The “K” in Mike Krzyzewski‘s nickname could also stand for “King.”
The Duke basketball coach has climbed to the top of his own personal and professional mountain as the highest-paid employee at his university and, metaphorically, overseeing his empire on the top floor of the six-story tower that sits next to Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Entering his 33rd season as coach of the Blue Devils, there are now calls for a higher calling for Coach King. Former Duke Coach Bucky Waters says he has accomplished all he needs to on the bench and should go to Washington to provide the kind of leadership he has demonstrated throughout most of his career.
If not Washington, then certainly to the NCAA, which does not have separate “commissioners” for football and basketball. If it did, Krzyzewski would be the perfect candidate to lead his sport – help rewrite the rules book, negotiate the age limits imposed by the NBA and generally bring order to a billion-dollar sport that has been rocked by recruiting chaos and off-court scandals.
It may look easy for Coach K these days, with private Duke, USA Basketball and his own corporation funding an entourage of assistants and staff members to meet every need of Krzyzewski and his extended family. Whatever shade of blue your blood runs and whatever you think of the man, he has overcome tough times to lead what appears to be a charmed life.
He began at Duke in 1980 as a no-name third banana to Dean Smith and the flamboyant Jim Valvano at N.C. State. Both men won national championships before Krzyzewski fashioned a winning season with the players he recruited. A group of prominent alumni calling itself the “Concerned Iron Dukes” lobbied for his dismissal, convinced he was the wrong choice to recapture Duke’s glory days of the 1960s.
He was not chased out of town by Carolina’s preeminence, like so many other coaches at Duke and State. In fact, Krzyzewski used his training as a West Point cadet and his service overseas to hunker down behind what he referred to as enemy lines. When his oldest daughter called from middle school to come get her because of teasing from other students and teachers, Coach K did go to the school – to bring her a Duke shirt and made her put it on. He went on to raise a family that’s every bit as tough as its leader.
Gutsy athletic Director Tom Butters, who hired Krzyzewski off a Bobby Knight recommendation, awarded a new contract to the head coach when the Iron Dukes wanted his head. Right on cue, Duke began winning and went on a dominating run of reaching seven Final Fours in a nine year span between 1986 and ’94, including back-to-back national championships in 1991 and ‘92.
The man who began at Duke earning $48,000 and buying cheap suits off the rack while living in a modest home in northern Durham was seemingly set for life, electing to stay at Duke after turning down the first of many NBA offers. But that life was to begin again over the next few years.
It started with a debilitating lower back injury, from which he came back too quickly after surgery, and missed most of the 1995 season when his Duke program crashed and burned deep in the ACC standings. He returned in 1996, but by then Dean Smith had regained his place as the king of coaches, taking four teams to the Final Four in the 1990s and winning his second national championship in 1993. Even after Smith retired in October of 1997, Duke had yet to regain its full measure of prominence.
Much of that was Krzyzewski still coaching in pain. You could see it on his face, as he grimaced through games, standing up, sitting down, squatting in front of his players and, occasionally, barking at a referee. After taking an undefeated 1999 ACC team back to the Final Four, Coach K was apparently so numbed by pain-killing medication on the bench that he could not keep his players from letting the game slip away to UConn.
The back eventually healed but not before two hip replacements corrected his gait that was affecting other parts of his now 50-year-old body. Fighting back to good health, he led Duke to a third national championship in 2001 and nearly won a fourth before that lead slipped away – again to UConn – in the 2004 semifinals. Krzyzewski and Duke watched Roy Williams and Carolina win two NCAA titles before Coach K got his fourth with an overachieving team that capitalized on a great draw and beat Cinderella Butler on the last play of the 2010 Dance.
By then, Krzyzewski was already an international figure, having taken over as America’s coach in 2006 and won our first Gold Medal since 2000 by convincing a bunch of NBA millionaires to play as a team in Beijing in 2008. USA Basketball had been in shambles, thanks to so many ladles in the soup when former UNC star and iconic coach Larry Brown had to replace nine players just before the 2004 Games in Athens and settled for the Bronze medal amid much embarrassment.
Asked by USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo to stay on through the 2012 Olympics in London, Krzyzewski did so and maneuvered a talented but undersized NBA all-star team through improving international competition to win yet another Gold.
Now, at 65, he’s back at Duke trying to build one more national champion that would move him into second place behind only the legendary John Wooden (10) of UCLA. The Blue Devils may not be good enough before Coach K retires or moves on to Washington or to lead NCAA basketball, but overcoming a tough start and a physical breakdown has made what seems like a charmed life more of a sustained, successful and satisfying journey for the new King of Coaches.