When you think about the millions of rags-to-riches stories in American history, there may not be a journey quite like that of Mike Krzyzewski.
Yes, our own Roy Williams has a similarly impressive tale from a poor kid in Spruce Pine, NC, to the first in his family to go to college and on to a high school coach and protégé of Dean Smith that led him to be one of the leaders in his profession.
But Coach K’s story is even more amazing.
The son of two laborers from inner-city Chicago, Krzyzewski did well enough in high school to receive a nomination to West Point, which he only accepted to make his parents proud. He would have rather gone to another school to play basketball and then go earn a living to help his family.
At West Point, he played for a young Bob Knight and, while an average point guard, Krzyzewski excelled on defense and learned the game from one of the masters. He began coaching military teams here and abroad while in the Army and after his discharge rejoined Knight, who had since moved on to Indiana.
Krzyzewski became the head coach at Army at 28, where he first developed the nickname Coach K. He had an overall winning record with the Cadets but went 9-17 his last season, after which Duke interviewed him four times before reluctantly giving him the job. His salary in 1980 was $48,000. He was raising two daughters (with a third on the way) in a modest home in Northern Durham and buying $50 suits off the rack at someplace like Men’s Warehouse.
Clearly in the shadow of Smith’s UNC juggernaut and Jim Valvano’s N.C. State side show, Krzyzewski would call local sportswriters for a game of tennis. When the sports editor of the morning paper, a UNC alum and fan, quit, Coach K befriended his successor to form a lifelong bond that helped him better understand and grow into his job on Tobacco Road.
He always worked hard, but had to work smarter not to get crushed by the two state universities in his own neighborhood.
As a young coach at Duke, he faced criticism from within and outside. Some alumni who thought Athletic Director Tom Butters was nuts for hiring the unknown 33-year-old Army coach formed the “Concerned Iron Dukes.”
“What were they concerned about?” Krzyzewski likes to say with a smirk. “They were concerned about me being their coach.”
Those Concerned Iron Dukes still around are now among Coach K’s biggest supporters. But he hasn’t forgotten who they are and where they once stood.
After two losing seasons and a shaky start in 1984, Butters surprised even his own coach by giving him a new five-year contract. From there, Krzyzewski has built a powerhouse basketball program to rival, and at times surpass, any in the country, including UNC under Smith and Williams.
He led the Blue Devils to a remarkable run of seven Final Fours in nine years, including back-to-back national championships in 1991 and ’92. He was making more than 48 grand by then, for sure.
Three times, he flirted with the NBA – the most serious with Portland. He also talked to the Celtics and, most recently, the Lakers. In each case, the family program he built and power he had amassed at Duke won out, and he’s now in his 34th season coaching the Blue Devils.
The biggest crisis in his personal and professional life came in 1995, when after returning too soon from back surgery, he was forced by his doctors and his wife Mickie to sit out the rest of the season. When he returned in 1996, after spending months of alone time at his home, he made significant changes.
He replaced most of his coaching and administrative staff in an attempt to re-invent Duke basketball. He dropped his local weekly radio show because he thought it took too much time and stress to answer mostly dumb questions from callers. He became less accessible to the local media (holding only two regular season press conferences before both UNC games, compared to Roy Williams’ weekly pressers), but more accommodating to the national media as he prioritized building Duke into a true national brand.
He formed a trusted inner circle, led by former assistant athletic director Mike Cragg, who shielded him from requests and demands and embarked on looking for opportunities that would help build his personal and Duke brands. You’ve seen the Amex, GM and Paine-Webber ads, to name a few. Now he has his own weekly satellite radio show, Basketball and Beyond, where he interviews some of the other biggest names in sports.
He is now a millionaire many times over and, finally, built his dream home in Duke Forest where his growing family of sons-in-law and grandchildren have enough room to visit and spend quality time with their grand-pop.
Working at what is the perfect school for him, Krzyzewski can run more of a private corporation than a college basketball program. He employs each of his three daughters in some phase of his basketball, health care and fund-raising endeavors. He is not bound by state laws, only Duke’s permission and budget approval, to add non-coaching personnel to his private staff. He likely pays some out of his own pocket.
While the size of Cameron Indoor Stadium limits the amount of revenue his basketball program brings in, he makes up for it by raising money for his Legacy Fund to endow basketball scholarships and coaching salaries and capital improvements to the Cameron complex, plus millions more for other carefully selected charities. He is by far the highest-paid employee at Duke University. Based on a recent annual tax return made public by Duke, Krzyzewski earned $10 million that year.
In a recent USA Today survey, Duke easily leads the nation in money spent by its basketball program on luxury travel for his teams, coaching and staff salaries and the expense of recruiting nationally and worldwide to find the best players.
He has continued to bring home championships, once winning the ACC regular season and/or ACC Tournament for 10 consecutive years. Think about that. While it took him 12 years at Duke to win his first two NCAA titles, it took him 23 years to win his next two. Like Smith did so many years ago, that speaks for how much the competition improved trying to beat him.
Meanwhile, by averaging about 30 victories a year with so many more games college teams play these days, he passed his mentor Knight (who had passed Smith) for the most major college Ws. At 978 and three-plus seasons until he turns 70, Krzyzewski could very well reach 1100 wins before he retires.
He has actually grown more humble (and slightly less profane) as he’s aged, perhaps sensing his own mortality as well as not wanting to deter that co-brand building. Some people he was pretty tough on years ago, he has apologized to for his being young and stupid (my words, not his).
Though in his fourth decade at Duke, Krzyzewski does not seem like he has lost an ounce of passion, and doesn’t look out of place at all jumping off the bench and chest-bumping his players. He is one of the most visible men in America and, despite that, doesn’t seem to make many mistakes in words or actions.
And now he’s into his second decade as America’s coach, running a USA Basketball program that has lost exactly one game in 10 years. He has restored the pride in playing for your country among young people, and the only negative thing you can say about being the three-time Olympic Coach is that it has given Duke a significant recruiting advantage.
When you think about the journeys of other self-made men, whether becoming philanthropists or business tycoons, they have accomplished all of it in relative privacy, maybe some co-workers looking on instead of millions watching on television twice a week and reams written endlessly by traditional and social media about Duke basketball and its iconic coach.
Think of all that attention, all that pressure to win, all the sniping from rivals near and far, and all the times Mike Krzyzewski might have driven off the road. It happened to him once, and he came back stronger than ever.