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Game Of Thrones: Coach K Pads His Legacy At MSG

After his postgame press conference on Tuesday night, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski walked down the hall, ducked behind a partition and found himself face-to-face with a visual representation of his success.

Duke’s 74-69 victory over Michigan State was Krzyzewski’s 903rd victory, allowing him to usurp Bob Knight as college basketball’s all-time winningest coach. To celebrate the occasion, dozens of his former players had come together at Madison Square Garden, and Coach K found himself surrounded by a veritable “who’s who” of Duke basketball over the past 30 years.

At the back of the room stood former No. 1 draft pick and two-time All-Star Elton Brand.

“He’s meant everything to my career,” Brand said. “It’s just the person he is. He’s taught me things on and off the court that I still hold dear to myself today.”

To Krzyzewski’s left was Shane Battier, contemplating what he believed was his coach’s most important lesson.

“Consistency. You have to bring it every day,” Battier said. “You have to bring it with effort, passion and enthusiasm. And if you do that, regardless of what happened the day before or the play before, you’re going to be successful.”

Just as Krzyzewski had made a sizable impact on his former players, he said it meant a great deal to him to have Knight in attendance. That being said, he characteristically downplayed the milestone, preferring to focus mainly on improving the Duke team he currently has, which is talented but possesses plenty of rough edges.

But make no mistake, seeing so many of his former players show up to witness his hallmark night visibly moved him.

“I’ve never called [Knight] anything but ‘Coach.’ I can tell you that whenever I see you guys, and when you say the word ‘Coach,’ boom, it goes right here,” Krzyzewski said, pointing to his heart. “Thank you for allowing me to have that type of relationship with you. … I love all of you.”

“He’s got an incredible passion for what he does,” said Krzyzewski’s agent, David Falk. “Nobody who’s great at what they do does it halfway. He’s an extremely intelligent person about understanding human nature, he’s a great motivator, he’s a great leader — and I think people want to play for him.

“So I think he derives as much satisfaction from coming into a room like tonight and having all his former players here to pay their respect, as he does from coaching the game.”

***

If you stand on the roof of the Schwartz-Butters Athletic Center, just above Coach K’s sixth-floor office, you can see just how far his empire extends.

Directly below is Krzyzewskiville, a patch of grass where countless students have spent countless nights camping for Duke-UNC games. Down to the right is Cameron Indoor Stadium, which speaks for itself. And the built-to-order Schwartz-Butters building is tall enough that from its top levels, one can gaze out over most of the campus.

[Related: The Team You Love To Hate: Duke Is Ready To Win Another Title]

Given the kingdom he now presides over, Krzyzewski has come quite a long way. Coach K’s first three Duke teams combined for a 38-47 record, prompting boosters to lobby then-athletic director Tom Butters to oust him. Butters refused, Johnny Dawkins helped Krzyzewski reach his first Final Four three years later, and the rest is history.

But as good as things now are, Krzyzewski subscribes to the Vanilla Sky line of thinking when it comes to his initial growing pains: The sweet is never as sweet without the sour.

“I don’t think I would have done with my teams what we’ve done if I didn’t know what it meant to lose and build, and go through a lot of hard times,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m not complaining, I just think you need to go through that. As a player, too, you need to get knocked back, because then you change [as a result].

“When I look back, I don’t regret those days. I remember them, because I don’t want to lose like that again. I’m more into not losing than winning.”

Back in June, Krzyzewski sat down with football counterpart Joe Paterno to tape a show for ESPN called “Difference Makers.” Just a few months later, Paterno’s well-chronicled fall from grace has been sudden and precipitous, albeit pretty much deservedly so.

Just like with Tiger Woods, the underlying sentiment is that if the legendary coach of Penn State can be taken down, it can happen to literally anyone. Far more than building someone up, the media thrives on the opportunity to tear someone down, TMZ-style — particularly if that person brought it on himself, and had previously been unassailable.

One has to wonder if it affected Krzyzewski to see a fellow coaching legend’s legacy decimated in such a high-profile fashion. Though he’s renowned for running a spotless program, Coach K is not exactly a youngster. He has grandkids to spend time with, and he wearily discussed on Tuesday how he gets “too much attention.”

[Related: What Does Basketball Never Stops Mean To You?]

And yet Krzyzewski never seems to miss a beat. In addition to his four national titles at Duke, he took on the responsibility of restoring the luster to Team USA basketball – and succeeded. He’s adapted his mentality and program to the times, while remaining above the fray reputation-wise. As Knight said to him Tuesday, “Boy, you’ve done pretty good for a kid who couldn’t shoot.”

“I think [the wins record is] a reflection of standing the test of time,” Falk said. “You know, having your own brand –- the Coach K brand –- and winning with integrity. I think at an age where college sports has a certain element of corruption, he’s one with integrity, he’s done it the right way, and it’s a testament to his talent and his character.”

It’s at least conceivable to speculate that after Coach K’s next batch of milestones – 1,000 wins, a 2012 Olympic gold medal, perhaps a fifth national title – he might look to, say, transition into the sort of coach emeritus role Dean Smith took at UNC.

But again, that really amounts only to mere speculation. For now, Krzyzewski will continue to remain a standard-bearer for his tradition while seeking new challenges, essentially a living legend who never got too big for Duke because he watched it grow along with him.

“To have this milestone in Madison Square Garden is truly special. As a player at Army, a coach at Army and then a coach at Duke, I’ve always considered this hallowed ground,” Krzyzewski said. “It just worked out [that way] … how the hell did that happen?

“A bunch of things in my career have just worked out. I’ve been a very fortunate guy. I just hope a few more continue to work out.”

*…hit page 3 for more exclusive Duke photos…*

All photos courtesy of Duke Jon Gardiner, Duke Photography, and Bryan Horowitz.

How impressive is this milestone? What will you remember about Coach K when he’s done?

Follow Bryan on Twitter at @SportsAngle.

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