Coach K: A sports role model we can actually root for


Coach K in 2009, signing autographs before the Army-Duke football game. (photo courtesy of A.Hodges, released into public domain by CC 3.0)

Coach K in 2009, signing autographs before the Army-Duke football game. (photo courtesy of A.Hodges, released into public domain by CC 3.0)

There is a silver lining in every cloud after all, and this week we will find it on the hoops hardwood.

Recently, the nation’s sports attention has been on DeflateGate – the alleged cheating by the New England Patriots in the recent AFC Championship Game, enroute to the Super Bowl.

And while that affair’s fallout will linger, one sports coach with the nickname of a single letter rose above it all to remind us that leadership and big time sports (in this case at the college level) are not mutually exclusive slaves to the cult of misguided priorities.

This Sunday night, at Madison Square Garden, the man known simply as Coach K will strive to be the first ever college men’s hoops coach to lead his teams to 1,000 victories.

Already, in 2011 and in the same arena,  Coach K became the all-time wins leader in men’s college basketball, when his Duke Blue Devils downed the Michigan State Spartans for his 903rd career victory.

His journey to the pinnacle – which promises to go on as he is only 67 and shows no signs of slowing down – offers many keepsakes.

Michael (Mike) Krzyzewski (pronounced shuh-SHEV-ski) was born in Chicago to a middle class Polish-American family. Growing up he attended Catholic schools and went to college at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he was an undersized point guard for Bob Knight’s Army team, serving as captain his senior year.

Coach Knight, who has a reputation for temper and boorishness, nevertheless was a brilliant basketball mind who ran clean programs, and until 2011 stood atop the career wins table. That is, until his former pupil passed him.

As if the leadership training and discipline at West Point weren’t enough, Coach Knight also added some weapons to the younger K’s arsenal.

One of these was how to lead a cohort working toward common goals – as well as influence young hearts and minds. All this at an institution where academics come first, the daily schedule is overbearing by design, and few allowances are made for varsity athletes.

Moreover, Cadet K learned a lesson many of our national leaders could stand to pick up: take the blame when things go wrong, and dish out praise to others when all is well. This approach complemented West Point’s philosophy of leading from the front. Its blend of vitality, egalitarianism and humility suited Cadet K’s upbringing as well as his future leadership.


Point guard and Army team captain, Cadet Mike Krzyzewski, with head coach Bob Knight, 1969. (Photo source: U.S. Army Archives, in public domain)

After graduation and a mandatory five year Army stint, Coach K began by taking over the hoop reins at his alma mater, and then in 1980 he moved on to Duke.

In doing so, Coach K demonstrated he had learned another one of West Point’s lessons: Positive leadership, determination, and focus can quickly take a unit from the dregs to a higher place.

As a refresher to those who don’t follow sports: back then Duke wasn’t the basketball powerhouse it is today. Instead, it was the laughing stock of the Atlantic Coast Conference, with no major history of success or lineage from which to draw. So Coach K built his own. That he did it in an athletic conference where six of the eight teams were national powers makes his accomplishment even more remarkable.

Along the way, many noticed his success. While earning a very comfortable living at Duke, Coach K was offered millions more to jump ship by four National Basketball Association (NBA) teams. Yet each time he turned the pros down, choosing instead to be loyal to the program he nurtured.

Eventually, he began coaching the national team, too, leading it to both World Championship and Olympic title.

Importantly, during his career, Coach K managed to shed the Bob Knight clone accusation he heard for years after taking over at Army. While still an intense competitor, his players today swear that his demeanor is nothing like what it’s purported to have been several decades ago.

Coach K’s necessary stats have been touted elsewhere. Yet four national championships and 999 wins later – not to mention a high player graduation rate and a squeaky clean program – one wonders why it can’t be done this way more often in college sports.

Especially in the wake of so many scandals in the college athletic ranks, the assertion that we shouldn’t look to sports for role models is once again in the national spotlight.

But in Coach K we should agree that there is at least one sports figure everyone can root for, and importantly, not for sports, but for strength of character.

Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.