The hiatus that built Duke basketball: Coach K’s close call

Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)
Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports) /

Where would Duke basketball be had Mike Krzyzewski not rested in 1995?

All good things must come to an end, but good things take time. If nothing else can sum up Mike Krzyzewski’s storied tenure as Duke basketball head coach, then nothing can.

He’s spent over 40 years building an empire comparable to the National Football League’s New England Patriots, making a household name out of the Blue Devils that will last for generations.

This year, Krzyzewski will finally hang his hat on one of the most illustrious coaching careers in sports history.

But it almost did not happen.

Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s rise and rest

The early years of his career were spent building stepping stones to his and Duke’s success. Krzyzewski began his first three seasons at Duke with a 38-47 record, a streak dissimilar to what the sports world knows and loves him for. He has since only recorded five seasons with 10 or more losses and zero losing records.

Many do not know, though, about the health scare that almost got in the way of what would become five national championships, an all-time career wins title, and multiple other accolades. Mostly due to Krzyzewski’s own silence on the matter, it is forgotten he almost stepped away from coaching for good.

According to Krzyzewski, he severely injured his back in October 1994 but did not take time off to properly heal from surgery; his dedication to the program mattered more. Those around him knew Krzyzewski was struggling, but they knew better than to tell him to step down when he had his mind on the game.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know, when a coach is lying on the bleachers before practice, he’s hurting,” said then-Duke assistant coach Pete Gaudet to the Wall Street Journal.

Krzyzewski paid the price just three months later when his body could no longer take the strain of coaching, forcing him to step away indefinitely from the 11th-ranked Duke basketball team.

He was only 47 at the time and in his prime after winning the program’s first national championships back-to-back just two seasons earlier. According to those closest to him — coaches, players, and administrators — it was almost like all the work that went into building Duke’s program took a toll on his body.

The players were, for the most part, left in the dark.

“He was off the grid for almost the entirety of those 2.5 months,” said then-deputy director of athletics Mike Cragg.

Krzyzewski and his coaching staff did not want them to worry, he said, as they were doing pretty well and heading into a tough wave of conference play.

Still, the players were concerned, which reflected in their plummet from first place to last in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a 13-18 final overall record. “Is he dying?” then-sophomore guard and future assistant coach Jeff Capel wondered.

After nearly three months, Mike Krzyzewski returned healed and enlightened. His time away from the squad taught him what it meant to be a coach, he said, and what he would need to do as a coach to ensure long-term success for his beloved program.

And the rest is history.

Next. Ranking Coach K's first 40 Duke teams. dark

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