Even the greatest coach had to start somewhere. For Mike Krzyzewski, everything began with Bobby Knight. He brought Coach K to West Point as a player, then offered him a graduate assistant gig at Indiana. From there, the rest is Duke basketball history.
Despite that connection, though, the relationship between the men is reportedly on the rocks. According to Ian O’Connor, part of the breakdown stemmed from Coach K’s repeated trips to the Olympics with Team USA.
Coach K turned Team USA around, but Bob Knight reportedly wasn’t pleased
While it seems impossible to imagine a group of NBA players failing to dominate an Olympic basketball tournament, that’s exactly what happened in 2004. The American squad limped to an embarrassing bronze medal, leaving the program in need of a shake-up. That’s when Coach K stepped in.
Using his military background as an advantage, Krzyzewski preached the importance of representing one’s country. He appealed to the game’s top talents, convincing them it was a privilege, rather than a waste of time, to don the red, white, and blue. That approach, combined with his coaching skill and the raw talent of his troops, helped return America to the top of the heap. Team USA claimed the gold medal in 2008. Coach K stayed on and repeated the feat in 2012 and 2016 before stepping aside.
While the on-court results were undeniable, Krzyzewski’s choice apparently rubbed his old mentor the wrong way.
“I had a rock-solid source who spent so many days with Knight and years with Knight,” O’Connor explained on ESPN’s The Woj Podcast. “And that person said, ‘We would go on car rides for four hours, and three and a half of the hours, Knight would be shredding Krzyzewski in the car.’ The Olympic thing was a big thing. He felt, ‘You coach it once, and you hand that thing off.’ It is not a lifetime appointment. And so when K coached again in London in ’12 and in Rio in ’16, Knight thought that was BS.”
Bob Knight also reportedly felt aggrieved by the lack of an Olympic appointment
While O’Connor reported that Knight didn’t appreciate Coach K’s national team longevity, that wasn’t the only source of conflict between the two. The veteran, it seems, also felt like his old protege didn’t properly repay all of his support.
“[Knight] was upset about the fact that, going into ’08, ‘Hey listen, I got you the Army job way back when. I helped you get the Duke job. I hired you at Indiana in the mid-70s as a grad assistant on arguably the greatest team at the time that anyone had ever seen, or certainly right there with John Wooden’s best teams at UCLA. I raised you in this business. I helped you get the Duke job, I also put you on my Pan-Am Games staff, although that ended up being a disaster of a different sort. … I did all this for your career, and I’m asking you for one small, little, part-time job scouting international opponents for the 2008 Beijing Games.'”
According to O’Connor, there were two different versions of what happened next. One source indicated that Krzyzewski said no, while the other said Coach K never returned Knight’s phone call.
Either way, the more senior coach wasn’t too pleased, and, in 2015, their relationship finally crumbled.
That story becomes even more poignant in light of Coach K’s impending retirement
Given Knight and Krzyzewski’s fiery temperaments and their collective will to win, it’s not surprising that the two butted heads over the years. In light of Coach K’s retirement, though, the story does feel slightly different.
The 2021-22 Duke season has been full of tributes. Whenever Coach K enters enemy territory, everything is forgotten for a few moments. He’s applauded, showered with gifts, and rightfully praised as one of the greatest to step onto the sideline. When Duke meets UNC for the final home game of the season, it’s safe to assume ESPN will pull out all the stops with everything from video tributes to special interviews.
While it’s impossible to know who will and will not be featured, it’s probably safe to assume that Knight will be a notable omission.
From afar, it’s tough to feel too bad for Coach K. He’s closing out a legendary career with millions of dollars in his bank account. His name will always be attached to Duke and college basketball as a whole. At the risk of being a bit sentimental, he lived the American dream and carried his Polish parents’ name to sports’ highest heights.
When everything’s said and done, though, his mentor (probably) won’t be anywhere to be seen. That, as much as Coach K might not want to admit it, will sting. And, to make matters worse, it’s a problem that no amount of on-court success can solve.