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updated: 3/17/2013 9:00 PM

Northwestern again looking for sign of hope

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  • Coach Mike Krzyzewski's success story at Duke is something Northwestern can only hope to come close to as their search for a new basketball coach begins.

    Coach Mike Krzyzewski's success story at Duke is something Northwestern can only hope to come close to as their search for a new basketball coach begins.
    Associated Press


As Northwestern's basketball program looks toward the future, let's ride a time capsule into the past.

In 1978, NU searched for a head coach who could guide the Wildcats into the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

Sound familiar?

Back then there was a 31-year-old coach to the east who had taken his program from an 11-14 record to 20-8 and 19-9 during his first three seasons at the school. He had played for and been an assistant to one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time.

The guy's name was -- and still is -- Mike Krzyzewski.

Northwestern didn't hire Coach K back then, perhaps because he wasn't the fabled Coach K yet. NU instead gave the job to Rich Falk, a popular choice considering he had been an outstanding player for the Wildcats.

Krzyzewski remained the coach at the United States Military Academy for two more seasons before Duke hired him in 1980. During the past 33 years, the Blue Devils made 29 NCAA Tournament appearances, won 79 tourney games and captured four national championships.

Compared to Northwestern's none, none and none since forever.

So while the present is stuck between the past and the future, a couple of questions beg for answers.

First: Could Mike Krzyzewski have done in Evanston what he did in Durham?

(A. Likely not.)

Second: Is there a next Coach K out there waiting for the chance to turn Northwestern into the next Duke?

(A. NU can only hope.)

First things first.

Northwestern and Duke are similar institutions, especially each being academically prestigious. Each school has a smallish enrollment and a home basketball gym with a smallish seating capacity.

So what if Northwestern had hired Krzyzewski, a Chicago native? Would NU still be a punch-drunk punch line in college basketball? Or would it be one of the most respected programs in all of sports?

The answers seem obvious: Not even Krzyzewski could have had similar success with the Wildcats that he had with the Blue Devils. Duke already had a tradition of basketball success and has liberalized admission qualifications to accommodate big-time basketball recruits.

Unknown is whether somebody as forceful as Mike Krzyzewski -- with a background in the military and as a protégé of the unyielding Bobby Knight -- could have persuaded Northwestern to loosen its academic standards for basketball players.

Counting Falk, Northwestern has hired five head coaches since 1978 and now is taking another mulligan. It would be foolish to assert that anybody -- Krzyzewski, Knight or even John Wooden -- would have turned the Wildcats into a national power.

But it isn't impossible to imagine that Coach K could have made NU respectable.

OK, now, riding the time machine back to the 21st century, there's the matter of whether there's another thirty-something Mike Krzyzewski out there capable of conquering the challenge that is Northwestern basketball … not to mention whether he would be bold enough to accept the challenge.

A gaggle of former and current Krzyzewski assistants are out there, foremost among them Chris Collins.

Like Krzyzewski, he's from around here. He not only had Coach K as a mentor, his father is Doug Collins. And he would come with little baggage.

Asking anybody to be Mike Krzyzewski is unrealistic, of course. Perhaps expecting anybody to turn around the Wildcats' basketball fortunes is, too.

However, Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips can't stop believing that anything is possible in sports.

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