March 11, 2010: Mike Krzyzewski still enthusiastic after all these years

Noblesse oblige.

Two words seem a preposterous start. Two words, French at that, to begin unveiling basketball's most famous active coach, a hard-boiled, military-trained CEO addicted to the privileges, rewards and burdens of leadership.

Noblesse oblige. Nobility obliges.

A priest turns the phrase regarding Mike Krzyzewski, and the theme echoes from former players, a business-school professor and in the experience of a visiting cancer patient.

Indeed, Krzyzewski himself voices the sentiment as he reflects on his 30 seasons at Duke and explains why, at age 63 and with every accolade possible, he maintains a withering pace that continues at this week's ACC tournament, where his Blue Devils are the top seeds.

"It's one of the reasons I keep coaching," Krzyzewski says, "because ... I love to be able to have an influence, a positive influence. And I don't care if anyone knows about it.

"That's ours. We don't need a banner or anything like that. What we need to do is feel good about what we're doing. And feel good about who we are as people. And because we've been blessed with a lot, you can't forget that you're no different than anyone.

"And I really believe that. Everybody's the same. I'm the lucky guy. I'm the Coach K guy ... and I truly believe that as a result, you need to do something with your luck."

Krzyzewski's basketball impact — 12 ACC regular-season titles, 11 conference tournament championships, 10 Final Fours, three national titles, 2001 Hall of Fame induction and 2008 and 2012 Olympics coach — has been well-chronicled.

But while he treasures the accomplishments, and those he guided in the process, Krzyzewski wants more, far more, away from the court.

He aims to enhance the educations of impoverished youth and influence curricula for graduate students. He has an insatiable appetite for raising money to research cancer and a soft spot for the many less fortunate who reach out to him.

"He's a giver," says Father David McBriar of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Raleigh, N.C. "That's what I detected in him, someone who knew he was privileged both in his talent and his own assets."

McBriar used to serve at Krzyzewski's parish in downtown Durham, Immaculate Conception. And it was there, more than 10 years ago, that McBriar envisioned a community center for the area's underprivileged children.

The first person he approached was Krzyzewski, a regular at 7 a.m. Sunday Mass.

"He was excited by the idea," McBriar says, "because it was precisely the kind of place that he grew up in in Chicago, and he thought, 'Gee, maybe we can do better than that.'

"His vision was big, bigger than mine was, because I knew that I could never raise $7 million to put up this kind of facility, to staff it, to provide the indirect costs. He said, 'We'll get it done.'"

Changing lives foreverThe Emily Krzyzewski Center, named for the coach's late mother, opened in 2006, not as a sports-based, after-school community hangout. It is an educational center designed to prolong the learning day for young people from committed families of modest means.

Krzyzewski, members of his family and those from his Duke inner circle serve on the center's board, and their collective goal is for every student at the facility to graduate from a four-year college of their choosing.

Just prior to last spring's awards ceremony at the center, Krzyzewski called from the road, where he was traveling with the Olympic team. Speaking to his daughter Jamie, Krzyzewski asked her to tell the students that their accomplishments were more important to him than the Olympics.

"He's a great strategic, out-of-the-box thinker," says Marleah Rogers, president and CEO of the center. "If it hasn't been invented, 'Let's go, let's invent it.'

"He tells staff, 'You can achieve 100 percent. We won't be satisfied with anything else. It's not the easiest road, but it's the right thing to do, and it can change lives forever.' It's what he stands for. No excuses. You measure results.

"It is very inspiring for someone when he turns to them and says, 'I believe in you.'"

Sim Sitkin sees that inspirational side, too. He's a management professor at Duke's Fuqua School of Business and helped create the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics.

The center's courses and its annual leadership conference allow Krzyzewski to explore his theories that the lessons of sports apply to business, and vice versa. That nurturing relationships, building infrastructure and establishing standards are essential to all successful teams and organizations.

"It's not just the brand recognition," Sitkin says of Krzyzewski's appeal. "He brings expertise and insight. ... And this is not emphasized enough: He views himself as a university citizen. ... He senses a personal interest and obligation in continuing to make the university great."

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a starter on Krzyzewski's first Final Four team in 1986, recently shared a flight with a food-services executive who had booked Krzyzewski for an appearance through the Washington Speakers Bureau, whose other clients include Colin Powell, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin.

The executive told Bilas that Krzyzewski mesmerized not only the grocery store employees in the audience but also the wait staff, who vacated the kitchen and stood along the walls.

