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Mike Krzyzewski

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

A Hall Of Fame Coach … And Much, Much More

By Bill Brill
USBWA Hall Of Fame

July 26, 2004 DURHAM — Every year, in late spring, I ask for an audience with Mike Krzyzewski. While we obviously talk about basketball, we almost never talk about his Duke team. And every year I learn something I didn't know before. I have been writing sports for more than 50 years. Like a successful college coach, I have specialized, especially at the end of my career. I still read box scores in professional football, basketball and baseball, and I'm an avid golf fan, where I tend to follow just a few players with great interest. But my passion was, and remains, with college athletics in general and the ACC in particular.

I am interested in what is really happening in basketball, my favorite sport, and there is no better person from whom to constantly learn than Coach K.

This year, we talked for nearly two hours and never once discussed his next team. We approached that topic only when discussing the issues that had taken freshman forward Luol Deng to the NBA and sent high school point guard whiz Shaun Livingston into the pro ranks although his grandfather, father and coach all wanted him to play for Duke.

Krzyzewski is an intriguing personality, and, among other things, he is much more than a coach.

You can debate — as people will for a long time — about the greatest coaches in history. John Wooden of UCLA won 10 national championships in 12 seasons, a record that ranks along with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak as one that never will be broken. UNC's Dean Smith, whose teams won 20 games almost every year, finished third or better seemingly forever in the tough ACC and holds the all-time win record of 879. Then there's Bob Knight, a marvelous coach with three NCAA titles but also a man whose short fuse and unbending beliefs will color how history eventually will regard him. And don't forget the elders, Adolph Rupp, Henry Iba and Phog Allen.

Where to place Coach K on that list should not be determined until he retires at Duke, whenever that is. He is now 57, ready to begin his 25th year with the Blue Devils, after recently mulling an incredible offer from the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers. As he said the day he announced he was remaining in Durham, "I plan on coaching for a long time."

Krzyzewski will begin this season with 694 victories, 185 behind Smith. He is likely to surpass the Dean of Chapel Hill during the 2010-11 season, although Knight — now at Texas Tech — could become No. 1 on the victory list before then.

“ My daughter Debbie was at our house Saturday night, and every six seconds there was something on me. I finally told her, ‘I'm sick of watching me.' Imagine how other people feel.”

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski
… In Other Words: Coach K

But Coach K is far more than about wins and losses. In fact, it is my conclusion that he already has done more off the court even now than any college basketball coach who ever lived, and that legend will only continue to grow. This is no disrespect to those who preceded him, but merely an acknowledgement of the variety of issues he continues to embrace.

For example, Krzyzewski began the Duke basketball Legacy Fund (in 2000), which is aimed at raising money to fully endow not only the scholarships for the program, but also the coaching salaries as well. At the time it began, he said, "When I step down, I want to leave this program in good shape." In that regard, the meaning was

Legacy Fund members give $1 million each, which provides them with special access into the Duke team. It is a renewable program and thus far has raised $27 million. There also is an athletics venture capital co-investment fund that was begun in 2003.

Krzyzewski and his wife Mickie have endowed a basketball scholarship in the name of Mike's brother Bill, a retired Chicago fireman, with a $1 million gift.

The number of non-basketball contributions he has made at Duke and in Durham is astounding. Among them are the Coach Michael Krzyzewski Human Performance Laboratory (The K Lab, founded in 1996) at Duke Sports Medicine; the Fuqua (business school)/Coach K Center on leadership and ethics, where he is an executive-in-residence (since 2003); and the Coach K/Fuqua conference on leadership (2002), which brings national leaders to the campus for seminars.

He also has been involved for years with Duke Children's Hospital, including as chair of the Miracle Network Telethon, the Duke Children's Classic, and as national board chair to raise money for a new hospital. In addition, there is the planned Emily Krzyzewski Family Life Center, named for the coach's mother; it is being built in conjunction with his church in Durham.

Add in the Jim Valvano-inspired V Foundation, on which Krzyzewski has been a board member since its inception, plus chairing a fund-raiser with a wine celebration in the Napa Valley, and you have a man with more than a full plate.

Krzyzewski has a lifetime contract at Duke, including a position as special assistant to the president whenever he elects to retire from coaching.

From my perspective, one reason I treasure talking with him is that I invariably hear something so logical that I wonder why I didn't already know it, or that others would have said the same thing. Only they hadn't.

At the time of his media conference in late June to discuss next season (he already was talking with the Lakers, but you never would have known it), Coach K brought up the issue of unpopular rules that applied to men's basketball. The sport is the cash cow of the NCAA and provides the vast majority of revenue for the organization, through the multi-billion March Madness contract with CBS.

In referring to numerous rules that had been passed without any significant input from the coaches themselves, Krzyzewski said, "It began in the early '90s, when coaches began to make more money. There was distrust from the presidents, away from the norm. They took access away from the guys (coaches) and created windows of opportunity for people (NBA, agents, agent runners) who had no restrictions."

I still can recall a day at the annual NCAA Convention in San Antonio, Jan. 14, 1993, when Krzyzewski spoke for his sport, which had seen its scholarship total reduced from 15 to 13. (Women's basketball remained at 15.) Annually, because of the date of the convention, football had been able to bring in speakers such as Penn State's Joe Paterno and had great success in persuading the presidents to change their minds.

Coach K, representing the National Association of Basketball Coaches, arrived in San Antonio having played a game at Wake Forest the previous night, taking a bus back to Durham, and then flying all night in a private plane to Texas.

