My profile of Mike Krzyzewski, called The Art of Winning, was released as a Kindle Single earlier this month. Today he was named Sports Illustrated’s 2011 Co-Sportsperson of the Year with Tennessee’s Pat Summitt. Here’s a lightly edited and condensed transcript of a recent conversation with Coach K.
One early morning in October, I flew down to North Carolina and drove to the campus of Duke University to interview Mike Krzyzewski, who emerged from an elevator a few minutes past 11 a.m. and quickly grabbed a can of Diet Coke. He was wearing mud-stained Nikes, gray track pants, and a black polo with the words “Duke Basketball” stitched over the heart when he walked into his palatial office and sat down in an upholstered seat among the commemorative folding chairs, more basketballs than he would need for a shooting drill, and framed newspapers, jerseys, and photographs, including a shot of the 2008 Olympics team with the words “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.” On the side of his messy desk was a potted plant.
I had a half-hour blocked off on Krzyzewski’s schedule, and I knew that not even a conversation about the meaning of life itself would delay his 11:30 a.m. meeting with his coaches. And yet we still found ourselves talking about baseball, not basketball, for five good minutes. The news on that overcast, sometimes drizzly day was that the Chicago Cubs had reached a deal with Theo Epstein, who would leave his job as general manager of the Boston Red Sox for the same position with Krzyzewski’s favorite baseball team. My recorder started about a minute after he did.
When I got sick in 94-95, we were 13-18 and 18-13 the next year. We had gone to seven Final Fours in nine years. Everyone here said, “Just take your time.” Well, then, it’s paid off. We’ve even gotten better. Those are the types of things — like, I don’t think you tear out a lot of infrastructure. It’s not like putting someone in for a show, like a Broadway show. Teams take time to develop. To me, their pitching staff was decimated. If they have everybody the same? I don’t know. You have to do a lot of strange things when you don’t have pitching.
And they lost by, you know, an inch.
I think it’s such a knee-jerk reaction. But the Cubs haven’t had any knee-jerk reactions. They’ve had their knees and feet in cement for a long time.
Did you watch the Bartman documentary a few weeks ago?
I heard about it. We were at USA Basketball meetings in Vegas over the weekend, and a couple of guys were talking about it. It’s a sad thing. I was at the game.
Sitting first row, right-field bleachers.
Better than first row, third-base bleachers.
Forty thousand people were yelling “asshole!” and the game was going on. We committed an error at shortstop. I mean, we had the lead! And I’m telling my buddies — I’m with all my buddies from the fantasy camp, my Jewish buddies from the North Side — and said call timeout, go out and see the pitcher. We’re still winning! But that’s the way Cubs fans are. There’s gotta be an excuse.
People said they felt the atmosphere in the stadium change when it happened.
It did. I don’t think the atmosphere changed. The focus changed. Like, everybody was yelling “asshole!” here, and the game was going on here, and we’re playing to get into the World Series. Like, you’ve got to be kidding! It’d be like a fight in the stands during a basketball game, we have a 10-point lead, and, oh, we’re losing. Then you have an excuse to lose the next game. Those are the types of things that can happen if you let them happen. So, anyway.
The one thing that surprised me in reading old stories and watching old interviews: Words With Friends and Angry Birds?
I’m trying to bridge the gap between ancient history and historic past, enough to show that I’m still willing to look at new things.
I was going to ask about that. The last five years in college sports, or college basketball, have they forced you to evolve more than any other period?
I don’t think it’s forced me to evolve. I think being with USA Basketball has helped me evolve. USA Basketball for the last six years has been an incredible highlight for my life — the timing of it, not just the accomplishment. Winning the gold medal and world championships: Those are trophies, those are whatever. But to me, the best thing is how much I’ve learned at a time in my career when, really, where do you learn?
Right. When do coaches peak?
I don’t think coaches should ever peak. I think you should keep growing. But the environment that you’re in, that’s why people sometimes change jobs. They change environments. If you’re in the same place for a long period of time, you have to do something to change your environment. You have to be creative. And USA Basketball has helped me learn.
Physically, there are things that would stop you from doing things. But intellectually, you should never peak, just like a CEO of a company should never peak. You have to keep adjusting. And USA Basketball has helped me immensely.
Jerry Colangelo was telling me that after the Greece game — well, you wrote in the book that it was the worst lost of your career?
The worst loss of my career. Because you’re coaching for your country. And you can lose at anytime. There’s a risk and reward. It’s a big risk, but the reward has been great. It’s been the best thing at this time that could have happened for me. And it has increased my shelf life.
Are you still coaching and winning at Duke if you’re not the USA coach?
I don’t know. I don’t know. Because it could get stale. I don’t know that. I know that I’ll coach here longer as a result of it.
In one of your old books, you wrote about a plane trip with Jim Valvano before he passed. He told you then that he was going to give up coaching. That was 20 years ago now. Why are you still coaching? And why basketball?
