Mike Krzyzewski has a mental image of the way he used to coach, even the way he used to live, not so very long ago. He's at the wheel of his car, driving around, music blaring and the windows down. Innocent, a little heedless, virtually part of his players' generation, Krzyzewski used a youthful leadership style to guide his Duke basketball teams to NCAA titles twice in the early '90s.
Now, he says, the windows are up. He has no need for the world to hear his chosen station. He listens but does so alone, or with his wife, Mickie, riding shotgun and his daughters and grandsons in the back. "In some respects I would like to win the national championship anonymously, where it's only [the players and coaches], and the press isn't there," he said on the eve of Monday's NCAA final in the Metrodome in Minneapolis. "That's kind of where I am right now, and it's a better place."
Anonymity will not be Krzyzewski's companion, alas. After the Blue Devils' 82-72 defeat of Arizona, the record must reflect that he has won three championships, tying him with his college coach, Bob Knight, late of Indiana, and leaving him only one behind Kentucky's Adolph Rupp. He has won more Final Four games (10) than anyone but UCLA's John Wooden. Such a record will accrue to a coach who takes teams to nine Final Fours in 16 seasons, as Krzyzewski has done. Wooden didn't win the first of his 10 national titles until he was 53; Coach K already has three, and—gracious sakes alive!—he's only 54. "It was really special for us to separate Coach from the pack," said Duke forward Shane Battier after he had been named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. "A bunch of coaches have won two. Getting three makes you a legend."
The Blue Devils won their title with defense so stout that in January, Arizona coach Lute Olson screened a tape of a Duke game as a lesson for his own players. The Devils won with an offense that deployed so many passers and drivers and shooters that even a defense as good as Duke's would have found guarding them all a task.
More than anything, however, they won with Battier, their senior co-captain. From the time Arizona forward Richard Jefferson sank a three-pointer to pull the Wildcats to within 71-68 with fewer than five minutes remaining, hardly a play unspooled without Battier's affixing his brand to it. He put back one rebound with a dunk, then tipped in another like a conjurer, with the back of his hand. He slammed home a feed from guard Jason Williams, then returned the favor by setting a screen to spring Williams loose for a three-point shot—"the shot that sealed it for us," Krzyzewski said.
As the game's final seconds counted down and Olson signaled his players not to foul, Williams and guard Chris Duhon began to celebrate on the court. Krzyzewski and his assistants embraced just off it. Battier simply crouched by himself on the wing, his eyes closed, a religion major perhaps offering a prayer. "He's the Player of the Year, Defender of the Year, Academic of the Year, Man of the Year," Jefferson said on Sunday. "He's All-Everything. Some people rank Shane Battier right below Jesus Christ."
Battier's coach had gone through a lot since 1992, when the Blue Devils won their last NCAA championship, also in the Metrodome. Krzyzewski had buried his friend Jim Valvano, the former North Carolina State coach, in 1993 and his mother, Emily, three years later. In '94-95 the Duke coach had to leave his post after 12 games because of debilitating back pain and exhaustion. Sitting out the remainder of that season, he doubted that he had the drive to rebuild a team that went 4-15 in his absence. "He was thinking, Do I have cancer?" says Mickie Krzyzewski. "Am I going to go like Jimmy did? He'd sit and watch the team fall apart, thinking he should be there, that this was all his fault. He got so depleted that he didn't know if he could spark another fire."
He did, of course, guiding a surpassingly talented team to the 1999 championship game. But after Connecticut upset the Blue Devils in that game, three underclassmen bolted for the NBA and a fourth transferred. Suddenly Krzyzewski appeared to be the steward of just another common paraprofessional program.
Then, late in 1999, the coach who has always prided himself on making a family of his team had a life-changing addition to his own family. His eldest daughter, Debbie, and her husband, Peter Savarino, gave Krzyzewski his first grandchild, and this season Joey, now 16 months, has been a regular at practice. When he toddles onto the floor, all activity stops until Poppy K can coo and cajole him back to the sideline. Last Thursday, three days after Debbie had delivered her second child and named him Michael after his granddad, Krzyzewski appeared at an NCAA function in Minneapolis, where he learned that Arizona coach Lute Olson has 14 grandchildren. "We have a new motto in our household," said Krzyzewski, who now has to pull out a pair of reading glasses to peruse a postgame stat sheet. "Catch Lute!"
Upon seeing him at tournament time, his brother, Bill, a Roykoesque fireman from Chicago, usually tells him, "You look like s—-." On Thursday, however, when they met at the team's hotel, Bill said, "You know, Mike, you look good.' " Balancing family with basketball, Krzyzewski has found an equipoise that kept him fresh enough to reinvent his team following a 91-80 loss to Maryland at home on Feb. 27 in which center Carlos Boozer suffered a stress fracture in his right foot. The injury appeared to have ended Boozer's season and reduced an essentially six-man team to five. It had been Senior Night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and as a cake to celebrate what would have been Battier's 122nd victory sat uneaten in a corner of the locker room, every player but Battier, ever the stoic, hung his head. A few shed tears.