With a win over upstart Butler in last Monday’s championship game, Mike Krzyzewski cemented his legacy as one of basketball’s greatest coaches. During his first 29 years at Duke, Coach K joined the elite ranks of his mentor—Bobby Knight—and his old nemesis—Dean Smith—as a coach with at least two national titles and 800-plus victories.
But when Gordon Hayward’s desperation heave bounced off the front of the rim at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, Coach K rose to another plateau of coaching. He became a legend.
The victory on Monday marked Coach K’s fourth championship, tying him with Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp for second most all time behind the Wizard of Westwood’s 10 titles at UCLA. Arguably, Coach K’s latest ring might be more impressive than those of Rupp or Wooden (although Kentucky and UCLA fans will almost certainly disagree. But who cares about Kentucky?) One could argue that Rupp and Wooden won their in a different era of college basketball, one without the present physical play and brutal postseason tournament (that is set to become even longer). Coach K’s accomplishments in the modern era testify to the will, intensity and consistency of play he instills in his teams. Duke teams under Mike Krzyzewski have only had 3 losing seasons in 30 years—two of which came during Duke’s early 1980s rebuilding effort (the other I blame on Pete Gaudet. Sorry, Pete).
This season, Coach K also negated another criticism by proving that Duke can win without loads of NBA-ready talent. Not a single member of the 2010 championship squad was voted a First-Team All-American. No one on this squad is a projected NBA lottery pick (yet). There was no unstoppable “Duke villain” a la Christian Laettner, J.J. Redick, or Shane Battier (that’s subjective, of course. Maryland fans hate everything, but mostly Scheyer). Instead, what Coach K had was a team of hardened veterans, bonded by the millstone of the previous three years. Many of these burdens, we must say, came from Duke’s sometimes spoiled fanbase that assumes “D-U-K-E” spells unequivocal success.
Coach K knows better. He told his players to shut their minds to comparisons to past Duke teams—and to their own past pitfalls. He told them to focus on the present task at hand. In his words: “be in the moment.”
There’s a reason why the Fuqua Business School shares a name with Krzyzewski, his books sell millions of copies and global companies invite him to speak at major events. The man is a master motivator, and the 09-10 Devils bought into his message. Be yourselves. Work hard. And go out there and win.
By following the words of their leader, this Duke team achieved greatness. One by one, the 2010 senior class conquered the demons of their first three seasons. In avenging previous home losses, Duke notched an unprecedented 17-0 record in Cameron. In front of a bloodthirsty crowd at Clemson, Duke defeated the Tigers, helping ease away the memories of last season’s 27 point debacle. They finally defeated (weak synonym for ‘ate alive’) UNC in Cameron. In preparation for the challenges of the March postseason, Duke won all their games at neutral sites. Consistent excellence in the ACC led to a share of the regular season title; performance under pressure won the Devils their second straight ACC Tournament.
Most importantly, the Blue Devils triumphed in the face of their previous postseason failures. In the NCAA tournament, Duke relieved the anxiety of its fans by winning the South regional and advancing to the program’s first Final Four in six years. But that wasn’t enough. Duke answered the call against West Virginia—a team that had looked infallible against Cal’s Kentuckians. After the media lambasted Duke as the weakest one-seed by far, we were the last 1 standing.
The final triumph was ironically the least vengeful. The David-Goliath matchup in the National Title game ended up being Goliath v. Goliath (or rather David v. David, as Jon Stewart believes.). In beating a fantastic Butler team like that, Duke broke the hearts of a stadium, a state and perhaps an entire nation of hoops fans dying for a reenactment of Hoosiers.
Duke met every obstacle this season—from the preseason NIT in NYC to the F4 in INDPLS (that’s what the kids call it). Although Coach will deflect any praise to his players, his leadership and post-Olympic energy boost were an integral part of Duke’s sensational run to the ‘ship.
In 2010, Duke earned its fourth banner. Coach K wants to share it with the entire Duke family:
“‘When you look up [in Cameron],” he said, “all of us would want you to say to yourself and to whomever you’re with: ‘That’s when my team — our team — won the national championship.'”
No matter what future race sees the plethora of banners hanging up by Cameron’s American flag, they will know who was responsible—the Pole from Chicago who changed basketball forever.