It was the best 50th birthday gift any wife could give a basketball junkie: five days of playing hoops on the storied court of Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke University against dozens of similarly obsessed guys looking to find the fountain of youth.
Given this dream opportunity to play at coach Mike Krzyzewski’s exclusive “K Academy” in Durham, N.C., I set out to make sure I could savor every moment of that 2013 event. I hired a basketball-specific physical trainer. I went through drills I hadn’t done in years. I didn’t just go to the gym; I worked to get into playing shape.
And I groaned every time my wife told our friends I was doing all this to “play in a fantasy camp.”
“There’s no fantasy here,” I would say, usually out of breath. “This is serious stuff.”
So imagine the reaction that late May evening when she and I sat among the balding masses for our introduction to one of the greatest coaches in history… and Coach K’s greeting was, “Welcome to my fantasy camp.”
I groaned again. My wife laughed under her breath. We’ve been back every year since.
The basketball season preceding the 2015 camp included a tough winter for Krzyzewski—henceforth Coach K. In late January, for the first time in his 35 years running the Duke program, he had to dismiss a player for violating team rules. That followed a streak in which his once-undefeated and second-ranked team lost three of six games.
Suddenly a season that started with great promise teetered on the brink. Making matters worse, between injuries and the player dismissal, the Blue Devils were left with only eight scholarship players—the most talented athletes… the athletes you need in droves if you want to win anything.
What came next was a private coaching moment, and it led to a championship Coach K says is like none other. On Jan. 29, the Blue Devils staff assembled the team in the locker room and Coach K went to the whiteboard.
“Eight is what we have,” the winningest man in college basketball said as he drew the number on the board. “But eight is actually the perfect number. Look at it. Two perfect loops joined together. It’s connected. Turn it on its side and it is the symbol for infinity. Eight is never-ending.
“It is all we have… and it is all we need.”
One by one, the coach went around the room reminding each player why he was special, and then he declared that the goal had not changed. Duke fully intended to be national champion.
The world didn’t know about that meeting, but sports fans heard Duke players use Coach K’s mantra: Eight is enough.
During some downtime from the fantasy camp, I sat with the coach at a conference table adjacent to his office. In our interview—held just seven weeks after his team cut down the Final Four nets on April 6 with a comeback win over the University of Wisconsin—Coach K shared lessons from what he said is the most improbable of his five NCAA championship seasons.
“We talked about eight being enough, but never could I have imagined that it was the eighth guy on our bench, when we needed it most, who was the reason we won a national championship,” Coach K says, discussing the title game heroics of freshman Grayson Allen, who was the last scholarship player on the Duke bench. Allen came alive when Duke looked all but dead, trailing Wisconsin by nine points in the second half with the two best Blue Devils dogged by foul trouble. In a moment that Coach K said was game-changing, Allen dove for a loose ball that went out of bounds off a Wisconsin player. As he popped up, the freshman looked over at his teammates on the bench and shouted at the top of his lungs, “LET’S GO!”
“We needed more than the shots that he made,” Coach K says. “We needed the change in environment that he delivered. How the hell did he do that? He was able to do it because his team believed in him. There was no doubt that he was capable. There was no jealousy when all the attention was showered on him. Watch when that ball goes out on Wisconsin, the reaction of our two best players on the bench. They are up screaming for him, and it was not phony.
“It was great. It was special. That kid won the game, and he won the game because he changed the emotional environment. He got our two guys on the bench to quit thinking about their foul trouble. I was thinking we were dead in the water, but he made me believe. At that moment, I was not 68; I was 28.”
And here is the big thing that separates Coach K from all the other guys who can draw up a timely pick and roll in X’s and O’s: He sees the big picture.
“There was no strategy that changed the game,” Coach K says. “It was culture. It was the culture we work to build. We have in our program what I call the horizontal totem pole, where everyone is important and everyone’s status is significant, whether you’re the best player or the guy at the end of the bench. When you approach your team that way, everyone has to do the right thing all the time. Because if your bench guy is not practicing at full potential, that sets a poor environment for your best players. Everyone has to give, has to do the right thing, and everyone has to know what’s expected and what they can expect. There was no question that is what happened in the championship game.
“And it was a beautiful thing. In my career, that was the best thing I have been a part of.”
To put that statement into context, consider his career: As a head guy, Coach K’s teams have won 1,018 games. No one in men’s Division I basketball has won more. While delivering those five championships—second only to the great UCLA coach John Wooden—he has had more of his players selected in the first round of the NBA Draft than any contemporary. He has coached USA Basketball to two Olympic gold medals and two other international tournament golds.
But that one moment during the 2015 NCAA title game, he says, was his best.
Part of the reason for Coach K’s sustained success is that he is a master motivator. Ask his former players to name a moment when he reached into a hat to pull out an inspirational rabbit, and they’ll share a story of something he’s done that brought the team together, usually on a deeply emotional level. The run to the 2015 title was no different. During our conversation, Coach K shared another story that hasn’t been discussed publicly. This particular rabbit was part of how his staff gave the 2015 team an added dose of inspiration.
