David Cloninger

Krzyzewski’s run at Duke fueled by a South Carolina hire

Coach K: Bill Foster was an innovator, outstanding coach

Mike Krzyzewski talks about Bill Foster, who was hired away from Duke by South Carolina after the legendary Frank McGuire stepped down.
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Mike Krzyzewski talks about Bill Foster, who was hired away from Duke by South Carolina after the legendary Frank McGuire stepped down.

Mike Krzyzewski owes his career to South Carolina.

Yes, you read that correctly.

USC wanted to go big when the legendary Frank McGuire stepped down, and it didn’t have to look far. Its former ACC brother Duke was on a successful run, having played in the national championship game two years earlier and winning two ACC tournaments in three years.

The man who rebuilt the Blue Devils, Bill Foster, was the top choice and he accepted the job. Duke had no shortage of suitors for its job, and after nearly letting him get away, athletic director Tom Butters hired Krzyzewski in March 1980.

It was tough sledding those first few years. Butters hired an unknown who had just completed a 9-17 record at Army. After two more 17-loss seasons in Krzyzewski’s early tenure, Butters stunned many by extending his coach’s contract; the result was a national runner-up finish in 1986 and never a look back as Krzyzewski became one of the greatest coaches the game has ever seen.

Foster, according to John Feinstein’s book “Forever’s Team” on Duke’s 1978 national runner-up, was a builder, not a maintainer. It’s not that he was disrespected at Duke, but he may have felt he wasn’t getting as much credit as he deserved and that’s why he was willing to listen when USC called.

Foster rebuilt the Gamecocks but never quite got over the hump. A heart attack during the 1982-83 season and USC’s status as an independent resulted in his only postseason appearance at USC, an NIT. Squabbles within the athletic department and joining the Metro Conference ended Foster’s USC tenure and he finished his career at Northwestern.

Foster, 86, died in January 2016, never having matched the success he built at Duke. Had Foster stayed, Krzyzewski surely would have gotten a chance somewhere – he was a Bob Knight disciple who had interest from Iowa State when he was hired at Duke – but who knows if his career would have had as many highlights had he never reached Durham?

As the two schools that determined his career meet Sunday in the NCAA tournament, Krzyzewski reflected on his predecessor.

“He was not only an outstanding coach. He's really an outstanding guy,” Krzyzewski said. “And some of the things that he did at Duke -- our logo, not this one, but the other one -- I think he's the one who started that. And just a good man.”

And a man that had he never answered his phone that day, perhaps would have denied Krzyzewski’s career.

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