No one quite knew what to expect when an unknown guy from Army with an unpronounceable and unspellable last name arrived at Duke University in 1980 to helm an historically successful college basketball program. Forty-plus years, 1,100 wins (the most in NCAA Division I history), 5 NCAA championships, 12 trips to the Final Four, and 3 Gold Medals as coach of the U.S. Olympic team later, success may seem as if preordained but, of course, it wasn’t.
Mike Krzyzewski, or Coach K as he came to be called, had doubters from the start. For one thing, the Blue Devils program was already nationally known and respected; the Duke community of students, alumni, faculty and fans had come to expect Adonis-like athletes and mighty victories over storied opponents, especially the hated Tarheels of UNC. The athletes in his first class of recruits looked like hardworking everymen, not future NBA stars. When, at the end of Coach K’s first year, the team failed to make the NIT tournament, much less the more desirable NCAA tournament, there were serious calls for his ouster.
It may have been his West Point training or something more inherent in his personality but he started an all-out charm offensive on the Duke campus. I arrived there in 1981 and Coach K was seemingly everywhere. At charity tennis tournaments. At fraternity and sorority dinners. Shaking hands in the student union. Walking the quads. Like, everywhere.
Over time, Coach K revealed his coaching personality and philosophy as well. Brainy. Team ball, not one-0n-one showmanship. Dedication to the long haul. Hard work. Personal and team discipline. Commitment to academic as well as athletic performance. The team was clearly rebuilding and it was clearly going somewhere positive.
With the benefit of hindsight, of course, we know where this story is headed…
…year after year (40+ of them) of enviable success.
…a program generally considered “clean” by the standards of college basketball – which is to say generally free from financial, academic, criminal and sexual scandals.
…former players who find future success in basketball, sure, but also in business, medicine, law, academics, coaching, broadcasting, whatever, and universally express their gratitude for his mentorship.
…a coach who has earned the respect of his peers, who can offer candid and insightful perspectives on the nexus of sport and academics, and who holds an appointment in his university’s business school, not as a vanity-serving courtesy but because of his engaging books and lectures on leadership and organizational behavior.
The legacy of Coach K and the program he’s built are undeniable sources of pride for the Duke community and, perhaps, sources of envy for others. He deserves appreciation and thanks on the occasion of the announcement of his retirement at the end of next basketball season.
In any decent and civilized society, Mike Krzyzewski would continue to be a source of emulation by coaches and educators for many years to come. Here in the U.S., we can only hope.