“Just before the NCAA Tournament, [associate head coach Jeff] Capel had an idea, and we brought out a ball that we didn’t let the public know about,” Coach K says, a sly smile washing over his face. “We told the team, ‘We are going to have this ball with us on our way through this tournament, and we would like for you to write on the ball the names of people who have made it possible for you to be here—people who mean something to you.’ We didn’t want 100 names each, though we didn’t put a limit. Most of the guys put between three and eight names on it.
“Then we told the team we would carry that ball everywhere we go, but we won’t have it out for the public, we don’t want it to be a publicity thing—a lot of people do things so other people can see it, especially today. They want to post it on Facebook or tweet about it. That wasn’t the plan here.
“The coaches wrote down names, too. I put seven names down—mine were my wife and my three daughters, my high school coach, [longtime close friend] Mo Molinsky and Father Rog [Francis Rog, Coach K’s priest when he was growing up in Chicago]. Then players started carrying the ball around—to team meals, on the plane, at practices, in the locker room. Some of the guys slept with it—had it right there with them in their rooms. We said that after we won the championship for those people, we would then send an autographed ball from all of us to each of the people on there and explain how they had helped carry us through.
“So when we did win, we prepared a letter that explained what we had done and then Quinn [Cook, senior captain] wrote a note to every person saying, ‘Thanks. You were with us every step of the way.’ It was a powerful reminder of how many people were responsible for us being in that moment.”
And, Coach K says, it was a great lesson in showing gratitude. Several of those who received the letter were awestruck by the gesture.
Coach K is respected by his peers as one of the greatest coaches of all time, not just because of his win totals or national championships, but because he has maintained success for such an extended period and won with such dramatically different approaches to the game through the years.
“Think about it: There wasn’t a single player on the 2015 national championship team who was even born when he won his first championship in 1991,” says Jim Boeheim, the head coach at Syracuse University and the only Division I coach who has spent more time at a single school than K. “That has to be some kind of record.”
In fact, according to the NCAA, no basketball coach has ever had a greater gap between a first and last championship than the 24-year window for Coach K. While Boeheim might be impressed with that feat, Coach K is not amazed.
“Sometimes when people ask what adjustments I’ve had to make over the years, they make it sound as if I’ve had to do something hard,” he says. “I think a lot of the things are easier to do if you are a willing learner. You have to be willing to learn what’s best and then adjust, because every year is different, every team is different. We have a guaranteed 100 percent turnover rate every four years. If you believe what you’ve done in the past is the only way to do it with a new group, time will prove you wrong. So you should want to be in a constant state of making adjustments.
“The most incredibly interesting thing about being a leader is what adjustments you make and how you make them while keeping your core principles alive and well.”
Coach K says that when others ask for his advice on adapting as a leader, he suggests two habits: Get to know those you’re leading and learn to communicate in a way they can understand.
“Look at your team,” he says. “Do you have a veteran group, or do you have a young group? What is their attention span? What is the culture that they are coming from? It is up to you as the communicator to know who you are addressing. It is not like some special science. It’s wanting to learn more about people and really knowing the people you are leading at that point. And not making those people fit into something that you did in the past.
“You have to create an environment for those people, for the people that you have right now.”
Getting to know the players on his team—and how to reach each one—has changed greatly over the years, largely because college basketball’s relationship with the NBA has evolved. Where Coach K’s first elite teams were led by upperclassmen, today’s best college players are leaving school early to play professionally. Days after winning this year’s title, three Blue Devils freshmen announced they were headed to the pros.
Whereas Coach K was resolute early in his career that he wanted to recruit players who intended to stay four years at Duke, he knows that model would eliminate many of the best recruits today. Again, he’s learned to adapt.
“It used to be that we had plenty of time to get to know our players. That’s not always the case anymore, which means that where I used to wait until they were on campus to start understanding them, now I need to get to know them better before they arrive. I need to get to know their families better earlier. I need to know where they’re coming from, and I need to understand their character. How do they listen to their parents?
“When players started coming into college for one year and then leaving, my first reaction was to not recruit those guys. Then we had to play against them because our competitors recruited them. So we decided to adjust but to do so in pursuit of players who fit here not just because they were good players, but because they could fit our culture. They had to fit our profile as academically ready for a school like Duke, have talent on the court and have character.
“I think we’ve adjusted well,” he says, smiling again.
There’s that theme again. You can almost hear a basketball swishing through a net every time he drives it home.
“I can’t say it often enough,” Krzyzewski says as our one-on-one time comes to a close. “To coach and lead others is a great opportunity, but to be successful over the long haul, you have to adapt and adjust. That is the key to success.”
Coach K is featured on the September 2015 cover of SUCCESS magazine, where this article appears.