It was immediately apparent that the presidents had no interest in listening to the millionaire coach from an elite private school. He was all but booed off the floor, and his requests had no supporters. Later, he said: "I was the wrong person to make the appeal. The presidents didn't want to hear from me. I feel more demoralized now than when we lost to Georgia Tech. At least there, we had a chance."

Flash forward to an NABC meeting of nearly 200 coaches in Indianapolis on July 7, two days after Coach K had turned down the Lakers. Buoyed by support from NCAA president Myles Brand, who has thrown out an olive branch to the basketball coaches, Krzyzewski again was at the forefront.

The coaches' group proposed some radical legislation, including five-year eligibility for their sport that would include a year of eligibility lost for transfers. There also is an evolving plan to create more access for college coaches to recruits, and to their own players when they are on campus.

When the coaches sought support for their modified proposal for NABC president Pat Kennedy of Towson State, Krzyzewski's hand raised first. He suggested that the NABC members second the motion together, in an unprecedented display of solidarity. There was applause within the room and unanimous support from the coaches.

"We as a coaching group trust this president about as much as you can trust anyone," Krzyzewski said of Brand, the man whose initial claim to prominence came when he fired Coach K's mentor, Knight, while Brand was the president at Indiana.

As far as Coach K's decision to remain at Duke, Brand said, "He has made a statement that the college game is strong, it's important and he's proud to be a part of it. That carries a lot of weight."

For a guy whose second and third teams at Duke (1982 and 1983) were so bad that some Blue Devil fans were extremely unhappy with the young coach, Krzyzewski has come a long, long way, to the pinnacle of his profession.

Beginning with his first great team, in 1986 — Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and David Henderson were seniors — Krzyzewski's Duke squads have dominated a sport that, with more than 325 Division I members, has constantly growing parity.

Some of the numbers are mind-boggling:

Since that 1986 team, which set an all-time record of 37 victories and reached the NCAA final (losing to Louisville), Duke has been ranked No. 1 in all games 23 percent of the time. Even more astounding, since 1997, the Blue Devils have been No. 1 in the polls for 28.6 percent of their games. To place that in perspective, in that same period Krzyzewski has coached more games (163) in which Duke was No. 1 than games in which the Blue Devils were unranked.

From 1999 through 2002, a record four consecutive years, Duke finished the season rated No. 1 in both polls. Even during the UCLA dynasty, the Bruins were never No. 1 for more than three consecutive years, and there is far more competition today.

Including his three national championships — one fewer than Rupp, tied with Knight — Krzyzewski has taken his teams to 10 Final Fours since 1986. That is more than any other conference except the SEC, which also has 10 in that period. The Blue Devils have won eight ACC titles, including a record five straight from 1999-2003, and 10 ACC regular-season championships under Coach K.

For such success, Krzyzewski has been a nine-time national coach of the year. He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. He is the only Duke person to be inducted into that group. He was named NABC Coach of the Decade for the 1990s, and in 2002 he was honored as the best coach in America — in all sports, professional or amateur — by CNN/Time Magazine.

The father of three daughters and a grandfather to the four children of Debbie and Peter Savarino, Krzyzewski also is a devoted family man who recently celebrated his 35th wedding anniversary with Mickie.

I thought I knew a lot about big-time basketball when I was approached by Mickie in May 1992 to write a book about Duke's back-to-back national championships, the first time that had occurred since UCLA's run of seven straight was ended by N.C. State in 1974. How wrong I was.

I researched the book out of what had been Bilas' chair when he served as an assistant coach. This was in the summer, when (I presumed) things were supposed to be conducted at a slower pace.

But day after day, people arrived at Cameron Indoor Stadium and walked down the hall to the basketball office, expecting to stick their heads inside and talk to Coach K. Once, a bus full of people from Florida, none with a Duke connection, arrived. They had driven all that way to seek out Krzyzewski and to look at Cameron, by then a national institution as a building.

That was a dozen years ago. Multiply the interest many times and you might have some idea of what occurs in the place that K didn't build but did help become a national treasure.

Last season, every Duke game was on television. All but three were on network (ABC, CBS, Fox, ESPN) TV, more than any other basketball team, including the Lakers.

Meanwhile, Krzyzewski's offices now are on the sixth floor of the Schwartz-Butters building, which opened in 2000. Unless you have the correct thumb fingerprint, the elevator stops at the fifth floor. Coach K is significantly more isolated from the public than he was previously, when fans occasionally would open a closed door to his office.

Duke now plays on Coach K Court (dedicated in 2000). More than $10 million in renovations have been made to 64-year-old Cameron, and there will be significant additions to the displays within the arena as the school celebrates its 100th season this year. The next addition is likely to be a basketball training facility. A feasibility study already has begun, and athletic officials had been waiting for the arrival of the school's new president, Richard Brodhead.

Brodhead, arriving from Yale to replace the retiring Nan Keohane, was caught in the tempest that surrounded the effort by Los Angeles to hire Krzyzewski. In fact, it was July 1, his first day on the job, that the news of the Lakers' offer was made public by athletic director Joe Alleva, who called Krzyzewski, "Duke's greatest ambassador."

Four days later, when it was announced that Coach K was staying, Brodhead said, "I'm enormously delighted he's not leaving. It's a great moment for Duke and college athletics. His virtues of character embody things this school represents. He has the highest level of integrity and dignity, and he teaches serious things about leadership. He is a teacher as much as a coach."

Bill Brill is a 1952 graduate of Duke who has written two books on Blue Devils basketball, one in coordination with Mike Krzyzewski. Brill is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, Duke Sports and Virginia (Commonwealth Of) halls of fame. A Durham resident, he writes regularly for the ACC Sports Journal and other publications.