With a 74–69 win over Michigan State at Madison Square Garden earlier this season, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski passed his mentor and former coach at Army, Bob Knight, for most NCAA career victories (903). Krzyzewski says he is most proud of the fact that coach and player — Knight and himself — together have more than 1,800 victories.
Krzyzewski has been called “the modern-day John Wooden” by Louisville coach Rick Pitino and “a coach’s coach … a guy I think every coach in America looks to and respects,” by Kansas coach Bill Self. He has led the Blue Devils to 11 Final Four appearances and four national titles.
In an interview with Jerry Kavanagh for Athlon Sports, Krzyzewski showed an appreciation for literature in speaking about his coaching style and leadership.
Athlon Sports: The Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote, “The excitement of something coming out right is its own reward.” Is there something of that satisfaction in coaching?
Krzyzewski: Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of that. To see how youngsters develop under your tutelage and how they continue to develop as men. And obviously how a team develops and how a game develops. All that stuff. That’s what makes it interesting.
After the U.S. team you coached in the 2008 Olympics won the gold medal, you wrote “The Gold Standard: Building a World-Class Team.” In that you said, “It’s beautiful to watch the transformation of a player happening before your eyes.”
Absolutely, and it’s not just you helping transform that; it’s the environment. You’re privileged enough … it’s an honor for you to try to develop that environment. It’s not just you as a coach, but the people who are in that environment can help each individual. And that’s what being a successful leader is about: It’s creating that type of an environment.
You quoted the philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” What did you learn from past U.S. Olympic participation that has been most influential?
The very first thing was the familiarity of working with players who are considered some of the best players in the world. So you have a comfort level; you’ve done it before, even if it’s been at an assistant level. And you’ve been on that stage, even though it’s a different stage 16 years later because the world is a lot better. And watching Chuck Daly and how he worked with those players. I tried to bring all those things forward in 2006, ’07, and ’08. It’s different, but still we have some of the best players in the world, and really the most talented team, potentially, in the world, but against teams that are much better right now, who also have some of the best players in the world.
In the book Absinthe and Flamethrowers, the author, William Gurstelle, writes that managers who take the greatest risks are the most successful. Do you agree with that?
I think you have to be careful when you say that. Somebody might think that to be a leader or a manager, “I need to take a lot of risks, or else I’m not good.” I think you can’t be afraid to do what’s necessary. Some people would equate that to taking a risk because it goes against the grain or it’s not something that is normally done. But my feeling is that a leader has to take the course of action that’s necessary to produce a positive result after doing an analysis and preparing himself to take a look at that situation. The world might call that a risk; a leader would call that the appropriate action that needed to be taken. I think when you just take that one statement (by Gurstelle), you can make a mistake by saying, “I didn’t take a risk today. I better take one.” I think you go boldly in the direction that’s necessary and in the direction that you’re prepared to go in.
You often talk about leadership. Napoleon defined a leader as “a dealer in hope.” I read where you said, “Leadership can be lonely.” Can you explain that?
Well, leadership is lonely because you don’t discuss everything. Part of it is that in your moments of doubt or in your moments of being nervous or wondering if this is the right thing that you’re doing, you never want to show weakness to your group. And you don’t share that because it’s not the main feeling you have, but because you’re a human being these feelings hit you. Leadership can be very lonely, but there’s a certain amount of time that you have to be by yourself, it has to be yours as you’re looking into it, before you present something to your group. I think that’s a price that you pay.
Some of the statements you have made have an application beyond basketball. For example, “Fear can change you.” What do you mean by that?
Some people are afraid of fear, so they avoid it. They don’t try to do anything. They’re very cautious. And when you get into new situations, there’s an element of fear that can excite you. It can freeze you or stop you from doing something, because it’s new. It can be exciting, but there’s still some fear involved. And I don’t think that you have to face fear. You know, part of being courageous is facing fear and doing what you’re supposed to do. People have different fears — fear of speaking, fear of heights, a bunch of fears — and when you face those fears, you can turn them into your strengths. That’s how you evolve as a person and how a group evolves as a team.
Have you ever given any thoughts to politics?
Vacation spot: The North Carolina beach.
Books: I love to read books about leadership.
Movies: “Legends of the Fall” and “Braveheart.”
Pet peeves: Lying, and people who show a lack of consideration.
Rituals: Taking a nap on game days and saying a prayer before every game.
Collections: Photographs of family, friends and memorable moments; wine.
Earliest sports memory: Organizing games in the Chicago school yards; taking the bus to Wrigley Field with my best friend, Moe.
Greatest extravagance: Wine collection.
Regrets: Luckily, none.