Lessons in Perpetual Motion

Mike Krzyzewski learned the hard way that he can’t be the center of the wheel for every aspect of Duke men’s basketball. And that may be the secret to his enduring success.
January 1, 2012

Something was missing in Mike Krzyzewski’s yard. A gap between the William Penn barberry and an English holly created a discordant note in the otherwise harmonious landscape he’d composed. So on a Wednesday morning in mid-December, while members of his Blue Devil basketball team were busy with final exams, Krzyzewski drove to a Durham gardening store in pursuit of a burgundy-colored, deer-resistant Pieris japonica to fill the void and complement the color palette he’d orchestrated.

For a man whose intensity and drive are legendary, midweek flower shopping, especially during basketball season, may seem an odd errand. Although the team was in the middle of a weeklong lull for final exams, Krzyzewski had plenty on his to-do list that day, including a doctor’s appointment, a workout, several interviews, a team meeting, and a two-hour special edition of his weekly satellite radio show, broadcast live from Cameron Indoor Stadium. So why the botanical detour to peruse early-winter japonicas?
I love nature,” says the energetic coach, who turns sixty-five in February. “I love getting dirty and planting things and working on our land. Probably the only stores I go to in Durham anymore are gardening shops. I have good friends in these places.”
Mickie Krzyzewski has taken to calling basketball season “the black hole” because it consumes virtually everything else in its path. But for her husband and her family, the 2011-12 season represented an even more formidable vortex. Just three games into the season, the Blue Devils defeated Michigan State in Madison Square Garden to earn Krzyzewski his 903rd victory as a college head coach, the most ever in men’s Division I history. There were commemorative videos and posters, and countless visits and congratulatory calls from friends and former players. Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year, along with Tennessee women’s coach and Sportswoman of the Year Pat Summitt. The usual flood of media requests that flow in during December turned into a tidal wave.
It’s been quite a ride for a man who, thirty-two years earlier, had needed to slowly spell his name for a handful of reporters covering his introductory press conference. Krzyzewski has won four national championships and virtually every award his profession bestows. Generations of players credit him with shaping their character, instilling leadership, making them men. He’s coached Team USA Basketball to Olympic gold in 2008 and will lead them again in 2012. CEOs seek his leadership advice. Hard-core fans pony up $10,000 each to participate in K Academy, a five-day basketball fantasy camp held every summer. Admirers from around the world send e-mail messages, letters, autograph requests, and gifts. Sincere young men write asking what they need to do to play for Duke and Coach K.
But had it not been for the dark days of a very different season seventeen years ago, it’s unlikely Coach K would be enjoying what he calls a “tsunami of success.” He might not even be coaching Duke basketball. The breaking down and rebuilding of Mike Krzyzewski was a pivotal point for a man who’s dedicated his life to winning basketball games. Accustomed to controlling every facet of his program, he had to learn how to let friends and colleagues take on some of the heavy lifting of running a high-visibility, multimillion-dollar franchise. In doing so, he has achieved even greater success on the court. And he’s developed a deeper and more nuanced appreciation for those quiet moments of contentment that most of the world never sees, from celebrating the arrival of his eighth grandchild in January to cavorting with his yellow lab Blue to finding the perfect Pieris japonica.
A ROCKY START
My name is Tom Butters. I’m the athletic director at Duke University, and I have the awesome responsibility of replacing Bill Foster as the basketball coach of Duke,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. Standing in the living room of the red-brick duplex in West Point, Carol Marsh “Mickie” Krzyzewski asked Butters to hold the line and handed the call to her husband, Army head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
It was March 1980, and Foster had just announced he was leaving Duke to take the head coaching job at the University of South Carolina. Rumors began swirling almost immediately about which college coach would be tapped to take over a program that had made it to the NCAA finals just two years before. Newspaper columnists speculated about a short list of coaches, including Boston College’s Tom Davis, Old Dominion’s Paul Webb, Mississippi’s Bob Weltlich, Oklahoma’s Dave Bliss, and Duke assistant coach Bob Wenzel. The name Krzyzewski was never mentioned.
Butters admired Indiana University coach Bobby Knight, and part of his interest in Bliss and Weltlich was that they’d been on Knight’s coaching staffs at Army and Indiana. Former Blue Devil guard Steve Vacendak ’66 tipped Butters off to another Knight protégé. Mike Krzyzewski had played point guard for Knight at West Point and later served as an unpaid graduate assistant on Knight’s staff at Indiana. The thirty-three-year-old coach was in his fifth year at Army, where he had transformed a team that was 3-22 the season before he arrived, leading them to two appearances in the NIT.
