It felt, Krzyzewski has said, like losing five straight one-point games. "It was our fault," he says now. "It wasn't bad luck or someone cheating against us. We were recruiting too many people. Taking responsibility is the great lesson of West Point. They don't expect you to be perfect, only to be honest with yourself."
The next year, when Krzyzewski signed the breakthrough class of '86—Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, Johnny Dawkins and David Henderson, who would take him to his first Final Four—a number of Foster's holdovers remained on the team, and some of them took to barking in the locker room to indicate their belief that the coach had relegated them to the doghouse. "This guy will never be successful at Duke," one of them said. "He doesn't know how to coach. He doesn't know what he's doing. He's running the program into the ground."
After that loss to Princeton in '81, a friend had put together a plaque with the date and score and a legend reading A POINT OF REFERENCE. It sat on Krzyzewski's desk for the longest time. But most people believe Duke's nadir came at the 1983 ACC tournament. The Blue Devils lost to Virginia by 43 points in the quarterfinals and heard Ralph Sampson complain afterward that they had played dirty. In the Duke hospitality suite, Mickie overheard the boosters grumble about the need to fire the coach. That night she remained in the sanctuary of her hotel room rather than join her husband for dinner. "Here's to forgetting tonight," said Johnny Moore, one of Duke's publicity men, raising a glass that evening.
The lines sharpened even more on Krzyzewski's lapidary face. "Here's to never forgetting tonight," he said.
Dwyer mentioned that there was still time to pursue Tom Sheehey, a high school All-America who was unsigned.
"No," said Krzyzewski. "We're gonna do it with this group."
He would give those young men fatigues and boots and rifles and teach them how to swim. That night's losers would go 37-3 as seniors in 1986. Sheehey would go to Virginia, and Duke wouldn't lose to the Cavaliers again for seven years.
Butters gave Krzyzewski a five-year contract extension in January 1984, after three straight conference losses. It didn't play well with many restless alumni, and angry letters continued to arrive at the AD's office. "I still have the letters," Butters says. "Now I get letters from the same people, wanting to make sure I'm paying him enough."
Duke basketball has come to represent the wishful public-service-announcement version of college athletics. It is the most collegiate of programs, only partly because virtually all players who pass through Durham wind up graduating. Krzyzewski, who frequently lectures on teamwork and motivation to rapt audiences at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, is a 45-year-old Mr. Chips. He has such rapport with the students that he could chew them out for not cheering hard enough after a narrow home win against Maryland on Feb. 20. Duke's recruiting is so efficient that those who study such things liken it to a fraternity rush. And when the team gets around to playing basketball—it's What They Do, after all, even if What They Do often gets lost in the gushy praise for How They Do It—the offense has no rigid roles to hold players back. "If you put a plant in ajar, it will grow to take the shape of the jar," Krzyzewski says. "Let it grow by itself, and it may grow so 20 jars can't hold it."
Nor is it great theater when Krzyzewski coaches. Histrionics like those of many sideline dandies would distract him from the business of seeing what's unfolding inside his players' heads. When Duke visited Boston University in January, the overmatched Terriers did the only thing they could do, which was hammer the Blue Devils inside. Krzyzewski noticed irritation in Laettner's body language. "So, you think you're too good to get fouled?" he asked his star. Laettner shaped up.