Coach K's path to greatness cleared by patient AD Butters

by | Senior College Basketball Blogger

Coach K's unparalleled success at Duke makes Tom Butters look like a genius. (Getty Images)  
Coach K's unparalleled success at Duke makes Tom Butters look like a genius. (Getty Images)  

You're an athletic director at an emerging college basketball powerhouse. You have a coach in his mid-30s who hasn't won after three years; in fact, he's nine games under .500 and making you look bad. And this coach, you hired him based on a friend's recommendation after he came from a school (Army) known a hundred-fold more for its honor and heritage than its hoops. By the way, said coach was a mundane 73-59 at his previous gig -- coming off a 9-17 season.

You? The AD? You're only six years into the gig, and your reputation could be defined by this hiring. Do you bring the coach back for Year No. 4?

That's what Tom Butters did -- without hesitation -- at Duke in 1983. Since then, Mike Krzyzewski has never coached a team below .500 (after coaching Duke to a 9-3 record in 1994-95, he missed the second half of the season due to back problems; Duke finished 13-18).

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All-time Division-I coaching victories
Mike Krzyzewski*36903
Bob Knight42902
Dean Smith36879
Adolph Rupp41876
Jim Boeheim*35856
*Active coaches (wins as of Nov. 15, 2011)

And that is how the story of Mike Krzyzewski first began its transformation into the Legend of Coach K. The background and history of Krzyzewski's shaky start at Duke is noteworthy not because of the man involved, but because it's never going to be repeated.

Never again will an elite basketball school hire a coach coming off a below-.500 season from a program that's outside the BCS, let alone from one of the service academies. (As much you and I continually appreciate their services, big-time athletic directors do not covet or cherish the coaching abilities of men at those programs.) How Krzyzewski got to Duke, weathered the rough first three years and turned himself into the icon he is today isn't remarkable -- that word doesn't do the unforeseeable, 903-wins-and-climbing accomplishment justice.

The 73-year-old Butters, who during his tenure as Duke AD served on the Selection Committee for the men's tournament and was a critical cog in getting the first billion-dollar deal signed with CBS, reflected via phone last week about Krzyzewski and why he chose him to take over for Bill Foster (who got Duke to the national title game in 1978).

"An idiot could have done my job if he had had the kind of support that I did," the often self-deprecating Butters said. "The pressure I felt was self-imposed, because I wanted to provide for Duke."

The alternative universe of what could have happened in college basketball history is incredibly enticing to examine. One other name tossed out for the Duke job in 1980 was Dave Bliss, who eventually became a central figure in one of the biggest coverups in college sports history. (Until the Penn State scandal, it was considered by many to be the worst.)

Butters first heard the name Mike Krzyzewski from the mouth of Steve Vacendak, who played at Duke in the mid-'60s but wasn't working for Duke at the time. Still, Vacendak knew Butters wanted a defensive-minded coach. The best he could find. Butters soon thereafter called Bob Knight, who was, of course, Krzyzewski's coach when he played at Army.

"Bob had been a friend for many years, and I'd always respected his basketball coaching abilities," Butters said. "I told him I was in a position that I had to hire a basketball coach, and he gave me some names. They were all his protégés. Dave Bliss, Bob Weltlich.

"And I said to him, what about this guy Mike Krzyzewski? And he made a very interesting comment; I will never forget it. He said, 'Butters, you've always liked the way I coach. Mike has all my good qualities and none of my bad ones.' Typical Bob Knight comment.

"It rang a bell with me enough that I called Mike and set up an interview. ... But he was not my choice, primarily because he was 33 years of age, I believe, coming from Army -- not exactly a basketball powerhouse. That's not exactly who I was looking for."

The interview was arranged when Duke was playing in the Eastern Regional at Kentucky, against Kentucky, in 1980. Krzyzewski and Butters met and had a "several-hours-long" interview. Butters dismissed it once it was over. But Krzyzewski left an imprint in Butters' brain that couldn't be washed away. Days after the interview, Butters said of Krzyzewski, "I could not get him out of my mind."

The way Butters said the above was akin to him recalling a lover he could not get over. Krzyzewski was eating at Butters, but in a good way. He was just waiting for one more sign that this was the right guy for the program.

So the 33-year-old lanky do-gooder from Chicago, coaching at West Point, would get a second interview -- if he could only get down to meet with Butters again. Despite the fact that more than a foot of snow was blanketing the West Point campus, Krzyzewski made it for another examination. Chuck Huestis, who was in charge of the search committee, said the group liked all four finalists, and that the decision was Butters' and Butters' alone.

"Which is what I'd hoped they would say," Butters said. He had narrowed it to current CBS color analyst Bob Wenzel, then an assistant at Duke; Weltlich, who was SEC coach of the Year at Mississippi; and Paul Webb, the Old Dominion coach who had won a lot, but "had more age on him" than Butters was looking for. Krzyzewski was the last interview. He left for the airport. He never made it to the gate.

"I was sitting in Chuck Huestis' kitchen," Butters said. "I said to Steve Vacendak, 'Go get him, do not let him get on that airplane.'"

The job was Krzyzewski's, and the collective eyebrow lift from the locals, as well as national press, was to be expected.

"The reception was incredible, because nobody believed it," Butters said. "They didn't know who he was. They couldn't pronounce his name; they sure as hell couldn't spell it. It was not accepted with great fervor."

So Duke toiled in the first three years; few knew where the program was going or its place in the ACC, which saw Virginia, North Carolina, N.C. State and Maryland soaring ever higher. The ultimate reason Butters kept Krzyzewski on staff in 1983 was because the Duke AD believed his coach had brought in his first elite recruiting class. It included Johnny Dawkins, David Henderson, Jay Bilas and Mark Alarie -- all NBA Draft picks in 1986.

"Going into the beginning of his tenure, we knew it was going to be a difficult first couple or three years," Butters aid. "But the handwriting was really on the wall with the signing of this class. Mike had come close to signing some really good kids his second year -- [Chris] Mullin and [Bill] Wennington and others -- but we had come in second, but it was clear to me that was he was everything I was looking for in a coach."

Butters lives eight miles from Cameron Indoor Stadium. His wife, Lynn, still goes to every game. He has been to just three games since he retired in 1999.

"I don't do that anymore, for a variety of reasons," he said. "Sometimes I feel like I become a distraction, just being present, so I don't go very often. I will not be there for [win No. 903]. That's not my thing. My thing was to put it together. I take no ownership of this now."

Butters said he talks to Krzyzewski several times per year, though. They've had a great relationship over the years, even if they didn't always agree on every item.

"But I never interfered with his basketball coaching. And he never interfered with my running the program. So, it's been a true friendship situation. I called him last week and told him that I didn't know he was going to win 900 ballgames. I would like to tell you I was smart enough to know that. But I didn't. I did know he was going to represent this university precisely the way this university ought to be represented and he has lived up to that in more ways than I can possibly express to you. He's a better man than he is a coach."

The chain of events is interesting to look back on now. If Krzyzewski doesn't get recruited by Bob Knight, he never ends up at Duke. Does he ever become a coach? No way he ever gets close to this record. One strong suggestion from the winningest coach of all-time led to his protégé ultimately surpassing his record. It's a circumstance so special its cycle deserves to be, and will be, forever unique.


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