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Winning Isn’t Everything to ‘Coach K’ But It Always Beats the Alternative

In his first game against his former boss, Pitt coach Jeff Capel learned a lot about how far Pitt has come and how far it still has to go and we all learned a little bit more about what makes Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski tick.

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His team was still comfortably ahead with less than 10 minutes remaining, but what had been a 61-39 lead had been trimmed to 61-45 and Mike Krzyzewski had seen enough. Anger that was approaching rage was written all over his face, and likewise betrayed by the way he spun away from the court in disgust.

“Coach K” demanded a timeout.

This was a much different Krzyzewski than the one who had sat quietly just prior to tipoff, alone in an arena that was bursting at the seams, head down and hands clasped, saying a silent prayer before crossing himself.

And it was a different Krzyzewski than the one who engaged the media late Tuesday night after No. 2 Duke’s 79-64 victory over Pitt at the Petersen Events Center.

The postgame “Coach K” was the most revealing of all.

That was the one who was addressing his relationship with first-year Pitt head coach Jeff Capel, a former player at Duke under Krzyzewski and for the last seven seasons Krzyzewski’s right-hand man on the Blue Devils bench.

“Look, Jeff’s part of our family and I’m part of his,” Krzyzewski maintained. “I love him and Kanika and their kids. It was tough before and now it’s tough after because one of us lost, but I’d still rather have him lose. I love him, but I love us a little bit more. I know that’s a selfish kind of love, I guess. Unless you love yourself you can’t love anyone else, let me put it that way.

“But I love the hell out of him.”

Perhaps that, in retrospect, is the real secret to winning over 1,100 games and five national championships, to reaching 12 Final Fours and 34 NCAA Tournaments.

Players such as 6-foot-7, 285-pound monster Zion Williamson help immensely.

But Krzyzewski’s maniacal focus has helped to make him not only the NCAA’s all-time winningest coach, but also one who remains seemingly as driven and determined as ever 39 seasons into his Duke tenure.

The relationship he shares with Capel is real.​

Capel framed going against his mentor and his alma mater as “very weird,” and “surreal, a little bit.

“It’s a coach that means the world to me,” Capel continued. “It’s a man that means the world to me.

“I miss him. I miss the daily interactions and the talks and the constant communication about basketball and life and leadership and all those different things.”​

Capel also insisted none of that mattered once the ball was tipped off.

He probably learned that from “Coach K,” who likewise maintained anything as potentially distracting as emotion wasn’t about to be allowed to interfere with business.

“No, not for me,” Krzyzewski said. “Once the game starts I don’t ever look at the other bench.

“My responsibility is to my guys. There’s no emotion any way except the emotion of winning.

‘I’m good with that. I’m really good with that.”

Perhaps that’s why a guy who played for Bob Knight at Army and came of age in the time of Vince Lombardi remains the gold standard in an era when Jay-Z showing
up for the festivities is considered a big deal.

Perhaps it’s the other coaches who ought to be praying just before a game.

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