Coach consistent: Krzyzewski’s long-running success is all about loyalty
As Mike Krzyzewski closes in on his 1,000th career victory — which could happen Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden against St. John’s (pregame coverage starts at 1:30 p.m. ET on FOX) — there’s no shortage of talk about where Coach K ranks on the all-time coaching list.
Does he rank higher as a college coach than John Wooden? Do his 1,000 victories, four national titles, 11 Final Fours and two Olympic gold medals outstrip Phil Jackson and his 11 rings? Is Coach K the greatest active coach in sports, better than Bill Belichick, better than Nick Saban, better than Gregg Popovich?
My answer to all those questions, an answer that isn’t very hot-take-y of me: I don’t know.
The G.O.A.T. arguments are fun, a staple for sports fans for generations. What makes these arguments endure is they’re so subjective, you can never really come up with firm answers. That’s the rub with comparing across eras: It’s often apples to oranges. I tend to believe Coach K accomplishing what he has in his era is more impressive than John Wooden accomplishing what he did in his era, because there’s just so much more competition these days. But if you’re a Wooden-ite, I’m not going to argue with you too long.
But the one thing that impresses me most about Coach K is not that big round number of 1,000 but instead the way he’s gotten there: With an enormous amount of consistency over four decades, and, since March 18, 1980, all in the exact same spot.
To me, Coach K’s story is a story about longevity.
Putting down your roots in one spot and staying there may be the most underrated virtue in modern America. We are movers. We stay in jobs for a few years, get restless, move on. We move on in our hobbies, in our marriages, in everything. We’re always looking for the next big thing. A recent study showed that the average millennial will end up holding between 15 and 20 jobs in his or her lifetime.
Coach K’s greatest accomplishment is this: He has turned down NBA head-coaching jobs at least five times, none more famously than when he declined the Los Angeles Lakers’ offer despite a ridiculous salary and partial team ownership. Instead of chasing something bigger and possibly better, Coach K wanted to cement his legacy in a place that has become synonymous with his name.
One college coach recently lamented to me that there’s no place for happy-where-I’m-at in today’s America: You’re either doing well and people think you should leave for a better job, or you’re not doing well and should get fired. Thank God that that mentality wasn’t in full effect back in 1983, when the third-year Duke head coach was on his way to his second straight losing season; Coach K could have been fired before the legend ever took root. And thank God Coach K wasn’t tempted by other flashier jobs offers and stayed in the place that he turned into one of the best basketball-coaching jobs on earth. He could have flamed out in one of those NBA jobs, and his story would have forever been altered.
What I am in awe of most about Coach K isn’t "How many?" but simply, "How?" How can one man have the steady day-in, day-out dependability to win 30-plus games 13 times? How can one man come to the same arena nearly every day for 35 years and still bring the growling intensity of a young and hungry coach?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with five of Coach K’s former players and assistant coaches who are currently big-time head coaches: Johnny Dawkins at Stanford, Tommy Amaker at Harvard, Chris Collins at Northwestern, Bobby Hurley at Buffalo and Steve Wojciechowski at Marquette. Each of them marveled at Coach K’s energy. You’d think that, after 35 years at the same place, he’d get bored. He never has. He always brings his fullest, his former assistants say, because even though he’s trod these roads before, his players haven’t.
"As an assistant coach for him, you had a much bigger appreciation for what he does," Wojciechowski told me. "He drinks iced tea nonstop during the day. His assistants would always ask, ‘What’s in that iced tea that allows this 60-something guy to run laps around us every day?’ He has so much going on, and he handles it all so well."
Those five former assistants spoke about a coach who has achieved legendary status by never thinking too far in the future.
"He’s been so good because he’s always focused on the here and now," Amaker told me. "He’s always been immersed in the moment. That’s why he’s been so good. Every situation in every game has a life of its own."
"There’s something different about him," Wojciechowski said. "There was something different about him from the moment I met him. It’s hard to place finger on what that is. But he’s got it. …
"Maybe it’s that he’s just always so good at focusing on the task at hand," Wojciechowski continued. "I’m sure his complete focus is on growing and developing this current team, not on 1,000. At some point, he’ll step back with his family, look at this milestone as another one of the incredible things he’s been able to accomplish. But knowing him, he stays in the moment pretty darn well."
It can be easy, now that he’s on the cusp of becoming the first Division I coach to get 1,000 wins, to think it’s always been easy at Duke. But there were rumblings of his being fired during that 11-17 season his third year at Duke. He started four freshmen that year, and Duke’s then-athletic director Tom Butters stood by his man. By those freshmen’s senior year, Duke made Coach K’s first national title game.
Talk about coming full circle: The starting lineup that is about to get Coach K his 1,000th win — possibly Sunday at Madison Square Garden, the same venue where Coach K surpassed his mentor Bobby Knight a few years back — includes three freshmen who are likely one-and-doners: Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow.
But a man whose greatest achievement may be longevity is only able to make it this far by staying up with the times. He’s not a man who is set in his ways. Just look at the past week, when Duke — suddenly on the ropes with a two-game losing streak — did something Coach K hardly ever does and played zone defense against Louisville and Pitt, two games that have set this team back on track.
"He’s been able to adapt over the years with different teams playing different ways," Duke legend Bobby Hurley told me. "But he always recruits to what he wants. He brings in the type of players he wants to coach, that fit his style, that fit Duke."
If Duke wins this weekend, platitudes will be showered down on Coach K. Many of them will be authentic and effusive, like when Chris Collins told me it’s not just the number 1,000 that’s impressive, it’s the fact he’s done it the right way.
But more than the mind-boggling numbers, I’ll focus on the simple fact that Coach K found the perfect fit for himself, and Duke University found the perfect fit for itself, and what the two have found together ever since. There’s not enough loyalty in this world, and not enough longevity, either. So beyond any big fat number, let’s honor that above all.
Email Reid Forgrave at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.