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They are coaching legends.

Kings of college basketball.

Want to know what it’s like to make the Final Four? This is where you turn. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has made it to 12. North Carolina’s Roy Williams had made it to eight. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Louisville’s Rick Pitino each have made seven.

With this season’s Final Four set for Glendale, azcentral sports talked with each coach about their experiences in college basketball’s greatest showcase. How it changed their careers. What they learned along the way.

Does the magic ever wear off?

These four would would know.

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What do you remember most about your first Final Four?

Izzo: “It was in Tampa, Fla., and I didn’t know any rules of the Final Four. They give you a hotel and you can change it if you want, but I just went with the one they gave us and we were about an hour and 20 minutes from our practice facility. I was still doing tickets in the hotel the night before the game. I was such a rookie, I had no clue what I was doing. It wasn’t something we had done a lot here at Michigan State, but I will say it was the one where I learned the most. We played Duke. It was a pretty good game and it was one of the highlights of my life. When you grow up in basketball, your dream is to get to the Final Four and I felt like on that day I got a chance to live my dream. I guess the first one is like your first kiss, you always remember that.”

Krzyzewski: “When you go to your first Final Four, it’s like you’ve gone to the Promised Land. For every coach in college, it’s a dream that you would be there on that Saturday afternoon when four (regional) champions play under one roof with a chance to advance to the national championship game.  It’s kind of like a rite of passage and you’re so darned excited because you join a very select group of players, teams and coaches who have been able to cross that bridge.”

Pitino: “I was at Providence, and it was such a shock. Providence College, since the Big East formed, was in dead last for seven straight years, so it was the first time they had made the tournament in like 15 years. I remember being in New Orleans. Unfortunately, we had to play Syracuse. They beat us two other times that year, but we had a tremendous time with it. The experience was overpowering.”

Williams: “Like anything in life, the first time you break 80 on the golf course, the first time you ride a bike, the first time you do anything, you remember it. I was at Kansas at the time and we had a great run. We played really well during the season but we were playing our best basketball by far at the end of the year. We go down to Louisville and play New Orleans the first night and Pittsburgh the second night and play really well. Then we go to Charlotte. I was three years from being Coach (Dean) Smith’s assistant at North Carolina, so I still had a lot of family and friends there. We played great against Indiana the first night and get off to a great start and then pull away in the regional final against Arkansas. I remember the celebration on the court and the guys cutting down the nets and I thought, ‘Gosh, this is the neatest thing.’  Cutting down the nets was really important to me because it was just sort of symbolic, but the greatest feeling I had was someway, somehow my 13-year-old son got down on the court and came running over to me and said, ‘Dad, I know I’m going to have to miss school, but you got to let me go to the Final Four.’ And seeing the look on Scott’s face and what he said to me that night on the court was for me the coolest thing.”

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How did that first time change your career?

Izzo: “I don’t think it did anything to make me want to get back to another one, but to the outside people, going to the Final Four or winning a national championship kind of validates you. For me, it didn’t because I had bigger fish to fry and bigger dreams to achieve.”

Pitino: “Although I traveled a different path, I became the head coach of the Knicks because of that. I was an assistant coach of the Knicks before going to Providence, so you combine that pro experience with a Final Four, now you become the head coach of the team you rooted for as a kid because of the exposure you got from it.”

Williams: “It didn’t change me, I don’t think. I didn’t work any harder. I didn’t work any less, for sure. The one thing I always joked about is – because we went in ’91 and again in ’93, and going two years in a short time period, it’s amazing how many more people notice you in the airports. People just coming over to say hello. That was a drastic difference.”

Once you’ve been to the Final Four, is there more pressure to return?

Izzo: “The first one we were a long shot to even get there. The second one we were probably one of four or five favorites to make the Final Four. It made it more difficult in some ways, but it was easier from the standpoint of when we got there, I did a much better job with the tickets and hotels, I can promise you that. I got that stuff out of the way right away. I made sure I didn’t make the same mistakes. But I’d say it’s harder to get there the first time because once you’ve been there, you have a blueprint for what it takes. That next year, when we were going to the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight, I felt like a better tournament coach. I could explain it to my kids. What made it harder is the first time you were the surprise team. The second you were the expected.”

