In 1990, Mike Krzyzewski was considering an offer from the Boston Celtics, and the Duke freshman who had just emerged as the overwhelmed face of the most humiliating defeat in NCAA championship history needed to weigh in. Bobby Hurley called to remind Coach K he had pledged to stay with him a lot longer than one year.
Krzyzewski reminded Hurley that broken promises at Duke seemed to be roadkill on a two-way street.
"You said you were going to be a heck of a player here, too," Krzyzewski shot back.
Now the head coach of the University at Buffalo, Hurley recalls telling Krzyzewski he would return the next year with a renewed commitment to ensure what went down in Duke's 103-73 loss to UNLV in the title game would never be repeated. Krzyzewski had punished his point guard in that historic blowout by leaving him out there in the final seconds while Jerry Tarkanian's starters celebrated near their bench.
Hurley was playing through an illness, and he finished with no baskets, two points and five turnovers. "I remember Coach being as angry as I've ever seen him in the locker room afterward," Hurley recalled. "He said, 'This is never going to happen again to this program.'"
What happened against Vegas wasn't going to stay against Vegas. Krzyzewski rejected the Celtics and used that night in Denver as the start of Duke basketball as the world now knows it. In fact, as much as people recall the victory over Kentucky in the 1992 regional final as Krzyzewski's signature moment and Grant Hill's pass and Christian Laettner's buzzer-beating jumper as Duke's signature play, the 1991 rematch with UNLV in the national semifinal was Coach K's biggest career triumph, and Hurley's late 3-pointer in that upset was Duke's all-time biggest shot.
Krzyzewski went into the books Sunday as the first major-college men's coach to reach 1,000 victories with Duke's 77-68 win over St. John's at Madison Square Garden, where he had beaten Michigan State in 2011 to pass his old coach at West Point, Bob Knight, as the winningest Division I coach ever. The dramatic Coach K-to-1K march inspired all sorts of this-is-your-life flashbacks for the Hall of Famer, who has won four national titles at Duke and two Olympic gold medals as head coach of Team USA, but Krzyzewski really became Krzyzewski between those two UNLV games in '90 and '91.
Fans too easily forget where Krzyzewski stood when he fielded that offer from the Celtics and that phone call from Hurley. He was college basketball's answer to Marv Levy (before Levy started losing Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills): a wildly successful coach who couldn't win the big one. Krzyzewski was 37-2 in 1986 before falling to Louisville in the final. He lost in the Sweet 16 the following year and was eliminated from the national semis the two seasons after that; his good friend, Seton Hall's P.J. Carlesimo, dusted him at the 1989 Final Four.
Then came UNLV in Denver. Tarkanian had a powerhouse team in Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt, and Hurley and Laettner couldn't keep up. "I felt like I let him down," Hurley said. "We all felt that way."
Krzyzewski would bring in the most talented recruit he'd signed, Hill, and Hurley and Laettner would negotiate enough of a truce -- they could hardly stand each other -- to give Duke a shot at sweet revenge in the '91 Final Four in Indianapolis. UNLV was 34-0 and riding a 45-game win streak. The Runnin' Rebels had beaten Seton Hall in the regional final, and after that game was over and the UNLV-Duke rematch was set, Krzyzewski called Carlesimo and asked a simple question:
Are they beatable?
"And I told Mike yes, I thought they were," Carlesimo recalled. "Mike's team was a very different team than the one he had in Denver."
Hurley was among the biggest differences. The son of America's most accomplished high school coach, Bob Hurley Sr., Bobby Hurley grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, wanting to play for Dean Smith at North Carolina. Smith decided to recruit another point guard, Kenny Anderson, who would end up at Georgia Tech, and Hurley settled for the best available ACC alternative.
"Bobby went to a school where the coach once wanted to be Bobby as a player," his father would say.
Krzyzewski gave Hurley the freedom at point guard that Knight didn't give him at West Point and allowed him to make decisions on the fly offensively, as long as he played with passion on defense. Coach and player knew they had so much to prove entering that second game with UNLV. Hurley had experienced recurring nightmares of sharks circling him in water and came to believe the embarrassing loss to Tarkanian, known as Tark the Shark, inspired them. The point guard used his inner rage as a source of motivation.
Coach K? He used mind games. "He told us he was going to tell the media how invincible UNLV was," Hurley said, "and that we shouldn't listen to any of that. He said, 'We're going to beat them.' He brought emotion to it and was able to regenerate a lot of the anger I had about the outcome of the first game, but he also showed us technical things that would help us against them. Coach had that look in his eye and an unbelievable determination going into that Final Four. Anything less than cutting down the nets was unacceptable."
On his team's flight to Indianapolis, Tarkanian told a reporter sitting near him that he knew his Rebels couldn't replicate the '90 final and he was worried he didn't have a man to cover Laettner. Those fears were realized the night of March 30, when the Duke center finished with 28 points and seven rebounds.
But the game turned with the ball in Hurley's hands. After the opposing point guard, Anthony, had fouled out, UNLV's George Ackles scored on a tip-in in the closing minutes to hand the Rebels a five-point lead. Duke had given it the ol' college try, yet seemed poised to accept a moral victory in hanging with one of the greatest teams the sport had seen.
UNLV switched to a zone defense to protect its lead and cover for the absence of Anthony, a bulldog defender. Before Krzyzewski could even signal a play, the player he always wanted to be, Hurley, picked up his dribble from behind the 3-point line and fired away.
The swish made it a two-point game with 2:14 left, and suddenly it felt like UNLV was the team playing from behind. Soon enough, the Blue Devils were holding the two-point lead on the scoreboard, Hunt was throwing up an unanswered prayer for UNLV and Hurley was coming up with the rebound as the horn sounded.
The point guard threw himself into Hill's arms as Krzyzewski motioned with his hands for his players to temper their joy -- there was one game left to play.
"I disregarded that," Hurley said. "It's the only time I didn't listen to him. I needed to release that excitement after the failure of the year before."
Hurley pumped his fists and jumped on a teammate's back as the Blue Devils headed for the tunnel. On their walk to the interview room, Hurley heard Krzyzewski let down his guard at last.
"Do you believe we just did this?" he asked his point guard. "They were really freakin' good, weren't they?"
"It was a really cool moment for me and Coach to have," Hurley said.
It didn't last long. The following day, Krzyzewski noticed some of his players wearing what Hurley called "funny hats, cowboy hats," not to mention the body language of contentment. The coach jumped them. Krzyzewski knew fans had been partying in and around the team hotel the night before, and just about everyone -- including longtime Duke loyalists -- was shocked the Blue Devils had actually sent UNLV home.
But deep down, Coach K also knew his team was ready to win it all. "The Kansas game," Hurley said of the final, "just felt so much easier for me to play."
Hurley was good for 12 points and nine assists in the 72-65 victory. The following season, after surviving the epic Kentucky game, Duke beat Michigan's Fab Five for a second consecutive national title.
Krzyzewski would go 3-0 against the Fab Five over two years. After beating UNLV, Hurley would say, Duke couldn't be intimidated by Michigan or anyone else. Krzyzewski had imposed his will on his team and made his program fearless.
"He reminds me of Pat Riley," Carlesimo said, "in that Mike's always been great at getting guys ready to play. His forte is motivation, the psychological side of coaching."
That was never more evident than in 1990 and '91, when the guy who couldn't win the big one decided enough was enough. Mike Krzyzewski made his players believe in the barely believable, and that's why he's the only major college coach on the planet busy preparing for victory No. 1,001.