Butters and Krzyzewski spoke at length. An interview was scheduled for March 13 in Kentucky, where Duke eked out a onepoint win over the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA Eastern Regionals.
Other schools had already taken notice of the young coach. About the same time Butters came calling, Iowa State had offered Krzyzewski its head coaching job. But after that first interview with Butters, despite having no guarantee of a second interview, Krzyzewski thanked Iowa State for the offer and declined.
“When the Duke opportunity came up, even though I knew it was a long shot, I realized that was the type of school I wanted to be part of,” says Krzyzewski. “I thought it would be very much like West Point, and it was in the ACC, and so I turned the other job down.”
Butters couldn’t get Krzyzewski out of his mind. There was a second interview and then a third on campus. The story’s been told of how Krzyzewski was already at the airport to catch his return flight home when Butters realized with utter clarity that he’d found his man. Krzyzewski was brought back to Duke and offered the job, which he accepted on the spot, without asking the salary (around $40,000).
On Tuesday, March 18, the Durham Morning Herald ran a column titled, “Duke’s New Coach? He Begins With ‘W’,” which speculated that the next coach would likely be Weltlich, Wenzel, or Webb. Butters was quoted in the article saying, “There are no other people we are considering.” Later that same day, a press conference was held announcing Mike Krzyzewski as Duke’s new basketball coach.
On the Up and Up
On the Up and Up
Krzyzewski in the locker room with the 1983 team
Nearly thirty-two years later, when asked what that earnest young guy was thinking at that inaugural media event, Krzyzewski smiles and shakes his head slightly. “He should have been thinking about how naïve he was, and how green. I knew I was a surprise to everybody. I’ve always had a kind of spirit that I could win and that I would be willing to do whatever it took ethically to win. But I really didn’t know what I was getting into—the competitiveness and the talent level.” He later compared the experience to driving in Times Square after having only tooled around Durham.
The honeymoon period was brief. Losses mounted. Krzyzewski had known he was going to have a rough start—he’d been hired late enough in the season that he didn’t have time to recruit—but every defeat stung. At the end of his first three seasons the Blue Devils were 38-47. Iron Dukes members implored Butters to fire Krzyzewski. One letter writer told Butters he should have hired an American. “That stuff got me really angry, but I didn’t go home every day thinking I was losing my job,” Krzyzewski says. “I knew I had Tom on my side, and President Sanford, and [vice president for business and finance] Chuck Huestis, [former chancellor] Ken Pye and [vice president for government relations and university counsel] Gene Mc- Donald—I mean, those are the people who started the university on the track where it is today, and I knew that they believed in me. They were committed to me when it wasn’t fashionable.”
Krzyzewski’s program soon turned a corner. Simultaneously, the university was transforming itself into a nationally ranked academic and research institution. In 1984, the Blue Devils received their first NCAA bid under Krzyzewski’s leadership, and Duke’s campus was the cover image for the New York Times Magazine article on America’s “hot” colleges. Two years later, the Blue Devils made it to the finals of the NCAA Tournament.
“For a while I never thought I’d leave West Point, so when I came to Duke it wasn’t like I was using it as a stepping stone,” he says, insisting that there was never a master strategy for his career, no calculated three- to five-year plan. “I never thought that far in the future. It was just let’s try to win, let’s try to build a program and go from there.”
The 1980s also saw the explosive growth of cable television, including a soon-to-be sports media powerhouse called ESPN. In 1982, ESPN broadcast the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the first time those early games had ever been aired on television. Televised sporting events soon became a 24/7 phenomenon, and intercollegiate athletics became bigtime entertainment—and big-time business. By the time Duke won back-to-back NCAA championships in 1991 and 1992, “we were riding a wave of popularity,” says Krzyzewski. “We just hit it at the right time.”
At the time, no one could predict that the link connecting Duke University and Coach K would evolve into a long-term, symbiotic, and ultimately inextricable relationship.
Happy at home
Happy at home
Away from the court, Krzyzewski relies on his family, gardening, and cavorting with yellow lab, Blue, to decompress. Chris Hildreth
THE INTERVENTION
Six days into 1995, Mike Krzyzewski struggled to get out of bed. Since his back surgery the previous October for a herniated disk, he’d given up racquetball but little else. The physical setback was an agonizing distraction to Krzyzewski, whose obligations and aspirations had accelerated exponentially since Duke’s back-to-back NCAA championships. Instead of taking it slow for the six- to twelve-week recovery period his doctors recommended, Krzyzewski threw himself right back into work—first at home, reviewing game videos until the early hours of the morning, and then, ten days after he got out of the hospital, back on the court.
