CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If he wore a red sweater, if he kicked over chairs, if he spoke in a churlish southern accent or shaved his head and screamed “TIME OUT, BABY!” Or if he looked like Rick Pitino or wore suits like Pat Riley or sucked his way up to every TV camera in the building, then maybe, maybe, it wouldn’t be necessary to give Mike Krzyzewski any more credit. He’d be more famous than his accomplishments.
Instead, because he has a clipped nasal voice, a pointy nose, and a tendency to say what is true instead of what is snappy — translation: dull — his accomplishments speak louder than his personna.
So be it. A few years ago, when he came to Detroit to recruit Chris Webber in high school — and everybody in the country was recruiting Chris Webber in high school — Krzyzewski sat in the Webbers’ home and talked basketball. Suddenly, in front of the parents and siblings, he popped up, grabbed Chris, and positioned him as if playing a game. He made a few moves around him, and told Chris how to react, move, slide — things he wasn’t doing in high school. He said this would be what he’d do at Duke. This is how he would become a better player. The Webbers raised their eyebrows. They had seen a lot from coaches, but none had actually run a practice in their living room.
Krzyzewski can’t help it. He coaches. He teaches. He says what he thinks is important.
He also runs the best program in America. Face it, he does. It wins. It graduates athletes. It wins. It plays smart. It wins — six Final Fours in the last seven years — and it makes players bloom. Krzyzewski didn’t get Webber that year, but he already had a friend of Webber’s, Grant Hill, and he got another big man, Cherokee Parks, and today, with Webber gone to the NBA, Hill and Parks are still in college, at Duke, taking the Blue Devils to another Final Four.
Give Coach K some Kredit. Duke’s players stay the course
Start with the keeping-players thing. Cal spent years recruiting star guard Jason Kidd; he left as a sophomore, before ever reaching a Final Four. Michigan spent years recruiting Webber; he left as a sophomore — and Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard might leave as juniors. Imagine what they’d be if they stayed together four years?
Duke’s players do — and not just the average ones. Christian Laettner stayed four years, and he was an NBA lottery pick. Ditto for Bobby Hurley. Grant Hill is a senior, and will be lottery fodder this summer.
What’s the secret? “It has to do with who gives them advice,” Krzyzewski said Friday afternoon. “We’ve been fortunate. We have great parents who have always valued education.”
Of course, it’s no accident that Krzyzewski pursues kids whose parents feel that way — rather than chase every No. 1 blue-chipper in America. He figures a kid who stays four years is more fruitful than a kid who stars for two and bolts.
“One of the reasons we sustain excellence is that our older players teach our younger players. If you don’t have juniors and seniors, who’s teaching them? Me, by myself, is not good enough.”
This is a remarkable observation. So is something Krzyzewski once said about crying in front of his team: “To cry, in the presence of someone you’re fond of, is an incredible compliment to that person.”
Oh, yes. There’s also that graduation thing. Duke might be the only team in America that boasts on the inside cover of its media guide “Two National Championships” alongside “Graduation Rate: 91 percent.” Krzyzewski is this era’s John Wooden
All of which makes Krzyzewski, in my opinion, the John Wooden of the late
’80s and ’90s. Never mind the greater count of Wooden’s championship rings; the competition in the ’60s wasn’t nearly as fierce. You didn’t have players jumping to the NBA. You didn’t have a 64-team tournament. You didn’t have today’s viper pit of recruiting.
For Krzyzewski to reach the Final Four seven times since 1986 is an unmatched achievement. That he has stayed at Duke, not gone Jimmy Johnson on them, and that he continues to sit with the kids on the plane, in coach, not first class, that he does all that charity work, that he cries when his seniors leave — well, this is all tribute to a man who breaks the mold of college basketball coaches.
He is not flawless, of course. He curses too much. He is still stiff and cautious around the media. But for a guy who once played for Bobby Knight and coached in the Army, he is remarkably . . . normal. His ego is in check. Friday, in his news conference before hundreds of reporters, he insisted on seeing where the question was coming from, so he could at least look the questioner in the eye when he answered. This, kids, is called manners.
Maybe it comes from growing up as the son of an elevator operator in Chicago. Maybe it comes from living with a wife and three daughters — man’s world at work, woman’s world at home.
Whatever. Krzyzewski has rolled being human, being smart, being inspirational — and above all, being hard-working — into the best program in the nation. In a year where coaches mostly made headlines by kicking players or threatening each other’s lives, it is nice to see someone whose biggest accomplishment was what he taught his kids. In case we forgot, that’s what coaching is all about.