'Coach K,' The Powerhouse Behind Duke Basketball Under the guidance of Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils have 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.
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'Coach K,' The Powerhouse Behind Duke Basketball

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'Coach K,' The Powerhouse Behind Duke Basketball

'Coach K,' The Powerhouse Behind Duke Basketball

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

We're going to talk about March Madness now, and it's got nothing to do with Congress. Last night, the Duke Blue Devils defeated Boston College, 66-65. Blue Devils, of course, are led by a legendary coach, Mike Krzyzewski, who's in his 30th year of coaching at Duke.

Under his guidance, the team has won three national championships. They've made 10 trips to the Final Four. Last summer, at the Beijing Olympics, Coach K, as he is known, led the U.S. men's basketball team to gold. He's come a long way from his childhood in Chicago.

From North Carolina Public Radio, Jessica Jones reports.

JESSICA JONES: It's a weekday night at Duke University's basketball stadium, and cheerleader Courtney Hunter revs up the crowd.

Ms. COURTNEY HUNTER (Cheerleader): Let's go, Devils. Let's go, Devils.

JONES: The almost 10,000-seat stadium is a sea of royal blue and white. Photographers and TV cameramen line up along the court.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man: ESPN college basketball, we welcome you to Cameron Indoor Stadium. Tour North Carolina; there's no place like it where they play this great game anywhere in our country.

JONES: The commentators, including ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy, mention Duke's impressive record under Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Mr. JEFF VAN GUNDY (Commentator, ESPN): Last year, I think they won 28, 29 games, and it was a down year. 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.

JONES: With a record like that, it's not surprising how Duke fans feel about Krzyzewski. Ian Lee and Cassie Offerbach(ph) are sophomores.

Mr. IAN LEE (Sophomore, Duke University): We, like, worship him, basically. When he walks up, people bow to him, like...

Ms. CASSIE OFFERBACH (Sophomore, Duke University): There's like a joke, that like his office is the second tallest building on campus, second to the chapel, 'cause he's like a godly figure. So, we love him.

JONES: But that wasn't always the case. When Coach K, as he's known, first came to Duke as a 33-year-old, many Blue Devil supporters were skeptical. He was overshadowed by his biggest rival just down the road, University of North Carolina's 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 Mulinsky(ph).

Mr. MOE MULINSKY (Friend): A lot of our parents never even went to high school. You know, we didn't know we were considered kind of poor, I guess. I mean, we always ate. We knew we had a place to sleep. And we went out into the schoolyard and played ball and, you know, had a lot of fun.

JONES: 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.

Mr. MIKE KRZYZEWSKI (Coach): I'd just hear it and finally I said, okay, I'll go. And we let Coach Knight know. And I don't know how I got in at that time, but I did. And it turned out to be - that was the most critical decision for me becoming who I am.

JONES: Bob Knight 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.

Mr. JAY BILAS (Commentator, ESPN): 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.

JONES: 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.

Mr. BILAS: I think if Coach K had that start in his career now, he wouldn't have made it. I think the microwave culture we've got now where, you know, coaches are fired after a couple of years or a few years, he wouldn't have survived. And look what everybody would have missed.

JONES: But after a few years, Krzyzewski's hard work paid off. During Bilas's senior year, Duke won the Atlantic Coast Conference and set an NCAA record at the time with 37 wins. Bilas says Coach K is successful because he's so good with people, especially on the court.

Mr. KRZYZEWSKI: Pass ahead. Good. That's it.

JONES: During the team's first practice this season, Krzyzewski knows exactly what to say to get his players to pass the ball the way he wants.

Mr. KRZYZEWSKI: Miles was a little bit up there, and so he comes up here. And G, you did the same thing.

JONES: Many people wonder what it is that makes Krzyzewski among the top five winningest coaches in Division I men's basketball. In 2000, PBS's Charlie Rose asked Krzyzewski what coaching is really about.

(Soundbite of "The Charlie Rose Show")

Mr. CHARLIE ROSE (Host): It is strategy. It is X's and O's. But what percentage of it is simply your capacity to understand your player and know what you have to say at what moment, to them as a team and individually?

Mr. KRZYZEWSKI: Most of it.

Mr. ROSE: Most of that. That's the game.

Mr. KRZYZEWSKI: Most of it, for me. I mean, that's the way I coach, most of it. And then the strategies and that then fall in line as a result of getting the mindset that you want individually and collectively for your unit.

JONES: 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 to back to work too soon. His wife, Mickie, threatened to leave him if he didn't start taking care of himself. So he took the rest of the season off.

The Krzyzewski's youngest daughter, Jaime Spatola, says her father wasn't keeping his life balanced. Now, he uses an exercise bike in his office, and gardens to relieve stress.

Ms. JAIME SPATOLA (Daughter): That's what that year taught him, and my mom taught him. I mean, she - there were some ultimatums laid down. She wasn't messing around, because he was messing with his health and his life, and as a result, her life and 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, even leading the U.S. men's basketball team to gold last summer in Beijing.

Mr. KRZYZEWSKI: We want to thank everyone here, congratulate all the other teams and coaches. I'm proud of our guys. We played with great character in one of the great games in international basketball history, I think.

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

Mr. KOBE BRYANT (Los Angeles Lakers): Everybody wants to talk about NBA players being selfish, being arrogant, being individuals, but what you saw today was a team bonding together, facing adversity, and coming out of here with a big win.

JONES: 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.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Durham, North Carolina.

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