"He kind of connects, and you can't describe it," Bilas says. "People ask me all the time, 'Why did you want to play for him when he didn't have any record to speak of?' And I don't really have a good answer. I can't point to something and say, 'He said this.' I just, I trusted him. ...

"He doesn't turn the switch off. He's not like one of these guys who after practice is over, he goes and plays golf or something. He thinks about this (leadership and motivational) stuff all the time. It's all he does."

Bilas tells often of Krzyzewski speaking to his early Duke teams in a cramped locker room at Cameron Indoor Stadium. When Krzyzewski got particularly riled up, Bilas saw goose bumps on his legs and arms.

"You can't fake goose bumps," Bilas says. "He's just got a belief in what he's doing, and that really translates and carries over to the people he leads."

Never boring, never perfectSeems Krzyzewski has been inspiring and leading since his youth on Chicago's North Side, where he ran with a group called the Columbos.

Krzyzewski recalls organizing pickup games in all sports and resolving the inevitable conflicts. He relishes his time at the United States Military Academy, where he studied leadership and captained Bob Knight's basketball team.

So enamored was Krzyzewski with his basketball captaincy that he declined an offer to become part of the overall Corps of Cadets leadership hierarchy. His tactical officer was furious, but Krzyzewski held firm.

Krzyzewski rose to an Army captain after graduation and was tempted to pursue a military career. But long-held ambitions to teach and coach prevailed.

Returning to West Point, Krzyzewski coached the Cadets for five seasons before then-Duke athletic director Tom Butters hired him in March 1980.

Thirty years later, Cameron Indoor Stadium's court carries his name. So does the athletic department's new academic and training facility.

Thirty years later, Krzyzewski has 859 career victories, 43 shy of Knight's NCAA Division I record.

"I wanted to be a teacher and a coach, but really what I always wanted to be was a leader," Krzyzewski says, relaxed in his office the morning after a late-February victory over Virginia Tech. "I didn't know it at the time, but it's exciting. Every day is different. It's never boring. It's never perfect. ...

"It's never-ending, and I find it incredibly interesting. And I think to tap into people who I've met, developed relationships with, who are leaders in their fields, helps me. Business, medicine, community leaders.

"It's something I'll do until I die, is study leadership. I think it's the most exciting thing you can do in whatever place you have the opportunity to do it."

Krzyzewski is close with coaches such as Knight and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim. But he is also friendly with former Bear Stearns CEO Alan Schwartz, Morgan Stanley board chairman John Mack, Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn and former General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner.

Such varied influences and interests are evident in Krzyzewski's weekly, in-season radio show.

It's not the typical, locally produced call-in affair that regurgitates the previous week's results. It's a Sirius-XM show with a guest list that includes U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Barbara Bush, Hall of Fame golfer Annika Sorenstam, Pro Bowl receiver Terrell Owens and Gen. Buster Hagenbeck, the superintendent at West Point.

These encounters inform, and in Krzyzewski's mind, improve his coaching.

"That's why I speak on it and want to hear people talk about it," he says, "because there's not one right answer, and there's not one form of leadership that trumps another. I can be passionate, I can be calm, whatever. It's probably good for a leader to be all those things. But the main thing for a leader is to be honest and to be himself or herself. Don't try to be the leader. You are the leader. Be yourself as the leader. ...

"Ownership, I think that's one of the most critical things. A lot of people say, 'I'll follow that person.' Why don't we just run together? And why don't we own it, instead of me owning it and you doing it for me? Because at the end of the day, you're more apt to fight if it's yours than if it's mine."

No end in sightAlthough Duke has never approached its seven-Final-Fours-in-nine-years stretch from 1986-94, Krzyzewski believes he's a far better coach today. The overriding difference is time management.

During the Blue Devils' dynasty, which included back-to-back national championships in 1991 and '92, Krzyzewski was a habitual micromanager. He loathed to say no and worked himself ragged, even while watching cancer claim his friend and colleague, former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano.

By early 1995, Krzyzewski was spent, and family and doctors demanded he take a leave of absence, which contributed to the worst Duke season of the last 25 years.

"I've been CEO for a long time because of our success," Krzyzewski says. "What I'm CEO of has grown. And I would say it took a turn for a better direction when I got sick in the mid-'90s, because I'm a different leader from that point on.

"A better leader because I opened up to more. I wasn't as much of a micromanager. And I surrounded myself with people now who can say yes and no for me. Instead of me saying yes and no."

