'Coach K,' The Powerhouse Behind Duke Basketball

March Madness is here. Sunday, the NCAA will announce which college basketball teams will make it to the big dance for this year's tournament. One team always in the mix is Duke. The Blue Devils are led by a remarkable coach, Mike Krzyzewski, who's in his 30th year of coaching at Duke. Under his guidance, the team has won three national championships and made 10 trips to the Final Four. Last summer at the Beijing Olympics, Krzyzewski led the U.S. men's basketball team to gold. He's come a long way from his childhood in Chicago's inner city.

On a weekday night at Duke University's basketball stadium, the almost 10,000-seat stadium is a sea of royal blue and white. Photographers and TV cameramen line up along the court. The commentators, including ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy, mention Duke's impressive record under Krzyzewski.

"Last year, I think they won 28, 29 games — and it was a down year," Gundy chats. "To me that says it all. This guy has set such a level of excellence, that if they don't go to the Final Four, it's considered a down year."

With a record like that, it's not surprising how Duke fans feel about Krzyzewski. Ian Lee and Cassie Averbach are sophomores.

"We, like, worship him, basically," they say. "When he walks around, people bow to him. There's a joke that his office is the second tallest building on campus — second to the chapel, because he's, like, a godly figure. We love him."

But that wasn't always the case. When Coach K — as he's known — first came to Duke at 33, many Blue Devils supporters were skeptical. He was overshadowed by his biggest rival just down the road, University of North Carolina coach, Dean Smith. Krzyzewski was a second-generation American with a name people could hardly pronounce, let alone spell. He grew up in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, along with his best friend, Moe Mylinski.

"A lot of our parents never even went to high school," Mylinski says. "You know, we didn't know we were considered kind of poor, I guess. We always ate and had a place to sleep, and we went out into the schoolyard and played ball and, you know, had a lot of fun."

Krzyzewski's 'Most Critical' Decision

Krzyzewski's father was an elevator operator and his mother cleaned offices to make sure her sons had everything they needed. Krzyzewski played basketball at his Catholic high school. By his senior year, several colleges recruited him, including the United States Military Academy at West Point. He turned down the offer. But for weeks after that, Krzyzewski says, his parents had long conversations in Polish about how bad that decision was.

"I'd just hear it and finally I said, 'OK, I'll go.' And we let Coach Knight know, and — I don't know how I got in at that time, but I did," Krzyzewski recalls. "That was the most critical decision for me becoming who I am."

Bob Knight, who would later gain fame at Indiana University, was his coach at Army. It was also Knight who hired Krzyzewski to be his graduate assistant at Indiana. Later on, Knight recommended his former player for a coaching job at West Point, and then at Duke in 1980.

Jay Bilas is an ESPN commentator who played for the Blue Devils in the early '80s. "My first year at Duke was the hardest year for any of us, because there was a lot of talk that Coach K was going to get fired," he remembers.

Krzyzewski was in the process of teaching his team to play man-to-man defense, rather than relying on the zone defense, and it took time to recruit the kind of players he wanted. Bilas says the team lost a lot of games.

"I think if Coach K had that start in his career now, he wouldn't have made it," Bilas says. "I think the microwave culture we've got now, where coaches are fired after a couple of years, [in] a few years he wouldn't have survived — and look what everybody would have missed."

But after a few years, Krzyzewski's hard work paid off. During Bilas' senior year, Duke won the Atlantic Coast Conference and set an NCAA record at the time with 37 wins.

Winning Is A Constant Game

But Krzyzewski's success has come at a price. The same intensity and focus that produced winning teams almost destroyed him in 1995. He was recovering from back surgery and suffering from exhaustion after going back to work too soon. His wife, Micki, threatened to leave him if he didn't start taking care of himself. So he took the rest of the season off. The Krzyzewskis' youngest daughter, Jamie Spatola, says her father wasn't keeping his life balanced.

"Now he uses an exercise bike in his office and gardens to relieve stress," Spatola says. "That's what that year taught him. There were some ultimatums laid down and she wasn't messing around. Because he was messing with his health and his life, and as a result, her life and with her daughters' lives."

After that year, it didn't take Krzyzewski long to win conference championships and another national title in 2001. But the success has slowed. The last time Duke went to the Final Four was in 2004, and in the last two years, Duke has exited early from the NCAA tournament. This year, the Blue Devils were top-ranked, but they've already lost to North Carolina — a team that in recent years has befuddled Krzyzewski.

Despite several offers to coach in the NBA, he has stayed at Duke, detouring briefly last summer to coach the U.S. men's basketball team to gold in Beijing.

"I'm proud of our guys," Krzyzewski said at the Olympics. "We played with great character in one of the great games in international basketball history, I think."

Krzyzewski worked with superstars including LeBron James and Dwayne Wade — a team many coaches would find challenging. After winning the final game against Spain, Kobe Bryant said Coach K was a great leader.

"Everybody wants to talk about NBA players being selfish, being arrogant — being individuals," Bryant said. "But what you saw today was a team bonding together, facing adversity and coming out of here with a big win."

Coaches don't win medals at the Olympics. But after the game, the players placed theirs one-by-one around Krzyzewski's neck. It was a reminder that while he hasn't won a college championship recently, he's still one of the best men's basketball coaches in the history of the sport.

Jessica Jones reports for North Carolina Public Radio.

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