PHOENIX – Last November, Mike Krzyzewski began his 42nd and final season with the Duke Blue Devils as the winningest coach in NCAA Division I men’s college basketball history.
Now, as the second-seeded Blue Devils (32-6) seek to win their sixth national title with Coach K at the helm, they will face an all familiar foe and one that Duke fans hate the most in the national semifinal — No. 8 seed North Carolina (28-9). It will be the first time the bitter rivals are meeting in the NCAA Tournament. And what a time to do so: playing for a spot in the championship game in Krzyzewski’s last season at Duke.
“In a word, it’s a storybook ending. Regardless of what happens on Saturday or Monday, it’s incredible that he brings his last team to the Final Four,” said former Blue Devils forward Mark Alarie, who played for Krzyzewski from 1982 through ’86. “I’m, frankly, amazed watching them struggle late (in the) season. … I didn’t see this in the cards, but Coach K did it. He figured it out before it was too late.”
Before going to Duke, Alarie was a basketball phenom during his playing days at Brophy College Preparatory. As a senior, he averaged 29.9 points and 17.3 rebounds and was named the Arizona Player of the Year in 1982. The Arizona Republic selected Alarie as part of the All-Century Team in 2000.
Rich Zacher, one of Alarie’s teammates at Brophy, experienced this dominance on the court firsthand during the team’s practices.
“I used to guard him in drills in practice, and he used to throw me around like a rag doll,” Zacher said. “I had to jump on his back, just trying to block his shot and keep him out of there. But he was so powerful. It was unbelievable.”
Although Alarie was a great player and the best on his high school team, he remained humble.
“The best part about playing with Mark, who is still to this day one of my best friends, is just how he got along with everybody on the team. He didn’t act like he was the superstar of the team,” Suns broadcaster and former Brophy teammate Tom Leander said. “He was just such a fun teammate to be around and certainly took the pressure off of all the rest of us in games because he was double and triple teamed.”
Not only were opposing teams starting to notice Alarie’s talent but so were colleges. He received interest from many Division-I schools, including Arizona and Arizona State. Eventually, Alarie narrowed it down to two schools: Stanford and Duke.
“I chose those schools because I didn’t think I was going to play in the NBA,” Alarie said “I wanted to go somewhere to get the best education I could for being a basketball player.”
Shortly after, Stanford coach Dick DiBiaso resigned at the end of the 1981-82 season. Alarie said that helped make his decision to commit to Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils. The Phoenix native joined the likes of a star-studded 1982 Duke recruiting class that included Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas, David Henderson, Bill Jackman and Weldon Williams.
“I didn’t have the kind of profile that a typical Duke recruit nowadays has, but Coach K did convince me that I could play in the NBA,” Alarie said. “I was very intrigued by the idea of playing at Duke for this guy who seemed to believe in me more than anybody else.”
However, Krzyzewski’s name didn’t have the same weight to it in the early ’80s as it does today. His first two years in Durham weren’t promising. From 1980 to 1982, the Blue Devils had a combined record of 27-30 overall and 10-18 in ACC play.
Many agree that the ’82 recruiting class with Alarie, Dawkins and Bilas was the turning point for Krzyzewski, but it didn’t look that way initially. Duke finished the 1982-83 season 11-17 and 3-11 in conference play. In fact, Alarie said the university’s boosters, called the “Iron Dukes,” wanted Coach K fired, and they let him know about it. During games, the “Iron Dukes” would yell at Krzyzewski all the way from the upper concourse level.
“You could hear them catcalling, ‘Krzyzewski, Krzyzewski, you’re through! You’re finished! This is embarrassing!’” Alarie said. “And it’s hard not to hear that stuff as players and wonder, ‘Is he finished?’ or ‘Are we going to get another chance? Are we going to get another year to prove ourselves?’”
In short, they did. Tom Butters, who was Duke’s athletic director from 1977 to ’97, stayed committed to Coach K. Butters never thought about replacing the Blue Devils coach, and Alarie said Butters reiterated that to the players.
As a result, Duke went on to play in the NCAA Tournament in Alarie’s final three seasons in Durham, including a run to the national championship in 1986. After defeating Kansas in the Final Four, the Blue Devils played Louisville in the national title game. Duke would end up losing to the Cardinals, 72-69, but that didn’t take away from what Krzyzewski and his team had accomplished, a 37-3 record along with being the ACC Tournament and regular season champions.
For the Blue Devils program, it was the start of what would become the standard at Duke under Krzyzewski: winning championships and regular appearances in the Final Four.