Trusting staff allows Krzyzewski to do more than ever. He works out religiously, dotes on grandchildren and tends to his gardens, all while overseeing Duke basketball, the Olympic team and outside pursuits.

Krzyzewski is devoted to the V Foundation, the cancer charity founded in Valvano's honor. He organized and participated in leadership seminars at West Point. He serves as president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches Foundation.

Thank goodness for private planes, limos and portable video equipment.

"Now he seems to accomplish just as much without wearing himself out," Bilas says. "I don't know how he did the Olympic thing, honestly, without getting worn out. He seems energized by it rather than tired. I think the Olympics is going to make him coach longer. ... I don't necessarily see an end in sight. He's healthy, he's happy, he looks better than he did, and he's got more bounce in his step."

Krzyzewski took over the national team after embarrassing performances and behavior at world championships and the 2004 Olympics. Led by Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, the U.S. reclaimed the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games.

Granting Annie's wishAs at Duke, Krzyzewski took an intensely personal approach with the well-heeled Olympians. He traveled to their homes, met their families and sought counsel from their associates.

The disparate group appeared to become a team, and after the championship victory over Spain, each of the players draped his gold medal around Krzyzewski's neck.

Last summer, Krzyzewski re-enlisted for 2012.

"It was great to see him going into (the Olympics) with an open mind," says Duke assistant coach and former Blue Devils guard Chris Collins. "And he really didn't come into that process saying, 'Look, this is how we're going to do it.' There was give and take. He welcomed input. ...

"He spends a lot of time personally with each player. That's where the trust is built with the guys, and that's what he craves the most, more so than the wins. He craves those relationships and watching his guys grow.

"I think he's delegating a lot more. Practices, scouting. I think he's leaning on his staff more, his family more, and because of that, I think he's enjoying everything maybe a little bit more. I think he's taking time ... to enjoy this part of his career."

As Collins speaks, the Duke bus is loading after a victory at Virginia.

"That's the thing that amazes me more than anything," he says. "The guy's won almost 900 games, and he coached this game tonight with the passion like he's never won a game. ... Somebody in his position doesn't have to get fired up for a Feb. 28 game at Virginia. But he does."

It's the only way Krzyzewski knows, AARP eligibility and two hip replacements notwithstanding. It's the way he learned from his Polish immigrant parents, William and Emily, an elevator operator and cleaning lady.

Consider Duke's Feb. 17 victory at Miami. With a recruiting visit scheduled for the next day in Orlando, Fla., Krzyzewski could have spent the night in Miami and traveled leisurely the following afternoon.

Instead, he flew home that evening with the team, watching game tape throughout. After a couple hours shut-eye, he worked a full day in the office before taking a private jet back to Orlando.

"You feel overwhelmed," Krzyzewski says of the workload. "But leadership is lonely. ... You can't show weakness. Who do you talk to about your fears? About your anxieties, about your nervousness? You don't talk to anybody."

Not even your spouse?

"You don't talk to anybody."

Krzyzewski ponders his answer and reconsiders. Other leaders, such as Morgan Stanley's Mack, can be sounding boards.

"Because there's no agenda and you can be honest," Krzyzewski says. "But there's very few of those people, who actually can feel ... what you feel as a leader in those moments. Because they're not easy moments."

As our conversation concludes, Krzyzewski's coaching staff gathers in an adjacent room to review the Virginia Tech game. Also in the meeting is a young woman, a coach, who is dying of cancer.

Among Annie's final wishes was to attend a Duke game and meet Krzyzewski.

Such requests are not uncommon, and when possible, Krzyzewski attempts to add a personal touch. He takes the same approach to correspondence, hand-writing scores of letters — to former players celebrating birthdays, to complete strangers battling illness.

"Because they see you a lot, somehow you provide strength for them, or hope," Krzyzewski says, "and if we can touch them in a small way, a lot of times it produces a huge positive impact. We don't try to make those things public, but it gives a purpose for winning. It makes winning a little bit better, a little bit more important than just beating Virginia Tech or winning a title, although those things are great. It just gives some substance to it. ...

"You should never feel sorry for yourself or ask for sympathy from other people. I'm coaching a basketball game and doing all these other things. If I feel overwhelmed ... Are you kiddin' me? Get your head out of your butt. Start being a man. ...

"So that's the other reason you want to get involved in these things, because you meet people like Annie. Unbelievable. I can't even imagine how strong she is. ... They think you're giving them strength, but they're giving you strength. There's no question."


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