What if ... Duke had fired Mike Krzyzewski?

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
10:00
AM ET
Drop a pebble in the water; just a splash and it’s gone;

But there’s half a hundred ripples circling on and on and on,

Spreading, spreading from the center, flowing on out to the sea.

And there’s no way of telling where the end is going to be.

-- James W. Foley

Tom Butters won’t even pretend he knew the ripple effect he would create when, 34 years ago, he hired a little-known Army coach coming off of a 9-17 season to be Duke's next basketball coach. Aside from admitting to a "gut feeling" that the young, relatively inexperienced man sitting in front of him was the right man for the job, Butters won’t take any credit for the decision, either.

Yet as we examine the what-ifs of college basketball this week, Butters’ brazen option -- naming Mike Krzyzewski head coach at Duke in 1980 -- surely goes down as perhaps the smallest pebble that made the biggest splash in the sport.

Butters’ trust in his gut has spawned a career that includes 983 victories, four national championships, four gold medals and international recognition not only for a university but also for a guy whose surname has as many Z's as vowels.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyewski
AP Photo/Nell RedmondMike Krzyzewski has plenty to smile about now, but his first three years at Duke weren't quite as rosy.
But the question isn’t so much the obvious one: What if Butters hadn’t hired Krzyzewski? Or even all the ramifications included: Would Duke have any national titles? Would we have The Shot, or even know who Christian Laettner is? What of the Cameron Crazies? Would anyone slap a floor on defense? With no Krzyzewskiville, would there be any other InsertCoach’sNameHere towns, boroughs, hamlets or other campout sites?

No, the real question is: What if Butters had hired Krzyzewski three years ago instead of in 1980?

And what if Krzyzewski had gone 38-47 in those first three years, as he did in his coaching infancy at Duke? Would Butters have kept him aboard or would Krzyzewski, like so many present-day coaches with comparable records, have been fired?

“Even in those difficult times in the first three seasons, I not only knew I had the right man, but I knew I had to keep him," said Butters, who retired in 1998 after 20 years as Duke’s athletic director.

It looks and sounds simple now, what with the hindsight paved by Krzyzewski’s exemplary résumé.

But it wasn’t then.

Though they lacked the public-venting forum of social media, the critics nonetheless squawked plenty at Butters.

“I was inundated," he said. “Oh my gosh. It was not the easiest of three years that I spent in the business. Everybody had an opinion. They wanted him gone and me gone because I was the idiot who wanted him in the first place."

Yet Butters stood his ground, firm in his belief that he made the right call.

“Would I have kept him now? Absolutely," Butters said. “In my opinion, there are those who don’t fit, and it’s not anyone’s fault -- it just isn’t a good fit. And there are those who are a good fit. A good fit is a good fit."

Think about that. How many college athletic directors can afford to think that way anymore?

Besieged by big-money donors, potential big-money profits in NCAA tournament appearances, a 24-hour news cycle and social media’s endless barrage, ADs have a much harder job now than Butters did then. Even if their guts tell them they have the right man, how many can take the risk to keep the right man, if the right man doesn’t win immediately?

No one wants to wait for a system to be built or a culture to be cultivated.

People just want wins and fervor and Madness. They want it instantaneously, and Godspeed to the AD caught in the crossfire, his or her job on the line alongside the guy with the whistle.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the coaching roadkill from this, the Era of Impatience:

  • John Pelphrey, Arkansas, fired after four years, 69-58
  • Darrin Horn, South Carolina, fired after four years, 60-63
  • Tony Barbee, Auburn, fired after four years, 48-75
  • Steve Donahue, Boston College, fired after four years, 54-76
  • Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest, fired after four years, 51-76

Some of those will turn out to be good decisions, some bad and some a push.

And certainly no one is saying that the next Mike Krzyzewski is on the list, but the point is, Krzyzewski wasn’t Krzyzewski in 1983. He was a 30-something, ex-Army coach with a name that no one could pronounce, let alone spell.

Yet Butters kept him on, and in Year 4 Duke went 24-10 and made the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils have missed the tourney just once since, when Krzyzewski was out because of back surgery in 1995.

“I think," Butters said, “it’s worked out pretty well."

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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