“I feel fortunate to have been a part of it, and I did contribute, I did help build the program. We all did,” Alarie said. “We helped Coach K feel confident that the type of players he was recruiting and looking for were … guys like us. Maybe not the best players in the country, not the one-and-dones. But guys that he could rely on to be unselfish teammates and commit to defense and hard work. That was a winning formula.”
Alarie ended his Blue Devils career as one of the greats. He ranks seventh in program history with 2,136 career points and scored in double-figures in all four seasons at Duke. Alarie was named All-ACC for three consecutive years (1984-86), including first team honors as a sophomore and senior. During his final season, he also earned All-America and All-Final Four selections. Because of Alarie’s accomplishments, he was inducted into the program’s Hall of Fame in 1999.
His aspirations of playing in the NBA came true when the Denver Nuggets selected Alarie 18th overall in the first round of the !986 Draft, eight spots behind his teammate Dawkins. After one year in Denver, Alarie played his final five seasons with the Washington Bullets.
“(Duke’s ‘82 recruiting class) was an incredibly special group, and I don’t think Mark gets the credit for how he contributed as part of that group,” Leander said. “I think his competitive fire and his leadership was something that helped carry that team to prominence and why Coach Krzyzewski has had such a great career.”
Krzyzewski has been labeled by many as one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time, but how did he become so successful? Well, Alarie believes it came from Krzyzewski’s early days as a player and coach.
Coach K’s college basketball career began at Army West Point, where he played point guard from 1966 to ’69 under coach Bobby Knight. A few years later, Krzyzewski was an assistant coach for Knight at Indiana during the 1974-75 season. The Hoosiers were crowned Big Ten champions, and they ended the year with a 31-1 record and an appearance in the Elite 8.
“Coach K learned basketball from one of the great (coaches) in modern basketball, and that’s invaluable,” Alarie said. “When he came to Duke, he wanted to recreate that Indiana team using very aggressive man-to-man defense (that was) highly competitive (and had) a high level of communication requirement among the players on the court.”
Along with his greatness at the Xs and Os, Coach K was just as prominent off the court.
“He is a great man. He’s someone whose character is entirely admirable. His work ethic, his trust (and) the relationships that he has with all his players are true,” Alarie said. “For the players that commit to him, he fully commits back to them. …I think that’s the cornerstone of the (Duke) program. He gives his everything, but he expects a lot of effort (and for) you to give back and be a part of it all.”
Something else that Krzyzewski has built in Durham is a brotherhood between the players and coaches, past and present. Alarie said part of that comes from Coach K being a family man and how much he cares for his wife and three daughters. Krzyzewski treats his players like they’re his own.
“We’re his boys,” Alarie said. “And so the joke was always he’s got three daughters and usually about 12 sons, a given year. And we interact and communicate as a family.”
In Krzyzewski’s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium against North Carolina earlier this season, 96 of his former players attended to celebrate Coach K’s illustrious career at Duke.
All the Duke alums coming out to Coach K's last home game ? #CoachK
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 5, 2022
The Tar Heels defeated the Blue Devils, 94-81, but Duke has a shot at redemption in New Orleans at the Final Four. Out of all the games in this historic rivalry, Saturday’s matchup is by far the biggest.
“It’s just one for the ages,” Alarie said. “How could you write a script that’s any better?”
With a spot in the national title game at stake in front of millions across the country, one would think that Coach K might be nervous. After all, beating North Carolina en route to his sixth championship would be the perfect ending to his historic coaching career at Duke. However, Alarie thinks that Krzyzewski doesn’t “feel any pressure.”
“I think rather than pressure he feels an incredible sense of gratitude that he has a competitive enough team to win these games that he’s been winning,” Alarie said. “I think he’s just grateful that he has this group that wanted to be a part of his last run, and he’s going to do everything he can to help them win on Saturday.”
Alarie confirmed that he, along with 50 or more of Coach K’s former players, will be in the stands for the game. Regardless of the result, Krzyzewski will remain on the Mount Rushmore of the college basketball coaches to many.
“I think he’s the best of his era. If you’re going to look at coaches from 1980 to 2022, he’s the best,” Alarie said. “Of course, he’s the best ever for me, but I think it’s hard to argue that he’s not the best of his era.”
Duke and its rival North Carolina will be the nightcap of two Final Four games on Saturday. Tip-off is set to begin at 5:49 p.m. MST and will air on TBS. The winner will play either No. 1 Kansas or No. 2 Villanova on Monday in the national championship.