I just love basketball. I’m good at it, I feel it, I think it every day. I want to be creative in it. It’s never boring — you have new guys and new situations — and I still love seeing a kid cross the bridge of finding out who he was and now finding out who he has to be, or who he will be. Every player has to cross that bridge. Some don’t. Some do it reluctantly. But some just sprint across it. Nolan Smith did it his sophomore year. Singler did it — he was already on the bridge when we recruited him. Even Battier had to cross the bridge. I love that process. In the pros, it’s not about that. You should have already crossed it.
What’s the bridge for you?
I think you keep crossing it. It’s a continuing journey.
I’m excited about this week because we get started. We have a short team meeting today and then two one-hour sessions Thursday and Friday, and then we’re off and running.
The Friday event, Countdown to Craziness: You had gotten away from that model for a couple years.
Well, it’s a different model. You try new things. We did something Midnight Madness and all — the Midnight Madness is not what I wanted. It just didn’t seem right anymore. I didn’t want to do a night where you’re just doing skits, so they came up with an idea that kind of had a combination.
I’m not a big — people won’t believe this — I don’t want to be the center of attention. I don’t need that. I’ve got a lot of attention. So in anything that you do like that, I don’t want to parachute in. I don’t want to bungee-jump in. I don’t want to be dropped off by a spaceship or drive in with a car. I don’t want to do that. I’m not going to do that. But I want my players to have fun, and I want the students to have fun. How I participate, we’ll figure it out.
Not to be too morose, but you wrote in another book that Duke president Richard Brodhead told you once that you “outlive your darkest day.” Is there one that comes to mind?
There are dark days. I think you use those as reference points in wanting not to revisit them. The darkest day for me as a coach was my third year when we lost to Virginia. The darkest day for me health-wise was when they admitted me to a hospital. I didn’t feel anything. I mean, I didn’t know — I didn’t know what was happening.
You told your staff you were resigning?
That comes from the military. In other words, your troops need a leader. I carried that too far, and Tom Butters told me that. I’m glad I was surrounded by people that would see beyond the current darkness. Sometimes a person can’t see light, and the people around him say, “This is going to be OK.” I’m usually the guy who’s saying that, but when it happened to me, personally, my immediate thing was to think that it was over, or should be over. I’m glad other people had better judgment.
The last few years, even that reference point of taking the USA job — has that been about leaving some kind of legacy?
I think your legacy takes care of itself. I think you have to get consumed in the moment. That’s what I’ve been. I’m trying to make the most of the time I have left in coaching and not look back with any regrets. It’s not about a certain number or number of games won or titles, because eventually, somebody will go beyond whatever you’ve done.
You’ve said that if Knight were still coaching —
Or Dean were still coaching. But they’re not.
So then all of a sudden that’s going to be a big thing. And it is a big thing! You’ll — I’ll — be the first one to do that. I won’t be the last one, but I’ll be the first one. The coolest thing is Knight and I — Coach and I — being the first two. The odds of a coach and one of his players to be the first two to reach 900 is ridiculous.
The legacy? There will be a sports legacy, obviously, but we’ve tried to do more than that. I’ll continue to do more than that with philanthropy, Emily K, fighting cancer, education, helping veterans. That makes it mean more. And I appreciate Duke a lot to get involved in those things.
You’ve talked about your loyalty to Duke a lot.
I love Duke. There’s not anybody here who love Duke more than me. That doesn’t mean I love it the most. But when we’re in a room of the people who love Duke the best, I’m in that room.
A lot of people don’t like Duke.
Well, then they should get the hell out of here. You mean people who are here?
No, not people who are here.
Oh, OK. I thought people who are here. That’s OK.
That doesn’t affect you?
If you’re in the spotlight and you’ve won for a while, people are not going to like that. But as passionately, or as much as people do not like, I think the people who love us passionately love Duke. And I love that. I love the fact that we have such a brand that anytime we’re mentioned, there’s an opinion.
As a result, you develop your own brand. But overall, you’re trying to help Duke’s brand: Duke University, not just Duke Basketball, and your own. That’s been an amazing thing for me: to see how that’s grown, the branding of our university, of our program, my own. The influence you can have, really, it’s far-reaching.
I’ll give you one of thousands of examples. It just happened. There’s a young coach in his early 40s who just passed away in Indiana. I had met him a while back, and he was a big fan. In the middle of September, his great aunt contacted me and said, “Could you write a letter?” So I called him. We had a great talk for about 20 minutes. He was in hospice. He was so happy, and after talking with him and while talking with him, he made me feel better: I don’t know if I made him feel as good as he made me feel. He just passed Oct. 7. I was away for 10 days and just got a bunch of stuff, and the great aunt said, “Thank you.” I can give you over the years thousands of examples of that. That’s the platform I like, where somebody thinks that you can make their day better when they’re in complete darkness. That’s an important thing. That’s a really important thing. That’s one of the things I love most about the success that we’ve had. Because it’s priceless.
(Photo via Duke Blue Planet)