At West Point, Krzyzewski constantly wanted to quit. The entire U.S. Military Academy seemed to be set up so he would fail. On an overnight trip his freshman year, Krzyzewski pitched a tent for the first time. The other cadets dug ditches around their tents, the way they'd learned in Boy Scouts, but Krzyzewski didn't know better and nearly floated away that night when it rained. He also flunked phys ed as a plebe. ("People think it's black kids who can't swim," Krzyzewski says, "but it's city kids who can't swim.") Yet by the end of his first year he wasn't merely swimming, he was leaping blindfolded into a pool from a 20-foot-high tower while wearing fatigues and boots and carrying a rifle. "At West Point," he says, "I learned how to grow from having my ego hurt."
The lesson carried over to basketball. The first thing Knight told Krzyzewski was to forget about shooting. The drives and garbage opportunities that made him a high school scorer wouldn't be available in college. "Most kids say, 'Here I am, play me,' " says Knight. "We told Mike he would have to play defense and handle the ball. Obviously Mike listened, because he ended up playing."
His senior season during a holiday tournament at Kentucky, Krzyzewski, despite a hemorrhaging eye, dropped in two free throws to beat Bradley. The next evening Knight kicked in a locker and spat on the runner-up trophy after Army lost to the Wildcats and Dan Issel. "Over the two weeks after that, we lost another four in a row, and I was captain," Krzyzewski recalls. "It was the toughest period of my life as a player. I didn't understand what was happening, and I felt responsible for what was happening."
Krzyzewski eventually helped the team right itself. On March 1, 1969, after Army defeated Navy, he got the game ball—and a phone call that his father had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. By the time Knight and Krzyzewski got to Chicago, William was dead. A few months later, four hours after Mike was handed his diploma, he and Mickie Marsh were married in the Catholic chapel at West Point.
Mickie and Mike's first date, two years earlier in Chicago, had been a Martha and the Vandellas concert. "I learned from Mike that I was his third choice," Mickie says. "Of course, I was determined never to be his third choice again. But I was fascinated that he would tell me I was his third choice. It made me want to know him that much more. He believed that whatever the consequences were of telling me the truth, they were less painful than lying to me."
Mike hadn't been entirely truthful. Not sure how his military pedigree would go over, he had told her that he attended "a trade school in the north." There were other potential incompatibilities. Mickie, raised a Southern Baptist, had heard that Catholics hid guns and gold in their basements and that the pope intended to take over the world. Mike had grown up believing that anyone not raised Catholic would go straight to hell. Somehow each was perceptive enough to see that they had been raised essentially alike.
Krzyzewski spent three years coaching Army-base teams abroad, then two years in Belvoir, Va., as basketball coach at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School. In 1974 he quit his commission to work for Knight as a graduate assistant at Indiana. That same year Army suffered through a 3-22 season, and in the spring of '75 the head coaching job at West Point opened up. Before members of the selection committee could hold his decision to leave the service against him, Krzyzewski turned it to his advantage. He wanted to be a college coach so much, he told them, that he had left the military to do it. Here was a chance to give back to the academy what he had learned from it—prudent risk-taking, teamwork, leadership. The officers bought his argument, hiring him from among 120 applicants.
Krzyzewski had several good seasons at Army, including NIT appearances in 1977 and '78. But he had just completed a 9-17 season in 1980 when Duke athletic director Tom Butters began looking for someone to replace Bill Foster, who had resigned only two years after he guided the Blue Devils to the NCAA title game. The Durham papers, certain that the new coach would be chosen from among Old Dominion's Paul Webb, Bob Weltlich of Mississippi and Duke assistant Bob Wenzel, declared that his surname would begin with W. It did, Butters kidded reporters before introducing his choice, "Coach Who?" Then he called Krzyzewski "the most brilliant young basketball coach in the country." That was the sentiment of Knight, whom Butters had consulted, and Butters desperately hoped that Knight was right. The next morning's headline in the Duke student newspaper, The Chronicle, read THIS IS NOT A TYPO.
Krzyzewski spent his first few seasons patiently correcting the pronunciation of his surname and making humorous references to his ethnic background. There were few other reasons for him to be light. He stuck with a man-to-man defense, even against more talented ACC teams, and was quick to yank players who made mistakes. Meanwhile, national titles won nearby, at North Carolina in 1982 and N.C. State in '83, cast an unflattering light Duke's way. "[Mike] was thin-skinned," says Keith Drum, who covered the ACC for the Durham Morning Herald. "He could be stubborn, and he wasn't very patient. There's no way what he'd done previously prepared him for the ACC."
The higher stakes of big-time basketball were nowhere more evident than in recruiting, and during Krzyzewski's first season Duke went after Uwe Blab, Chris Mullin, Jim Miller, Bill Wennington and Rodney Williams, only to lose out with each. There was a tragicomic quality to Duke's fecklessness. Krzyzewski gave a speech at Williams's high school awards banquet in Daytona Beach; Williams didn't show up, though, because he had signed with Florida that afternoon. One night Duke assistant Bob Dwyer drove to Princeton, the West Virginia backwater where Miller lived, to deliver a letter of intent to the high school coach for Miller to sign. The coach reached Dwyer in his motel room the next morning. "Sorry," he said, "Jim's decided to go to Virginia."