasons I’m here at Duke for 37 years, because they still believe in me.”

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