Last month, Coach Mike Krzyzewski reached a milestone, becoming the first coach in men’s Division I basketball to reach 1000 victories.
It didn’t start off too well for Coach K. In his first three years at Duke, Coach K’s record was 38-47, with one post-season appearance at the NIT. In his third year, he had recruited a highly-praised incoming group — Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, and David Henderson. But the freshmen and their teammates look a lot of lumps that year, going 3-11 in the ACC. Facing second-seed Virginia (led by Ralph Sampson) in the ACC tournament, the young Blue Devils were blown off the court 109-66.
At an informal post-game dinner, sports information director Johnny Moore raised a glass saying, “Here’s to forgetting tonight.” Krzyzewski told everyone to put down their glasses.
“Here’s to never forgetting tonight,” Krzyzewski admonished.
Many alumni and other big supporters of Duke Athletics were calling for Krzyzewski’s head. They could barely pronounce his name and thought that, despite Bobby Knight’s endorsement, Duke had made the wrong choice back in 1980.
Tom Butters, the AD at the time, stuck with the young coach. He believed in Mike Krzyzewski: his approach, his integrity, his commitment to family, and his unwavering approach to developing young men through teaching on and off the court.
In the fall of 1983, I came to a Duke as a freshman. The core group of Alarie, Bilas, Dawkins, and Henderson were joined by my classmate, Tommy Amaker (now head coach at Harvard). When the team arrived at Cameron Indoor Stadium for practice on October 15, there was no fanfare. Duke was not the well-known (and oft-hated) team it is these days. No, the only thing that greeted this team was the scoreboard which was lit up with the ACC tournament score, 109-66, from back in March.
It was clear to the players that Coach K wasn’t about padding egos. He was and has always been about challenging his players to grow.
Those were fun days to be a Cameron Crazy. But the success did not come overnight. The ACC was extremely competitive, and despite Duke’s improvements, they went 7-7 and 8-6 in the league in ’84 & ’85.
The next year, when Dawkins et al. were seniors, the Blue Devils had a tremendous year, eventually losing in the NCAA finals to Louisville, but posting a 37-3 record.
Over the next nine years, Krzyzewski’s teams made the Final Four seven times (in ’86, ’88, ’89, ’90, ’91, ’92, & ’94) — an impressive achievement.
There has been so much written about Coach K and his successes — on the collegiate and Olympic level — but at this recent milestone of 1000 NCAA wins, I want to add a few thoughts. I have had the pleasure of watching Coach K for 30 years and am convinced that it is his ability to look long-term, and yet be in the moment, that is central to his success.
He is so passionate about teaching and about getting his players to compete all the time. Check out this story from an NCAA game in 2011.
Duke was in the middle of a tight NCAA tournament game against Michigan in the round of 32 in 2011, and Krzyzewski decided he needed to send his team a message.
“We weren’t playing well in the second half,” said Todd Zafirovski… “I think he might have been even telling someone, ‘you need to dive on the court.’
“All of the sudden, you see Coach dive on the floor in the middle of a huddle. We’re all crowding around him, he jumps off of his chair and just dives on the floor. Everyone just kind of looked at each other. It’s like, if he’s going to do that, we have to be able to go out there and do that, too.
“He’ll do whatever it takes even at—what is he now, 67 years old? He’ll do whatever it takes.”
And while Duke basketball might have a “system” (man-to-man defense, motion offense with spacing, etc.), it is Coach K’s ability to adjust that has helped him achieve 1000 wins. As an example, Duke played zone defense against Louisville last month, beating them on the road. Coach K doesn’t really “like” to play zone. But he knew something needed be changed, after his team was getting beaten by teams with quicker guards. “Before you’re ever critical, constructively, of your team, I think you have to say, ‘Am I putting my team in the best position to be successful offensively and defensively?’ ” Krzyzewski said. “And I’m constantly working on that.”
This work ethic combined with the ability to adjust and adapt is central to Krzyzewski’s success. It allows him to keep the long-view in mind, but to be fully present for each and every practice and game. And this full presence gives him the opportunity to do what he loves most — connect with his players and motivate them. Coach K gets the final word on this:
I believe that my work is as much about words as it is about basketball. Choosing the right words is no less important to the outcome of a game than choosing the right players and strategies for the court. As a coach, leader and teacher, my primary task is motivation. How do I get a group motivated, not only to be their individual best but also to become better as a team? I have always said that two are better than one, but only if two can act as one (WSJ, 2011).