As the team racked up six wins and one loss in November and December, Krzyzewski found himself in a constant state of exhaustion. He couldn’t sleep. The travel and logistics of an end-of-year trip to Hawaii for the Kraft Rainbow Classic left him physically and mentally drained. By the close of 1994, he’d lost fifteen pounds and couldn’t move without excruciating pain. On Monday, January 2, the Blue Devils beat South Carolina State. Two days later, they fell at home to Clemson, 75-70. On Friday, Krzyzewski could barely get dressed. Mickie had seen enough.
“It was horrible,” she recalls. “I don’t do ultimatums. But as he was walking out of the house, I told him that I had made a doctor’s appointment for him at 2:30 that afternoon, and he needed to be there. He said, ‘I have practice at 2:30.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Be at the doctor’s office or don’t come home.’ ”
Mike looked at Mickie. She held his gaze. He turned around and walked out the door.
As the morning gave way to afternoon, Mickie fretted. With no word from her husband, she drove to the appointment with a frantic mantra circling in her mind: please make him be here, please make him be here, please make him be here. She knew that if he didn’t show up, she would have to follow through on her threat. Please make him be here.
Krzyzewski’s orthopaedist was John A. Feagin Jr. M.D. ’61, whose office was in the Finch Yeager Building, overlooking Wallace Wade Stadium. As Mickie pulled into the parking lot, her eyes scanned the cars. She spotted Mike’s and succumbed to a wave of emotions—relief and gratitude, of course, but also fear. Fear of a dire diagnosis. Fear that he might lose his will or ability to coach. Fear of what might happen to him, to her, to their family, if he could no longer do the very thing that defined him professionally.
Mickie got out of her car and made her way to the exam room, where Mike was already waiting. He reached out and grabbed her hand. No words were spoken.
When Feagin walked into the room, he took one look at the hobbled forty-seven-yearold and knew the coach needed immediate help. Feagin had been the team doctor for the football and basketball squads at West Point when he first met Krzyzewski, then a nineteen-year-old point guard. The two men had developed a friendship that had spanned nearly thirty years. Feagin knew that there was more going on than physical distress. “When you are that immobilized with pain,” he says, “you don’t know if you have cancer and are going to die, or if you have surgery whether you will come back or not.” So Feagin—himself a West Point grad—framed his advice in a way Cadet Krzyzewski could grasp.
“You can’t survive at West Point without prioritizing,” says Feagin. “This was the first time that Mike had faced his own mortality, because the pain brought him to his knees. So we talked about getting his priorities straight—and getting well was the top priority.”
But Mickie wasn’t taking any chances. She staged an intervention that included Feagin and three people she knew her husband respected—psychiatrist Jean Spaulding M.D. ’72, former Duke president and psychiatrist Keith Brodie, and Center for Living director and nephrologist James Clapp. “There were five us, like a basketball team,” Mickie says. “One on one, Mike can be stubborn or intimidating or combative, but there were five of us on the team, and he couldn’t win. We put him in the hospital that night.”
On January 22 that year, Krzyzewski told his team he would be out for the rest of the season. He offered his letter of resignation to Butters, who refused to accept it. But he was not a compliant patient. “He was just miserable,” says Mickie. “It was not a good time. It was not relaxing, and it wasn’t pleasant. And then Duke went on a slide and the team started losing. He felt so guilty about that. Here he was, the military officer who had deserted his troops in the midst of the war. He was killing himself over that.”
It was obvious that Krzyzewski needed to rethink how he ran his program and, by extension, his life. At Mickie’s urging, he took up gardening. Time-management experts were consulted. Additional staff members were hired at the basketball offices to handle the program’s increasingly complex logistics. New phone systems were installed. Krzyzewski embraced the idea that in order to make his program successful for the long haul, he could no longer be responsible for every aspect.
“If you had a wheel, with spokes all coming out of the center, that was the way I ran my program,” he says. “I was the center of the wheel, and everything ran though me. When I was knocked out, when the center of the wheel goes, the wheel goes. Quite simply, this is how I changed. I built a new wheel, and I connected this point with that one and that one with this one. Some of them went through me. But you could take me out—are you getting the visual here?— you could take me out, and it would still work. Once I figured that out, it helped me immensely.”
Winter turned to spring. Krzyzewski grew stronger. His energy returned and his excitement to get back in the game was more intense than ever. His friend John Feagin recalls a line from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: “ ‘The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.’ That experience made Mike stronger.”
