I was a Division 1 coach for 18 years and won 200 games, and winning 1,000 games at the highest level of college basketball is an accomplishment that can only be summed up as unthinkable, unimaginable and something coaches, including myself, can only dream of.
I have always felt that the best coaches are the ones who can both connect with their players individually and collectively. Also, the best coaches are the ones who can get their players to transfer the most things from the practice floor and the film room to the games. I have seen some genius teachers who could not translate that knowledge to their guys. As the great Hubie Brown once said, “a team’s ability to execute under pressure is directly proportional to their coach.”
Never having played or worked under Coach K at Duke, I can only base my opinion on having the good fortune of competing against him. And like all coaches who want to be successful, you watch, study and try to learn from someone whose teams demonstrated all of these traits and much more.
I have spent over 25 years in the game being around, studying, learning from and coaching against some of the very best coaches in the game. If we were talking NBA, I’d bring up Gregg Popovich and if it’s the NFL maybe Bill Belichick Patriots. But for college basketball, there has never been anyone better than Coach K. And that includes John Wooden.
I also know there are more qualified people than me to make the argument on who belongs at the top of the Mt. Rushmore of college hoops coaches. In this country we keep score. We count rings and championships. So for Coach K to have four national titles, and counting, and to put him ahead of the late great John Wooden (with his unapproachable 10 titles) might seem like blasphemy to some.
But with a team that’s like the Yankees, where every game they play is the other team’s Super Bowl, it’s tough to stay on top in this era and have a team of good character guys. That’s tough to do and stay away from scandals, especially with the current climate of social media and the one-and-done landscape, where everything is under a national microscope.
To build a winning culture like Krzyzewski has at Duke to endure and adjust to his players as he’s gotten older and they have gotten younger, in addition to being the coach of the U.S. senior national team and winning gold medals with the best players in the world, it is beyond admirable.
This to me is what sets him apart from any former legendary college coach who has ever come along. He hasn’t just won, he’s done it with integrity and class for over three decades and has served as the ultimate role model for countless players, coaches and fans.
I’m going to share some personal stories, anecdotes and experiences that may only mean something to me but I’m hoping to at least give an outside unique perspective from a lifetime of memories from an underdog coach about a colleague who can only be called the best of the best. Someone who represents everything that college sports should be about, and the gold standard for any coach in any sport to follow .
Memory No. 1. It was my very first game as a brand new Division 1 assistant coach, having just been hired by Pete Gillen at Xavier University in Cincinnati. We were standing on the sideline in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and it’s everything everyone says it is.
While we were watching a young guy in the warmups by the name of Grant Hill and sweating through our suits because of the heat in the arena, we realized the game hadn’t even started yet. My mind was thinking, wow, what a way to start my college coaching career playing at Duke when just then I heard a deafening roar from the student body. It was rocking so loud I thought the roof was coming off. I turned I saw an unmistakable figure in a blue suit come out of the tunnel next to our bench, and it was him.
Coach K stopped, made eye contact and abruptly grabbed my hand and said “good luck Bobby” as he went down the line and knew the first name of every guy on our staff. It was one of those things as a coach you don’t forget. After the game, I remember grabbing then Mike Brey, now Notre Dame’s coach and then a member of the Duke staff, and asking him if Coach K had a manager or someone give him the names of the coaches or referees before he walks out on the floor. Coach Brey said absolutely not, it’s just him. He is adamant about every detail.
Memory No. 2. I was now the top assistant for Gillen at Providence College in the Big East and had recruited most of the guys on this team, which would go on to the Elite 8. To get there, we had the unenviable task of facing Coach K and his Duke team in a sold out Charlotte Coliseum in the Sweet 16.
As we came away with a stunning win upsetting Duke, which was a very high seed as always, one our players, Jamel Thomas of Lincoln HS in Brooklyn, said to me as we were walking off the floor: “Coach, do you think it would be okay if you bring me in to meet Coach K? I’ve watched him on TV every week since I was a kid and I’d like to get his autograph.”
After I got over the shock of the question I said Jamel, you just had 23 points in the game and we just beat Duke in the state of North Carolina, I’m not sure if that’s such a good idea. Just then we ran smack into Coach K, who had come into our locker room to say we deserved to win the game that day. When I told him about Jamel he was awesome to the kid, mentioning it in his press conference. To this day I’ve have never seen a coach more gracious in defeat or handle things with such class.
Memory No 3. The next time our paths crossed, I was with Coach Gillen in a hotel at the annual ACC meetings as members of the University of Virginia staff. As every coach went out to golf, I learned something interesting that day about Coach K.
I ran into him in the workout room. He said, don’t you golf and I said very insecurely, “No, Coach, I have always been a little nervous about spending that kind of time away from the phone and recruiting, but I have heard that as a coach I’m supposed to learn how to golf.” Coach K said well it looks like we are the only two coaches in the entire ACC who don’t golf because I don’t golf either.
