Monday, December 20, 2010

Mike Krzyzewski - Best Coach in the Land

Mike Krzyzewski has been at the helm of the Duke men's basketball program for 30 years now. He has experienced the highest of the highs, but rarely has he seen any valleys. In 30 seasons, there have been three sub .500 finishes, two of which were in 1981-82 and 1982-83, while the other one occurred as Coach K was sidelined for the majority of the 1994-95 season due to back surgery (herniated disc). So, in the past 27 years, the Duke hoops team has qualified for the NCAA Field of 64 on every occasion but one! So, winning isn't foreign to Krzyzewski, but it's how he goes about coaching that is most impressive.

Coach K has been the best coach in the country for how he gets the absolute most out of his players. If you look back on the dynasty that has been Duke basketball, you would think that it would be chuck full of NBA superstars. You would be wrong. In my estimation, the best NBA players to play home games at hallowed Cameron Indoor Stadium are Grant Hill, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, Shane Battier, and Elton Brand. All of them have experienced moderate successes at the professional level. However, they're not superstars, let alone household names. The list of overachieving college players at Duke is much more extensive: Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker, Danny Ferry, Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, Chris Carrawell, Mike Dunleavy, Jr., Chris Duhon, Jason Williams, J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, and Jon Scheyer. One could argue that Coach K doesn't do enough with these talented individuals to prepare them for the next level (NBA). I would contend that Krzyzewski has more than that singular objective in mind when coaching his team.

One is to find the right 'note' for his team. Duke basketball always has an identity. Some years, it is about feisty, tenacious defense - as it was in the late 1990s when Steve Wojciechowski was the heart and soul of the team, pounding the floor to implore his team to intensify their suffocating man-to-man defense. Other years, it has been about precise offensive execution like last year's National Championship team with the trio of sharpshooter and ball-handler Jon Scheyer, playmaker Nolan Smith, and Kyle Singler with his nearly indefensible inside / outside game. Coach K has always been able to establish his team's identity by finding out what pieces fit together to be successful. One might think that Coach K gets the cream of the crop when it comes to recruiting. It's true that he is no slouch on attracting top recruits to Durham, NC, with his school's excellent track record. But, no matter how successful his recruiting efforts are in a given year, Krzyzewski still must still polish the product that goes onto the court.

But, Mike Krzyzewski's ultimate goal is to ensure that these young men are better equipped to graduate into something more important than the NBA - life. They find themselves ready to go forward with their post-college lives after benefiting from Coach K's West Point background. Krzyzewski's college basketball coach was none other than Bobby Knight at Army. From Knight, he learned how to be demanding, yet nurturing. I can distinctly remember a 1993 second round March Madness matchup where upstart California (led by Jason Kidd) upset the overwhelming favorite (and two-time defending champion) Duke Blue Devils. Coach K was absolutely distraught, shedding tears at the postgame press conference...not because the loss bothered him, but because he was so sorry that his senior kids ended their collegiate careers in this manner. He felt as though he had let down his players because they deserved to have accomplished more. It's impressive to have a teacher, coach, or mentor that "has your back" as much as Coach K does.

Ah...the good old days - Mike Krzyzewski alongside coach Bobby Knight

Krzyzewski has thought enough of some of his past players that they are assistants on his coaching staff today, including Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski. Many former players under Coach K have gone on to fine coaching careers themselves like Mike Brey, Jeff Capel, Tommy Amaker, Johnny Dawkins, and Quin Snyder.

Coach K, flanked by assistant Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski, giving a subtle reminder to the guys on the floor

Just look at the team and individual accomplishments since Krzyzewski took charge in 1980:
26 NCAA tournament appearances
19 Sweet Sixteen appearances
12 Elite Eight appearances
11 Final Four appearances
8 NCAA Championship appearances
4 NCAA Championship titles
12 ACC Tournament championships
12 ACC Regular Season championships
9 Naismith College Player of the Year honors
9 Defensive Player of the Year honors
9 Duke jersey numbers retired
805 wins

A very familiar sight to Blue Devil fans - Coach K cutting down the nets in postseason play

Other college programs get more skilled athletes, but Duke continues to crank out results. Mike Krzyzewski has amassed 878 wins (including 73 from his five seasons at Army), which puts him only 24 shy of the all-time mark for wins in men's college basketball set by his mentor and lifelong friend, Bobby Knight. Barring a catastrophe, Coach K will surpass Knight by early next season. Duke is off to a 10-0 start in the young season and ranked #1, but Krzyzewski is reluctant to talk about repeating as champs yet. He is more interested in watching the team build and grow as the season progresses. Coach K has seen it all before, knowing that an overachieving team in December could be irrelevant by March. The perennially tough ACC conference schedule will be a bit softer than usual in 2010-11. However, the upcoming battles against archrival North Carolina always bring out emotion like no other contest in college basketball.

Can you imagine how packed the tent village known as Krzyzewskiville will be with college kids waiting to watch Coach K achieve the all-time wins mark?

Krzyzewski has had many lucrative opportunities to coach in the NBA. I think that he has respectfully declined these for a number of reasons. He enjoys working at Duke University. The college team game befits his coaching expertise better than the professional one-on-one game does. His voice in the huddle could be lost in the NBA due to the inflated egos that are rampant in professional sports. Coach K can still mold and shape college-aged young men, while some professional athletes may think that they know everything.

I get goose bumps even looking at this picture that I took of an empty Cameron Indoor Stadium

I've had the good fortune to be able to step onto the hardwood of an empty Cameron Indoor Stadium. You can feel the electricity of the old-style building, even without the Cameron Crazies, without another soul in the arena. This history has been forged by the epic reign of one of college basketball's masters, Coach Mike Krzyzewski. He may have a difficult last name to spell and an odd-sounding voice, but there certainly is no living coaching comparison to him. Only John Wooden could possibly rank superior to him. But, both men did it the same way - teaching...and caring.

No comments:

Post a Comment