“It’s too easy to say that I micromanaged or didn’t delegate enough,” says Krzyzewski. “I don’t believe in the word delegate. I believe in the word empower. I was not empowering people before, but once I connected the spokes in a different way, it became everyone’s wheel. That’s why we’re so good now. We’re better than we were then. I’m better. And that will never happen to me again. More important, it will never happen to our program again.”
THE DUKE BRAND
In the summer of 2004, word spread like wildfire that the Los Angeles Lakers had offered Mike Krzyzewski a five-year, $40 million package to leave Duke and join the pros. Coach K had entertained other overtures, from the Celtics in 1990 and the Trailblazers in 1994. But this was the Lakers, one of the most successful teams in the NBA, led by Kobe Bryant, whom Krzyzewski had recruited in high school. The prospect of losing Coach K sent fresh waves of panic throughout Devildom.
Conspiracy theorists argue the Lakers offer was timed to make new President Richard H. Brodhead assure Krzyzewski of his estimable position in the university hierarchy. But the interest from Lakers general manager (and former UNC standout) Mitch Kupchak was genuine. Bryant, who had remained close to Krzyzewski through the years, called to encourage him to consider the offer.
Even in the midst of those early turbulent years at Duke, Krzyzewski had never been tempted to consider moving to another university. But the prospect of coaching some of the best professional players in the world was a powerful enticement at that moment in his life. After consulting with his family and a handful of friends, including Tom Butters, Krzyzewski decided to turn down the offer. “Duke has always taken up my whole heart,” he explained at the time. (The following year he would get his shot at coaching the pros, including Bryant, when he was named head coach of the USA Basketball men’s team.)
Krzyzewski knows that there are those who decry the fact that he is better known—and is now better paid—than any of the four Duke presidents he has served under. A Google search on “Coach K” yields more results—17 million and climbing—than those of Terry Sanford, Keith Brodie, Nan Keohane, and Richard Brodhead combined. It’s a distinction he doesn’t take lightly. “Duke branded me. It gave me prestige,” he says. “I’m the Duke coach, so no matter what, I am affiliated with an outstanding university. I am Duke every second of my life. That’s a big responsibility but also a big honor.”
Whenever Krzyzewski talks to faculty members, he emphasizes that “Duke basketball is not the most important thing here. I know that. I work for Dick Brodhead and [athletics director] Kevin White. But Duke basketball is the biggest marketing arm of this university.”
Think about walking down Fifth Avenue during Christmas time, he says. It’s magical. You get to Saks Fifth Avenue, and the breathtaking window displays stop you in your tracks. “You look at them and say, wow! How did they do that? So you walk in the store and you go to the first floor, the sixth floor, the seventh floor. Well, we’re the window of our university. We bring a lot of people in, and then they find out what’s happening in medicine, law, business, history, English. As long as we understand that, and use it, it’s nothing but good. I’ve understood that from the get-go. Getting the right people to come in the door opens up development, research, faculty wanting to be here, recruitment, enrollment— look, it opens up everything. We know we’re part of that team.”
To capitalize on Duke basketball’s success, Krzyzewski helped launch the Legacy Fund. Established in 2000 and chaired by Grant Hill ’94, the Legacy Fund is an effort to fully endow the basketball program as well as capital improvements to basketball facilities. The Krzyzewskis donated $1 million to the fund in honor of Mike’s brother Bill, who retired from the Chicago Fire Department at the rank of captain. To date the fund has raised more than $60 million, enough to endow twelve scholarships, a graduate coaching position, two student managers, and an assistant coach. Proceeds from the K Academy fantasy camp also are directed to the fund.
“I want to make sure that when I’m gone,” he says, “the wheel keeps rolling.”
LEADERSHIP AND FAITH
It was a muggy evening in August 2011 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and the assembled travelers were getting restless. An entourage of Blue Devil staff, student-athletes, coaching and athletics staff, and paying boosters should have been airborne, on their way to a thirteen- day international trip to China and Dubai. But there had been an electrical problem with the plane coming from Miami. As the hour grew later, a travelagent representative, trying to be helpful, suggested that one option might be to put the team on a commercial flight so they could fly ahead.
“When that happened, immediately there was a sense of deflation among the entire group that was palpable,” says Sim Sitkin, a professor of management and faculty director of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics (COLE). He watched as Krzyzewski double-checked with athletics director Kevin White to make sure it was not a plan that had been authorized by Duke officials. It wasn’t. So Krzyzewski called the group together and addressed them as one.
“We’re a family, and we’re staying together as a family,” he told them. “Either all of us are going or none of us is going. We’re not splitting up the family, and we’re not leaving anyone behind. We’ll keep you updated but we’re all going as a group.”