Krzyzewski: “I don’t think it puts any pressure on you to return. It’s more that you know what it takes to get there and are you willing to pay the price? When you’ve gone once, you have a greater chance of going again because it’s more than just basketball. It’s being able to navigate those first four games in the tournament without rationalizing along the way what you’ve accomplished up to that point.”

Pitino: “After coaching the Knicks, I went to Kentucky. And I knew what to expect with Kentucky. It was explained to me. Sweet Sixteens are a bad season there.”

Williams: “That’s hard to answer because I don’t ever think of those kinds of things until they happen. I may tell our team that I think we’ve got a chance to win it all, but my goal every year is to be one of those teams that has a chance to get there.”

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Does the magic ever wear off?

Izzo: “Never. Every one of them has been so unique. The third year we lost a couple key guys to the NBA and we still were able to get back. The next one in ’05, we had a good team – not a great team – and that was the year we beat Duke and Kentucky in the regional and that was unbelievable. The ’09 team, we played in Indianapolis against Louisville, the tournament favorite, and if we win, we go to the Final Four in our home state. How many times does that happen? And the adrenaline and emotion, I wish you could’ve been in the locker room before the game. The day of the (regional final), the walk-through we had at our hotel, I’ve never been through something like that. That’s when the state of Michigan was having all the automotive problems and people were leaving and it was like we were the shining light in the state, like we were playing for the entire state. … Every one’s been different, but everyone’s been magical.”

Krzyzewski: “I’d like to see if it wears off by doing it again. It certainly hasn’t in the 12 that we’ve been there. And I think it’s because you’re there with youngsters, and for many of them, for most teams, it’s the first time they’ve been there. It’s one of the great things about being a college coach. You’re dealing with 18- to 23-year old men who are doing it for the first time and you get  the chance to be on their bus and share in their emotion.”

Pitino: “Actually, it’s even better because you enjoy it so much more. My first couple times, you’re so nervous you really don’t enjoy it as much. Once you’re there a few times, you take it in a lot more.”

Williams: “You know, one thing I do remember in ’91 is that North Carolina is who we played in the semifinals. And I remember they had this Final Four salute, an event they’ve always had, and Coach Smith was there with North Carolina and I was there with Kansas and we were getting some cookies, and he walked over and said, ‘Man, it’s hard to get back here, isn’t it?’ Because I had been an assistant with him in ’82 so it had been nine years for North Carolina. For me, I’ve been to quite a few now, and the best thing I can tell you – my mom was the greatest influence on me – but Coach Smith and then my high school coach were extremely important to me. I have a line that I really like to tell people because I’m very proud of it: My teams have taken me to eight Final Fours, but I’ve been able to take my high school coach with me to eight Final Fours and that’s really important to me.”

From all your experiences, what’s the main ingredient required to getting there?

Izzo: “You need incredible leadership. The reason I say that is because of all the distractions, especially now with Twitter and all the noise out there. There are so many distractions so if you don’t have incredible leadership in that locker room or in that hotel room or on the bus when you’re going there, it’s going to be difficult.”

Krzyzewski: “It’s not about coaching – well, it’s somewhat about coaching – but you need good players who want to play as one. And they have to be healthy. So many good teams have been denied a chance to go to the Final Four because of an injury late in the season or during the tournament. Players, health and togetherness.”

Pitino: “Obviously, teams get hot and you need great guard play, but if you’re not a great defensive team, you’re not going to get there. There’s always going to be that one game in the tournament where you have an off offensive night and you got to be the better defensive team to get you through that one game.”

Williams: “Really talented players is big, no question. But getting them to buy into what your’e telling them to do is the most important thing. And I also agree with Rick. I tell my team all the time, ‘Guys, I’ve never seen a team in the Final Four that wasn’t good defensively.’ I think last year Villanova was as good a defensive team as I saw all year long. But I haven’t ever seen a team in the Final Four that couldn’t really guard you.”


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Contact Doug Haller at 602-444-4949 or at [email protected]. Follow him at Twitter.com/DougHaller.


*Mike Krzyzewski, Duke, 12

John Wooden, UCLA, 12

Dean Smith, North Carolina, 11

*Roy Williams, North Carolina, 8

*Tom Izzo, Michigan State, 7

*Rick Pitino, Louisville, 7