Photo: (Top) Mike Krzyzewski and Bobby Knight after Coach K broke Knight's career record. (Below) Michigan State's three coaches the past 45 years (l-r): Gus Ganakas, Jud Heathcote and Tom Izzo.
The first time I saw Mike Krzyzewski coaching was 40 years ago, but I was unaware at the time.
Nobody on a fateful Jan. 4, 1975 afternoon at Michigan State's Jenison Fieldhouse was aware remotely how to spell or pronounce his name unless they were an Army basketball fan in the late 1960s. Krzyzewski was an Indiana first-year assistant under Hoosiers head coach Bobby Knight in the 1974-75 basketball season. It's an example of how there is always something new to learn when we look back at history.
He had played for Knight at Army, leading West Point to the 1969 NIT as a senior point guard. After fulfilling his five-year military commitment and his one season on Indiana's bench, he was named Army’s head coach.
He was unkown Mike Krzyzewski when he won his first career game at his alma mater on Nov. 28, 1975 over Lehigh. He was the famed Coach K by the time he won his NCAA career-record 1000th in his 35th year at Duke on Jan. 25, 2015 over St. John’s.
So many wins and events have unfolded in Krzyzewski’s career since he traveled with then-No. 2-ranked Hoosiers to Michigan State, coached by Gus Ganakas. I was a freshman at Michigan State and had arrived early enough to claim mid-court seats across from the team benches. I looked for Knight, already well known for his temper, and his players that formed the nucleus of his first NCAA championship team a year later. I no doubt saw Krzyzewski and dismissed him as "a nobody."
“I didn’t know Mike much that year he was with Knight,” said Ganakas, who still serves as the Spartans’ spry radio analyst at age 88. “But I have followed his career as a fan. I’ve always thought of him as a milder Bobby Knight. He was under more control emotionally, but he was very thorough with everything just like Bobby.”
The Indiana-Michigan State game turned out to be the darkest chapter in the Spartans’ basketball history. Michigan State’s 10 black players walked out on Ganakas, a classy man who deserved better. Ganakas’ improvised varsity lineup was left to three white freshmen, including starting forward Jeff Tropf, and the JV roster.
Here is where I wonder what the future Coach K observed about a basketball team in crisis and how Knight supported a colleague. If I ever had a one-on-one with Coach K, that’s what I’d ask him.
Knight had approached Ganakas a couple hours before the game. He volunteered to have Quinn Buckner, an Indiana black player and Renaissance Man, talk with the Spartans’ black players.
“I recall that very well,” Ganakas said. “When I came to Jenison, Indiana was already there and Bobby knew there was a problem. He volunteered Quinn, and I appreciated it. But at that time I hadn’t decided what to do with my team. The walkout was in the morning (team meeting) at the Kellogg Center. I hadn’t met with them yet when they arrived at the locker room.”
Ganakas and Knight were friends as disciples of the legendary Pete Newell. Ganakas coached down the street at East Lansing High when Newell was at Michigan State (1950-54). Ganakas was later hired as an assistant under John Bennington, previously a Spartans assistant under Newell.
“Bobby was always good to me from the time I met him,” Ganakas said. “I emulated what I learned from Pete and Bobby used Pete’s stuff, too. Underneath Bobby’s roughness, he was very helpful to people.”
Ganakas suspended his players for the Indiana game, a 107-55 mismatch loss. They would be reinstated before the next contest in a 17-9 season.
At the time it appeared to be a black-white issue, but the players later explained grievances over what was perceived as the basketball program’s second-class status to football. Understand that Michigan State’s athletic department was in disarray in the early 1970s under relatively new president, Clifton Wharton, and his administration.
College Football Hall of Fame coach Duffy Daugherty had retired after the 1972 football season, just two years earlier. He had complained about a lack of financial support under Wharton. He felt Michigan State was handcuffed at the bottom of the Big Ten in funding alongside Northwestern at a time when bitter rival Michigan enjoyed a rebirth under a young Bo Schembechler.
If Duffy felt that way about football, where did that leave the basketball program and its perceived second-class status?
For that fateful game I had arrived early for seats at the half-court line that were available on a first-come, first-serve basis. This was pre-Twitter and ESPN and thus before anyone in Jenison understood what happened with the walkout. I had saved a seat on what were benches for my friend Jim Watts, who arrived with his friend Dan Riewald. We were Wonders Hall residents and managed to squeeze in Dan, but he watched the loss in added anguish.
Dan was a member of the JV team, but since school hadn’t resumed for the winter quarter, he was home in Bloomfield Hills and didn’t receive the call soon enough to get back to East Lansing. Dan informed us why none of Michigan State’s black players were on the court warming up. (Riewald, a Bloomfield Hills Lahser alum, later played on the varsity under Jud Heathcote, including with Magic Johnson on the Spartans' 1977-78 Big Ten championship team.)
What I wouldn’t give to freeze-frame that moment to scan back to the Indiana bench to observe Krzyzewski. The recently retired Army captain no doubt studied the scene with his West Point training. What did he learn that day about coaching that would serve him well as the immortal Coach K?
I've seen Knight's good side when he feted Newell at a San Diego Hall of Fame dinner, and it’s indelible. He can win you over if he gives you a chance, but unfortunately he didn’t with many people. Bobby's black Knight side is unpredictable. The honorable West Point Black Knight side of Coach K is among the reasons he is more respected than his mentor.
But what early lesson did Coach K learn from Knight, among many others, that fateful afternoon 40 winters ago at Michigan State?