What leads to long-term team success in team sports?
Actually, that answer is simple, according to Duke University men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“Goals should be realistic, attainable and shared among members of a team,” he’s quoted as saying on his official website.
He has also said, “You develop a team to achieve what one person cannot accomplish alone. All of us alone are weaker, by far, than if all of us are together.”
You probably already know this: Krzyzewski, universally known as Coach K, won his record-breaking 903rd NCAA Division I game last week, surpassing his mentor, the legendary and now-retired Bob Knight. Coach K’s wins, 11 Final Four trips and four national championships are well-chronicled stories.
The longtime sideline supervisor’s ability to build championship-contending teams year after year is remarkable. So, too, is his reputation in basketball circles spanning the globe.
Former Tokyo Apache and Sendai 89ers forward Mike Chappell suited up for the Blue Devils from 1996-98 before transferring to Michigan State to close out his college career. Here’s his assessment of Coach K: “I think Coach K has stayed true to his vision of Duke basketball. He has been able to recruit at a high level, he finds players that fit his style of play, and he develops them not only into good basketball players but good people. Every player that has played for Coach K has bought into the program and with that along comes success.”
Born in Chicago, Krzyzewski was a three-year letterman (1967-69) in West Point, New York, on the Army basketball team, playing under the tough-as-nails Knight. After five years as an Army officer, he served as a grad assistant under Knight at Indiana (1974-75), further building his basketball IQ along the way. He led Army from 1975-80, posting a modest 73-59 record. Fast forward to 1980, when Coach K was hired to lead the Duke Blue Devils. Since then, he’s established a tradition of excellence at the Durham, North Carolina, school (832-225 record at Duke); it took time, however, as the Blue Devils went 38-47 in his first three seasons there.
At the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan, this reporter saw Coach K plant the seeds for gold medal-winning success in Beijing two years later. Coach K demanded teamwork and accountability from his players, and got it, though the U.S. failed to win that title — placing third instead — in Saitama.
Osaka Evessa power forward Lynn Washington, a two-time bj-league MVP, summed up the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach’s career this way:
“(Coach K’s) keys to success are his system and his ability to recruit accordingly.”
The numbers prove that point. Coach K’s overall record as a head coach is 905-284 through Monday.
“I honestly think Coach K has been successful for so long because of his seasoning at West Point,” said Washington, who played under Knight at Indiana University. “Granted, Coach K is a great coach, but he had to be seasoned first.”
“I know a lot of players who have played for Coach K and they say he let’s them play as long as they play within the system,” added Washington, a top-notch leader in his own right, who has helped Osaka rattle off nine straight wins and a league-best 11-1 record through Sunday.
Brian Rowsom, a former NBA and JBL forward and an ex-coach for the bj-league’s Oita HeatDevils, recognizes that Coach K’s success is a mind-boggling accomplishment.
“What he has done at Duke in the past 31 years has been nothing short of remarkable,” said Rowsom, who now coaches in Qatar. “Four national titles and a host of other Final Four appearances, ACC regular-season and conference championships are unmatched by any other coach, especially during the same time frame. He has done it the right way, which is even more important and impressive.”
Asked what makes Krzyzewski a special coach, Eric Gardow, who leads the bj-league’s expansion Chiba Jets, responded by saying, “By earning the respect and trust of his players.”
So what are Coach K’s keys to success? I asked.
“Raised by loving parents, educated by great teachers, guidance from experienced mentors, performances by great players, hard work by wonderful staff/people and solid support while working at an incredible institution,” Gardow said.
Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who worked as a coach in the men’s and women’s game in Japan for many years, sized up Coach K’s still-growing legacy this way: “Coach K is one of a kind. He survived his early years at Duke and then got his program going. I have the utmost respect for him. He has done a great job of recruiting and getting great players. He runs a very disciplined program that has established an NBA style of play. With him coaching the NBA players and learning the NBA style of play coaching with the Olympic style has helped him establish a style that is different than your typical college style, which makes it difficult for college teams to prepare for.”
Similar thoughts have been expressed by basketball pundits from Tokyo to Tucson, Arizona, where Yokohama B-Corsairs coach Reggie Geary transformed himself into a future NBA guard while playing for the University of Arizona Wildcats.
“(Coach K) made a big point the other day when he became the winningest coach in college history of how much he appreciates his players in the fact that they have trusted him so much over the years,” Geary told Hoop Scoop. “A notion — trust — I’m sure many coaches take for granted and don’t truly nurture properly.”
Geary, 38, is still a relatively young bench boss. Coach K, by the way, turns 65 in February, and his meticulous preparation and positive attitude have inspired a younger generation of coaches.
Geary said, “Coach K, whether working with Duke, or the USA team, possesses what all great coaches, in my mind, possess: the ability to communicate on a high level with individuals to get the best out of them. . . . Coach K has done one of the best jobs, if not the best job, of recruiting and identifying the most talented players in the country: players that possess the mental makeup and characteristics he’s looking for when building a championship-level team who will buy into his system.
“From his very first successful team with Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas, and Danny Ferry; through the Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, and Bobby Hurley; to the current crop of McDonald’s All-Americans, have all accepted their roles, which Coach K has clearly defined for them. In today’s me-first culture, where team usually comes second and winning a distant third, accomplishing this with the talent he possess year after year — 11 Final Fours — is truly incredible.”
John Neumann, who has garnered coach of the year honors in several countries, including Japan, believes Coach K has the ability to make the complex game simple. And Neumann, who served as the first coach in Rizing Fukuoka history (2007-09) and guided the Takamatsu Five Arrows (2009-10) played in both the NBA and ABA. A sensational college player, Neumann scored an NCAA Division I-leading 40.1 points per game in 1970-71 at the University of Mississippi, so his view of Krzyzewki’s coaching pedigree is not something to casually dismiss.
“Coach K has been a great coach because he learned the basics for winning from Bobby Knight,”said Neumann, who has guided the Romania men’s national team since leaving Takamatsu. “Coach K is a tremendous man that can relate to all of his players no matter their backgrounds. Coach K uses his system to make his players better and knows the strengths and weaknesses of his players. He uses angles and numbers better than other coaches and wins because he has a great system and always great relationships with his players.
“He can coach an NBA great like Kobe (Bryant) or a college player. He has a true gift that others only dream about.”