How Coach K Overcomes Epic Wins (and Losses)

UPDATED: April 1, 2014
PUBLISHED: April 1, 2014

Ask anyone in the worlds of business or sports the most important qualities for success, and they’re likely to say “hard work” and “determination.”

While no one can argue the importance of both of these two traits, they often tower over a value that I’ve learned can play as pivotal a role in sustaining success as any: humility.

Success can temporarily blind us and subject us to various pitfalls, perhaps the easiest and most problematic of which is complacency. Too much pride after a great victory can bring us to potential disappointment if we focus too much on applauding what we just accomplished instead of preparing for the next obstacle. Additionally, one of the biggest challenges to winners is dealing with defeat. Dealing with loss too negatively can jeopardize our future goals.

For many, the path to success is a grueling road, but what happens when you reach success? Do you celebrate too excessively? Do you start believing that your past accomplishments are enough to carry you into the future? How do you remain vigilant after that big win? Better yet, how do you respond to that big loss?

The answer for Mike Krzyzewski, legendary head basketball coach of the Duke Blue Devils, is to remain humble in a loss and to “overcome an epic win”. It might seem unnatural to think of winning as something a team must overcome, but that mentality is precisely what prevents Coach K from growing overconfident following a significant victory or mercilessly consumed by a major loss.

This quality was in rare form two weeks ago when his team was eliminated from the NCAA tournament by Mercer University. It was an upset that shocked March Madness fans, but Coach K handled the loss gracefully and even visited the Mercer locker room after the game.

“I love the game, and you guys play the game really well,” Krzyzewski said. “If we had to be beaten, I’m glad that we got beat by a heck of a basketball team.”

Coach K is a prime example of a humble leader that does not lose perspective, even in defeat.


In a contrast to the unexpected loss, a few weeks earlier Duke defeated Syracuse (then the No. 1 team in the nation), 66-60 in a game that has become an instant classic. It was a huge win to close out the regular season.

In the post-game press conference, Coach K resisted the urge to gloat or relish the win. Instead, he reflected back to 1991, when his Duke team defeated the seemingly unstoppable Runnin’ Rebels from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in the Final Four. That year, UNLV’s forty-five game win streak ended in a 79-77 loss to Duke.

After that win over UNLV, Duke fans filled the lobby of the team hotel as though they had already won the title, but Coach K was not up for a party. His main concern was that his players didn’t become overly confident in their abilities and give any less than 100% for the remaining challenges. Coach K’s team maintained composure and won the title—his first as a head coach.

“To me, that was our greatest national championship, because we had to overcome an epic win,” Krzyzewski recalled. But Coach K knew that the season came with more than just one big victory along the way. “A lot of people today would say that we won the national championship that year when we beat Vegas. Just like a lot of people think we won the next year when we beat Kentucky. And you have to get past those things if you’re going to win.”


The same is true for all of us. Great leaders do not allow themselves to be consumed in the celebration of success. They can be excited about the accomplishment but must stay focused on their goals and on the next task. They know their reaction to victory sets the tone for future success.

Despite now having four national championships, 13 Atlantic Coastal Conference titles, and a multitude of coaching awards, Coach K continues to showcase character and class in every victory and loss. It’s fascinating to see a head coach handle an emotional win against Syracuse and disappointing loss against Mercer with such humility.


How do you respond to a great victory? Do you overcome your epic wins by keeping yourself focused on the next challenges? Are you learning to lead with an overall goal in mind, or are you solely focused on the smaller victories?


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