How did Mike Krzyzewski reach 1,000 wins? With a million small steps
To understand how Mike Krzyzewski has coached his teams to 1,000 wins, it helps to examine his immediate reactions after the two most memorable ones.
March 30, 1991. Indianapolis. Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils were playing in their fifth Final Four but had never won an NCAA title. In the semifinal, the Blue Devils were playing top-ranked, undefeated UNLV, which had waxed Duke by 30 points in the previous year’s championship game. Duke won, 79-77. When the buzzer sounded, Krzyzewski’s players jumped on each other in jubilation.
What did Krzyzewski do? He stood on the sidelines with his arms extended and his hands flat. An angry scowl was on his face. He was telling his players, Stop celebrating. We have another game to play.
Fast forward to March 28, 1992. Philadelphia. Duke, now playing the role of the heavily-favored, top-ranked reigning champ, beats Kentucky 104-103 in overtime in what is widely considered to be the greatest game in the history of the NCAA tournament. At the moment Christian Laettner’s game-winner splashed through the net, Duke’s players were once again delirious with joy.
What did Krzyzewski do? He shook hands with Kentucky’s coaches and players, and then he walked up press row to where Cawood Ledford, the legendary radio voice of Kentucky basketball, was conducting his final broadcast. Ledford, who had announced at the start of the season that was retiring, didn’t know Krzyzewski, but he sat amazed as the Duke coach put on a headset so he could talk directly to Kentucky’s fans. Bypassing the joy his players were still feeling, Krzyzewski expressed sympathy to those sad souls in the Bluegrass. He told them to be proud of how valiantly their Wildcats had played.
These were what are commonly called naked moments. A man cannot fake who is in these instants. So there he was, the coach with no clothes, showing the world -- and his players -- exactly who he was. It’s one thing to talk the talk about focus, discipline and perspective, but can a man walk it in the most extreme circumstances?
For 40 years, at two schools, during 11 Final Fours and four NCAA championships, and now through 1,000 wins -- the most recent of which came in a 77-68 comeback over St. John's at Madison Square Garden on Sunday -- Mike Krzyzewski has walked that walk. He has done his best to take every step the same way. Despite all he has accomplished as the head coach at Army and Duke, he is still the same West Point cadet who piloted his team as point guard under Bob Knight’s stricture not to shoot. He is the same man who nearly lost his job in Durham after his teams went a combined 21-34 in his second and third seasons there. He is wealthy and famous and wildly successful, yet he is still the immigrant’s kid from inner-city Chicago whose dad changed his name to Kross because he believed that a man named Krzyzewski would never amount to much in America.
If there’s one knock on Krzyzewski’s coaching acumen, it is that he is not a so-called great X’s and O’s guy. This happens to be true. He coaches man-to-man defense and motion offense, both of which are designed to empower players to trust their instincts. This is how he coaches, too. He feels the game more than he thinks it.
Take, for example, another memorable win, the 2010 NCAA championship game against Butler. Duke led, 60-59, with 3.6 seconds to play when its starting center, Brian Zoubek, went to the foul line. The Bulldogs were out of timeouts. After Zoubek made the first free throw to put the Blue Devils up by two points, Krzyzewski told him to miss the second. This was a huge risk, because a three-pointer by Butler would have won the game instead of sending it to overtime. And, in fact, that’s almost what happened, but Gordon Hayward’s halfcourt heave plunked off the rim. Had it gone in, Krzyzewski’s unconventional ploy would have lived in infamy.
When Krzyzewski was asked after the game why he took the risk, he didn’t cite percentages. He didn’t talk strategy. He said he was worried that the whole Butler-as-Cinderella vibe in the stadium would be too much to overcome if the game went to overtime. Many coaches would consider such a move in those circumstances, but very few of them would follow through. Krzyzewski trusted his instinct. He went by feel.
When Krzyzewski talks about his players, he is more likely to break down their psyches than their jump shots. Their body language matters way more than how they defend the screen-and-roll. When Bobby Hurley played point guard at Duke, Krzyzewski once showed him a video of his poor facial expressions as he reacted to officials’ calls. Krzyzewski told Hurley that he was projecting weakness to his teammates as well as the opponents. He wanted Hurley to grow up. That conversation put Hurley on a path that included a late three-pointer in that semifinal against UNLV, which spurred the Blue Devils' comeback. Krzyzewski has called it the biggest shot any player has made in his coaching career. It wasn’t Hurley’s form and follow-through that made that happen. It was the confidence he felt to take it.
This is the Krzyzewski advantage. He coaches his guys from the inside out. I first realized this during my freshman year as an undergraduate at Duke. During a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium early in the season, I was sitting a few rows behind the the home team's bench when Krzyzewski yanked Christian Laettner from the game. Laettner had made a mistake and Krzyzewski was really pissed. Laettner took a seat a few feet in front of me, and I heard every word, most of them profane, as Krzyzewski screamed in Laettner’s grill.
Nowadays, when we think of Christian Laettner, we think of a guy who played with unmitigated arrogance, but back then he was just a young freshman who wanted to please his coach. When Krzyzewski returned to his seat, Laettner dropped his head.
Just then, Krzyzewski shouted toward his freshman, “Christian! Keep your head up! Learn from your mistakes.”
This has been the case every step of the way. We think of the great coaches as being controlling taskmasters. Krzyzewski has been guided by a belief system that instills his players with the inner poise that leads to growth. In his view, mistakes aren’t an unfortunate downside to playing. They are an integral part of growing up. Thus his favorite metaphor: “If you put a plant inside a jar, it will grow to the shape of the jar. But if you take away the jar, who knows how big that plant will grow?”
As for his favorite phrase, Krzyzewski’s players will tell you, it is “Next play.” Those are the words he wrote on the grease board when he walked into the postgame locker room following Duke’s win over West Virginia in the 2010 Final Four. He told them about how his 1991 team was able to put its win over UNLV behind it so it could prepare to play Kansas in the final two nights later. He wanted them to do the same.
He did not arrive at 1,000 wins because of some grand design. He did so by taking a million small steps, planting his feet wherever his instincts told him to. You cannot be one person on a recruiting visit, or at practice, or during a team meal, or during a meeting with a player, or in the locker room and then be a completely different person when your team pulls off a win for the ages. So it is with today's win over St. John's. The rest of the world might be celebrating a milestone, but Krzyzewski is already preparing to place another step. The game is over. Time to get on to the next play.