Feinstein: Don’t Tell Me Coach K Is A Bad Guy

On Tuesday, I was having an argument with Gary Williams. The subject was Mike Krzyzewski.

Williams has at least two things in common with Krzyzewski: they’re both in the basketball Hall of Fame and I consider them both good friends, having known each of them for more than 35 years.

I respect both as great coaches. I respect them more as men. Of course they met frequently through the years when Williams was still coaching at Maryland. Krzyzewski won a lot more often than Williams.

That was one of Williams’ great frustrations as a coach. As good as he was; as good as his teams often were, Krzyzewski’s were frequently better. At times he got caught up in the, ‘Duke gets all the calls syndrome,’ that is a national disease, most virulent here in D.C. where many—most—Maryland fans believe that about six of Krzyzewski’s 1,055 wins are legitimate.

Deep down though, Williams knows how good a coach Krzyzewski is and—more important—how good a man he is. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame, his first choice to give his induction speech was Krzyzewski.

Krzyzewski also has great respect for Williams and would have happily done the induction speech if he hadn’t been overseas coaching the U.S. national team the week of the ceremony.

Our argument Tuesday was about Grayson Allen. Williams was maintaining that Krzyzewski should have announced his suspension immediately after the Elon game two weeks ago when he tripped Elon’s Steven Santa Ana—his third tripping incident in less than a year.

I disagreed. I said I thought Krzyzewski handled it right: not taking the easy way out by giving the media and much of America what it wanted—demanded—that night. Instead, he sent Allen to apologize to Santa Ana and Elon Coach Mike Matheny and then sat down with him to tell him why he was being suspended indefinitely before announcing it the next morning.

There wasn’t any doubt Krzyzewski was going to suspend Allen. But he wanted to talk to him first to explain why he was being suspended; that it wasn’t just about punishing him but about figuring out what the hell was going on in his head when he tripped Santa Ana, knowing full well it would lead to serious trouble. Allen’s reaction on the bench made it pretty clear that this wasn’t a wave your magic wand, say you’re out for two, three, four games—whatever—and then everything’s fixed. He needed some help.

Williams insisted that Krzyzewski should have announced the suspension instantly. I disagreed. We went back and forth until Gary said, “You’re biased, you’re just defending your boy.”

I said, “OF COURSE I’m biased, just like I was biased whenever I defended you.”

You see, everyone’s biased—just for different reasons. I’m biased towards Krzyzewski and Williams—and many other people I know in sports—because I know them to be good people. I don’t root for laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld once said, I root for—and against—people.

Dan Snyder’s team can’t lose enough, not because I’m from New York and (sadly) grew up a Jets fan but because I’ve dealt with him and know that he’s a genuinely bad person. I never liked Andre Agassi when he was a star because he was beyond arrogant and a phony to boot. I liked John McEnroe because there wasn’t a phony bone in his body and, even if he was arrogant at times, he was as honest as the day was long and never—NEVER—ducked a question.

I can go on at great length about all the people I’ve liked and disliked through the years, but I won’t. This is about Krzyzewski. And about the fact that my judgments of him—biased as they are—are based on KNOWING him.

For the record, this has just about nothing to do with where I went to college. I’ve never been enamored of my alma mater. I think the school’s overrated academically (largely because of the basketball team); I’ve thought the last two presidents incompetent and the first of them—Nan Keohane—was a liar who didn’t like it much when I called her a liar. My relationship with Duke these days basically consists of the school asking me for money and me saying no.

Krzyzewski is a different story.

Since the Allen incident and now, in the last few days, since he announced he needs back surgery again, all the anti-K folks have crawled out from under their rocks to start bashing him again.

According to this group, he should have had Allen burned at the stake; suspension wasn’t nearly enough. He’s also encouraged all sorts of dirty play throughout his career—most of it, just by coincidence, by talented white players. Christian Laettner was a dirty player. No, he wasn’t. He was stupid to step on Aminu Timberlake in the classic Duke-Kentucky game in 1992—Timberlake wasn’t hurt in the least—and got a technical foul for it, that he deserved. He could also be a jerk, his teammates called him a—–, but he was a great player—which drove a lot of people crazy. One columnist suggested that Krzyzewski should have suspended Bobby Hurley because he was a whiner.

Really, suspend a player for whining? Half the players in sports would be suspended in perpetuity.

Krzyzewski’s also a bully apparently. This is one I get from my Maryland friends all the time. Usually the conversation goes like this:

“He’s always on the refs, he bullies them.”

Me: “Gary never got on the refs?”

“Well, yeah but….but…Krzyzewski always won.”

THAT’s what made him a bully—winning a lot.

And, of course, there’s that thing with faking back surgeries when his team isn’t playing well. Remember 1995, when he had back surgery and came thisclose to resigning? How close? He went to Duke athletic director Tom Butters’ house and tried to resign. He’d let his team and his school down by coming back too soon from his back surgery that fall and being forced to leave the team mid-season. Butters said to him, “Mike, do you think there’s anyone else I’d want coaching my basketball team next season?”

Butters was a wise man.

Of course there’s also the fact that he got the NCAA to tag Pete Gaudet with that 4-15 record Duke had in his absence that year. Well, not exactly. Duke athletic department people did call the NCAA to ask how to handle the situation. They were told if Krzyzewski returned to coach during the season, all the wins and all the losses should go on his record. If he didn’t, they belonged to Gaudet. This was long BEFORE Gaudet went 4-15. If he’d gone 15-4, the ruling would have been the same.

The situation is the same now: If Jeff Capel goes 0-12 in Krzyzewski’s absence or 12-0 and Krzyzewski comes back in-season, Krzyzewski gets all the credit/blame. Last year’s win over Georgia Tech, when Capel coached because Krzyzewski was sick, was credited to Krzyzewski. If Krzyzewski doesn’t return this season, Capel gets all the wins and losses.

Duke’s 12-2 right now—even though it has been bludgeoned by injuries. It still has plenty of talent; regardless of if/when Allen returns and whether freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden ever play up to the potential they were supposed to have before they got hurt.

Anyone who thinks that Krzyzewski’s ‘faking,’ is an idiot. Are the doctors at Duke going to fake surgery? I can tell you—because, as I said, I know him—that it’s killing him that he has to leave his team for at least four weeks. And my friends who say it jokingly or half-jokingly aren’t much better. If they were having back surgery, I doubt they’d be laughing about it. What’s the definition of minor surgery? Surgery performed on someone other than you.

I will leave with this story, one I’ve told before, but one that isn’t unique because this is who Mike Krzyzewski is.

Eleven years ago, my dad died on Super Bowl Sunday. His funeral was two days later. That night, Duke played at North Carolina. I was so exhausted when I finally got home that I fell asleep trying to watch the game. I woke up with about two minutes left and, naturally, when the game was over (Duke won by four) I was too wired and sad to sleep.

So I sat right here at my computer and tried to get some work done. Shortly after midnight, about 45 minutes after the game had ended, the phone rang. It was Krzyzewski.

“I figured you’d still be up,” he said. “I just wanted you to know that before I stepped into our last huddle there at the end, I looked up at the sky and said, ‘Martin, this one’s for you.’”

My dad’s name was Martin. The one sport he cared about at all was college basketball.

So please, all of you out there who have never met him, don’t tell me what a bad guy Mike Krzyzewski is because he yells at officials and wins a lot of games.

I know better. Which is why I’m biased.

John Feinstein’s latest non-fiction book, ‘The Legends Club,” was on The New York Times best-seller list for six months. He is currently working on a book on the 2016 Ryder Cup titled, “The First Major,” that will be out this fall.

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