Commentary

Hurley knows the secret of K's success

Krzyzewski won No. 903 because 'Coach Kan't' stopped accepting losing years ago

Updated: November 16, 2011, 11:53 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Bobby Hurley remembers the last lecture, at least the last one Mike Krzyzewski gave as the coach who couldn't win the big one. The UNLV Runnin' Rebels had just humiliated Duke in the national title game, blowing by Hurley as if he were some child who had wandered out of the stands and onto their floor, leaving the freshman sick to his stomach in every literal and figurative way.

On that fateful night in 1990, after yet another near-miss run at a ring, Krzyzewski was done being everyone's Final Four fall guy. Coach K announced he was retiring as Coach Kan't, effective immediately.

"He just wouldn't tolerate it anymore," Hurley said Tuesday night, the night Krzyzewski beat Michigan State at Madison Square Garden to become the most prolific Division I winner of them all. "Coach just told us, 'This will never happen again. I'm never coming back to another locker room like this one.'

"I knew right there I had to become a different player, a better player, and everyone who was there felt the same way. Coach just wouldn't accept anything else. ... And yeah, adding Grant Hill didn't hurt either."

No, the Hills and Hurleys and Christian Laettners didn't hurt Krzyzewski's pursuit of multiple championships and victory No. 903, breaking the record held by his old West Point coach and mentor, Bob Knight.

It's the talent, stupid. Nobody, not even Krzyzewski, could've seized four national titles (also one more than Knight) without convincing enough high school All-Americans to sign on his dotted line.

[+] EnlargeCoach K
P. McDermott/Getty ImagesCoach K received the game ball after picking up his record 903rd win at Madison Square Garden.
But there's a reason Coach K is the common thread connecting every Blue Devils blue-chipper from Johnny Dawkins to Austin Rivers. "He's always been flexible enough to adjust to his talent," said Hurley, now an assistant to his brother Danny at Wagner College, "where a lot of coaches won't do that and will stay with their system regardless of what they have."

Nobody has to review Duke's grade-point averages or its empty NCAA police blotter to know that college basketball got lucky when Krzyzewski once declined a $40 million bid from Kobe Bryant's Lakers and, before that, a $5 million-per-year offer from the New Jersey Nets presented to him by a Nets intermediary who showed up at Coach K's hotel room door in Manhattan.

Krzyzewski was made for the college game, where only the coach earns millions in wages and Nike deals, and where it's easier to sell the impossible as possible to impressionable minds. It happened with 2.1 seconds left in Duke's most enduring game, the double-overtime victory over Kentucky in the regional final of 1992, when Krzyzewski entered his huddle and told his players to forget the one-point deficit and the inbounds pass from the wrong end of the Spectrum floor.

"We're going to win this game," he said.

Krzyzewski asked Hill if he could make the long pass, and Hill said he would take care of it.

Krzyzewski asked Laettner if he could make the catch and the shot, and Laettner said he would handle both.

"Going into that huddle," Hurley said, "I thought our season was over, that it wasn't meant to be. But Coach really sold it to us. He made you believe."

By running a clean program, Krzyzewski has made many believe he's the antidote for all that ails major college sports, the last legend standing after Joe Paterno's spectacular fall from grace.

Coach K is forever cast as a moral compass, a teacher who put the student back in student-athlete and rose above the grim underbelly of summer-circuit recruiting. And truth is, Krzyzewski has an extensive body of work suggesting he does The Right Thing far more often than he doesn't.

But the Duke coach isn't an infallible leader of young men any more than John Wooden was at UCLA. This truth doesn't make Krzyzewski unworthy of his Division I record for victories and every Hall of Fame induction ceremony that includes him.

It makes him human.

At a robust 64, Krzyzewski figures to reach 1,000 victories before calling it a career. But even if he wins 2,000, he'll still remain an imperfect icon in a wildly imperfect world.

In 1999, for a Sweet 16 game against Steve Alford's Southwest Missouri State, I sat behind the Duke bench and couldn't believe my ears as the designated saint among Blue Devils profanely berated his players and the refs. Krzyzewski even turned his golden-boy aide, Quin Snyder, into a nervous wreck, barking at him for this or that.

In 1995, after back pain and exhaustion forced him to the bench, Krzyzewski saddled his temporary replacement, Pete Gaudet, with the 4-15 record Duke posted in Coach K's absence.

In other news, the parents of William Avery, who entered the 1999 NBA draft despite Krzyzewski's objections, and Chris Burgess, who transferred to Utah, would publicly brand Coach K as selfish and petty.

These are among the small ink stains on what has otherwise been a work-of-art career. In the end, college basketball needs more Krzyzewski in it, not less.

"I don't see any reason why he wouldn't continue in his role as far as doing all the right things," Hurley said. "I know of nothing that would get in the way of that, because his players love Coach for everything he's done for them, and because he stands for everything that's right about college sports."

Virtue and victory -- not necessarily in that order -- made Krzyzewski rich and famous, made him the face of a prestigious university and the Olympic coach of multimillion-dollar pros.

On the sideline, Krzyzewski became the superstar he wasn't on the court. As a point guard for Knight at West Point, he didn't have the physical skill or size to match up with the kind of ballplayers he would eventually coach.

The product of a tough town, Chicago, Krzyzewski wished he could've been a visionary playmaker like Hurley, the product of a tough town, Jersey City, and a tougher coach, Bob Hurley Sr. of St. Anthony High.

"I think he lived a bit through me," Bobby Jr. said of Coach K.

Tuesday night, Hurley and an extended family of Blue Devils past and present lived through Krzyzewski, their very own Mr. November, a guy who hasn't lost a game in this month since 2006.

Coach K isn't anyone's Coach Kan't anymore. The great Mike Krzyzewski won another big one, if only because he chose a long time ago to quit tolerating the alternative.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday, 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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