He was then kind enough to spend some time with me allowing me to pick his brain about everything from man-to-man defense to the awesome job his teams have always done with their incredible spacing. I walked away having become a better coach because of the valuable time I was able to spend with Coach K talking hoops, and I have never felt bad again in my lifetime about not being a golfer.
Memory No. 4. Later that same year, we were matched up against Coach K and Duke in the ACC Tournament in the Greensboro Coliseum. Before the game, I heard a story about Coach K losing to coach Terry Holland and UVA early in his career by a ton of points and he vowed never to forget. They played like he never forgot.
This was the Duke team that went on to get upset in the national championship game by UConn, yet it was one of the most dominant college teams I’d ever seen. They had all similarly-sized, athletic guys that were able to switch off screens, led by Elton Brand and Shane Battier. I remember joking after the game that we should have been given points if we could get a shot off and actually hit the rim.
Within days of the game and putting my finishing touches on the top recruiting class in the nation, which included future NBA player Roger Mason, I got the call every assistant coach hopes for. I was asked to come back to NYC and take over the program as the new head coach of the Manhattan College Jaspers.
As I walked in the office for my first day on the job, there were many congratulatory phone calls, but one in particular stood out because I had never received one like it before. It was a Western Union telegram and it read, “Congrats on your new appointment, I’m sure you will have the Jaspers in the big dance in no time. P.S., I’m glad your out of the ACC. Sincerely, Coach K.”
Again, all I can say is wow. Talk about a brilliant, masterful job of staying on top of all things and running a program the right way.
Memory No. 5. Coach K was right. It only took us four years to get the Jaspers in the Big Dance. As we became that year’s Cinderella after knocking off 5th seeded Florida in the first round, it was also special because we were representing NYC.
When I stepped outside our locker room in the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina minutes after coming within an eyelash of beating a Wake Forest team led by Chris Paul in the second round, I was surrounded by more media than I had ever seen in my life. I was emotionally drained and holding court, as they say, and the door to the next room over opened and, shockingly, Coach K walked out all by himself.
As he stood there by himself and I embarrassingly stood surrounded by media, everyone stopped in dead silence. Without missing a beat, Coach K quipped “don’t mind me, I’m just the guy with Bobby Gonzalez.” It was just one of those moments in time that will stay with me for a lifetime.
As everyone broke out in laughter, I watched him walk up the tunnel and go out and beat a Seton Hall team I would end up coaching a few short years later.
Memory No. 6. I was now the Head Coach of Seton Hall in the Big East and we had recruited Kyrie Irving, who grew up down the block from our school since the 8th grade. To do something different in his home visit, I brought a basketball and a personal key to our gym because I knew what a gym rat he was.
The very next night, Coach K came in for his home visit with his national championship rings, and his Olympic gold medal and to this day I’m still trying to figure out how we lost the kid to Duke.
My Latest Memories- I had the opportunity to follow Coach K this past summer with the USA team for SheridanHoops. First stop was Las Vegas for the training camp. No one was surprised with the poise Coach K handled the horrific injury to Pacers superstar Paul George.
They went on to win the gold medal by the highest victory margin since the first Dream Team and Coach K has them currently on a 64-game win streak.
My suggestion is everyone should take a good look, because we’re watching a living legend and we are not likely to see the likes of a Coach K again.
I felt very passionate and compelled to write this column and share my personal insights not because Coach K was kind enough to endorse me and make calls on my behalf with some NBA coaches and front office personnel currently trying to help me get a second chance in the game, which blows me away. But anyone who knows him knows that’s just his way. He has never gotten too big to help other coaches in or out of the game.
When I saw him for the first time in a few years this past summer, he made me feel like I fit right in, not like a coach who has made some mistakes or has baggage. He just has a special presence that very few people I have met in my lifetime have.
The number one reason I wanted to write this column was because of my great love for the game and my absolute respect for Coach K as a competitor and leader of young men.
I will leave you with one final vintage Coach K memory. You might have noticed another legend celebrating Coach K’s achievement after the game — Howard Garfinkel of the famous Five Star Camp. Garfinkel not only helped me start my coaching career, he has helped too many coaches to name through the years.
Now that Garf is in his late 80’s, most people have forgotten how much Garf has helped the game of basketball. But during the summer, Coach K made the Team USA bus with all the NBA players stop and drive Garf from the Garden to his house on 55th Street this past summer, coming from the USA-Puerto Rico game at Madison Square Garden.
I said to Garf, no wonder you’re loyal to Coach K. Garf replied “Gonzo, there’s simply no one like him.”
Amen Garf, and thanks for the memories, Coach K.
Bobby Gonzalez, a former Division I head coach at Manhattan and Seton Hall, is a regular contributing columnist for SheridanHoops.
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