|Krzyzewski has never forgotten his roots at West Point and Army. (Getty Images)|
He was impressive out of the gates, especially for a young, unproven coach. There was an air of confidence, the passion, organization and also that unrelenting competitiveness.
But none of them had an inkling of what was to become of Mike Krzyzewski.
Not back in the late 1970's when Coach K was an anonymous coach -- their anonymous coach -- at West Point.
"Of course not," said General Bob Brown, who was part of Krzyzewski's first recruiting class at Army. "No, no one did."
"I'd be playing the lottery every day if I honestly thought he'd do this," added Pat Harris, another member of that first group Coach K brought to West Point. "You knew he was something special, but this?"
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This has taken Coach K to the place where he will go down as the all-time winningest coach in Division 1 men's basketball history -- and while nearly everyone will focus on his lengthy and successful tenure at Duke, his head coaching career began with five seasons at West Point.
The young head coach stood underneath the basket, diminutive in stature, waiting for the collision -- intent to prove the importance of mental toughness.
"He'd get the biggest player on the team, have him start at half court and dribble hard and fast to the basket," recalled Matt Brown, who also entered the program in Coach K's first season. "Then he'd take the charge, roll around and start screaming."
Tom Valerio didn't know what to make of his new coach when Krzyzewski was hired as Dan Dougherty's replacement in 1975. Valerio had played three seasons under Dougherty, who was fired, and the team was abysmal his junior season, winning a total of just three games.
"We were excited because we knew he had played for Coach [Bob] Knight -- and they had been successful," Valerio said. "But we didn't know much else."
Valerio said it was evident immediately that this new guy was different. He came in and held individual player meetings (something that was a rarity back then) and spoke about expectations on both ends -- from the player and also the coach.
"I walked out of there ready to go," said Valerio, who has the distinction of being Krzyzewski's first-ever captain. "He created a feeling right away that we were going to prepare and outwork people."
The first season hardly appeared successful -- at least on paper. The team's final record was 11-14, but Coach K transformed just about everything. He brought a motion offense from his time with Knight, which was foreign to those already in the program, and also abandoned the zone defense the holdovers were familiar with, opting for Knight's tough man-to-man.
"Coach K came in and wanted us to pick up guys outside the locker room," Valerio half-joked.
It didn't take long for Krzyzewski to get his players to buy in.
There was a tough overtime loss that first season, one in which the players all expected their new coach to come into the locker room with a profanity-laced tirade, disappointed in the group for coming up just short.
"Instead, he came in and said that we did everything he asked us to do," Valerio recalled. "That he's not going to accept losing, but he was proud of us. I wanted to get right back out there and practice. He makes you feel great -- and makes you want to work hard."
The work paid off as Krzyzewski orchestrated an impressive turnaround that resulted in a 20-win campaign in Year 2.
Bob Brown, in that first recruiting class with Matt Brown, Harris and Scott Easton, had no desire to go into the military. Instead, he was leaning heavily toward playing at Michigan.
One visit from Krzyzewski changed his entire life.
Now Brown is a general in charge of nearly 150,000 soldiers at Fort Benning.
"He came to my house and talked me into visiting West Point," Bob Brown said. "He was so passionate. He's the reason I'm in the military. I never would have joined if not for him."
"I've learned more about leadership playing for him at West Point than anywhere else," Brown added.
Krzyzewski has always been about preparation. He would throw different end-of-game scenarios at his players. One time during his rookie campaign it was Army trailing by a point with 30 or so seconds on the clock.
Harris picked up the loose ball with 13 seconds remaining, turned around and instantaneously called a timeout so his coach could draw up a play.
Krzyzewski immediately grabbed Harris, a brash New Yorker, and got into him -- asking why he would call a timeout so quickly.
"I'm looking at him like, 'You dumb Polack. Do I have to explain it to you? I know you're a young coach, but you're supposed to set up a play here.'"
Coach K proceeded to explain to Harris -- who would later become Army's head basketball coach -- to take the ball down the court and survey the situation in front of him in case an opportunity presented itself for an easy basket.
"Don't you know that the next game we were in the same situation," Harris said. "I get the ball with eight or nine seconds, pass it down the court to Matty Brown -- who hits the game-winner to beat Kansas State."
"He prepares you and also creates a feeling that you're not going to lose," added Valerio. "We were always going to be more prepared and outwork people."
They all speak glowingly of the guy who has now become one of the greatest coaches at any level, in any sport. They talk about his knowledge of the game, his ability to get his players to play hard all the time -- and how he hasn't forgotten his roots.
"He never forgets us," Matt Brown said. "We're just a small part of his past, but he always calls us."
Bob Brown won't forget the countless times his wife, Patty, picked up the phone while her husband was deployed in places such as Bosnia, Iraq and Haiti.
"He'd always ask her if she needed anything, if we needed anything," Brown said. "He'd send basketballs and T-shirts to us overseas."
"In some way, as significant as [victory number] 903 is, I think it overshadows the positive impact he's had on people," Valerio added.
Valerio is putting together something to give to his former coach from the group that played for Krzyzewski at Army and was blown away by some of the comments.
"I bet five or six people said that next to their father, he had the most positive influence on their life," Valerio said. "I was floored that he had that kind of impact on so many people. These were all people he's helped over the years. He takes care of his players. He doesn't forget them."
And they certainly haven't forgotten him.