“Instantly,” says Sitkin, “the energy level went back up through the roof.” It was a perfect illustration of why Krzyzewski’s instincts are so valuable to Sitkin and his colleagues at COLE. Sitkin says that he’s often observed Krzyzewski having extended conversations with people where sports will not even come up.
“He can use references to the business and government world, a variety of arenas, to make his point,” says Sitkin. “He is quite capable of not referring to sports at all, and that’s uncommon for a coach. But it’s common for him, which is what makes the collaboration between Athletics and Fuqua possible. As Mike describes, he’s a leader first, an educator second, and coach third.”
The Krzyzewskis are active in a number of community and national organizations, including Duke Children’s Hospital, the CEO Roundtable on Cancer, the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research, the National Association of Basketball Coaches Foundation, Coaches vs. Cancer, the Brain Tumor Center at Duke, and the iHoops Advisory Board. Coach K’s biggest point of pride is the Emily K Center, named for his mother. Located on West Chapel Hill Street in Durham, the center focuses on developing and nurturing the academic, character, and leadership potential of economically disadvantaged children.
The center is affiliated with the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, where Krzyzewski attends 7:45 mass every Sunday morning when he is in town. Before every game, he says a prayer: “Please, God, help me do my best, help me be myself, and help me lead with my heart.” Along with his West Point training, Krzyzewski’s faith is an unshakeable part of his foundation and informs his abiding sense of obligation.
“We have an amazing platform, and shame on us if we don’t use it,” he says. “I’m not trying to be ultra-religious, but to whom much is given much is expected. We’re the lucky ones. As a human being, none of us is better than any other human being. My mom used to clean offices, and she’s as good a person as I’ve ever met in my life. So I think I am very grounded, and my faith and my family help keep me that way.”
Intense from the bench
Intense from the bench
Coach K’s game face. Jon Gardiner
Powerful leaders run the risk of being deified— or vilified. Every day of his life, Mike Krzyzewski is acutely aware of how many people are depending on him or looking to him for guidance. Due in part to his involvement with cancer research initiatives at the local and national level, Krzyzewski often is approached by those battling the disease or by their loved ones. A dying patient asks for tickets to a Duke basketball game. A father whose child was diagnosed with a brain tumor asks Krzyzewski which doctor he should see. Leadership at that level is a daunting responsibility.
“It’s lonely,” he says. “You have the human emotions all of us have—afraid, nervous, unsure—but you can’t let your group know. A leader has to look strong and act strong. Sometimes I have to act it even when I don’t feel it. If you’re going to be a leader, there are going to be lonely times. Now, if you’re lonely all the time, well, then God bless you, you’d better work at something else.”
Having family close by helps. All three daughters—Debbie Krzyzewski Savarino ’93, Lindy Krzyzewski Frasher, and Jamie Krzyzewski Spatola ’10—and their husbands and children live in Durham, and the family gets together often, including a longstanding end-of-season beach trip to the North Carolina shore. Mike and Mickie also travel to Las Vegas every summer, where Mickie parks herself in front of the slot machines and Mike heads toward the video poker games. He also loves music— Broadway shows, Motown, Smoky Robinson, the Delfonics, and the variety of songs used in the videos prepared for each graduating senior.
“Sometimes I am so busy that I just run past my emotions,” he says. “Not emotions like anger or excitement, but the emotion of feeling something deep in your heart. At times like that I’ll put on a mix my daughters have made for me or one of the senior [video] soundtracks, and all of a sudden I start crying or get chills. It gets you to stop and feel that emotion.”
WHEN IT'S TIME TO LEAVE
The day will come when Mike Krzyzewski announces his retirement from coaching Duke basketball. It won’t be because of a specific number—winning his thousandth game, for instance, or a fifth national championship. Mickie insists that it’s not something they really think about, because they are always so focused on what’s right in front of them. Mike has promised her that it won’t be when he’s angry or after a painful loss.
Krzyzewski doesn’t miss a beat when asked how difficult it will be for him to step onto the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium— Coach K court—for the last time as coach. “It would be hard for me to walk away right now because I’m not ready to walk away,” he says. “When I’m ready to walk away, I don’t think it will be hard. I’ll know it’s time when I do not want to pay the price to win. In other words, when I don’t want to prepare and do the work.
“Look, I could just show up for awhile, and nothing’s going to happen to me, except that I would feel like a dirt bag. But when the time comes, I’ll know it and I’ll feel it. And I won’t be taking the whole wheel away. I’ll just be taking a part of it.”