Mike Krzyzewski is a guy with a hard-to-spell name who came from a poor part of Chicago where kids played in the flow of fire hydrants and he wasn't the only one in the neighborhood missing a lot of vowels. His father was an elevator operator, his mother worked nights so he could go to Catholic school and what they thought was a rich-kid college, West Point. He is a guy who grew up simply and who likes things done right, correctly, properly.
He was forged in the ethnic middle class and the rarefied moralism of the Academy, and employs the principles of each every day. His career has been a smooth arc upwards. Ten years ago he was named head basketball coach at Duke at the age of just 32, and after a couple of struggling seasons he turned the Blue Devils into a perfect model of athletic and academic accomplishment.
"You grew up believing in God, and you loved your country and playground basketball," he said. "It was very simple."
But Krzyzewski, after all, was in the West Point class of 1969, a questioning time in which he learned about complications and failure. His coaching of the Blue Devils is an incongruous combination of meticulous organization and unreasoning creativity, which he likens to "growing a plant." He strives for the geometry of teamwork, but he resists labels and formulaic terms, preferring the illogical lineup. He puts the greatest emphasis on loyalty and likes his teams best when they are in total, free-flowing unison, what he calls The Rockettes Effect.
"Then you have something very beautiful," he said.
The Blue Devils have appeared in the Final Four three times in the last four years, and every player who has worn a jersey under Krzyzewski has graduated. This year's team, a relatively young one of uncertain expectations, already has won 18 games and is ranked fourth in the country as it prepares to meet Maryland at Cole Field House today. So when the Duke student newspaper recently graded his team, and awarded it only a B-plus instead of straight A's, including a B for the try-hard Greg Koubek, Krzyzewski reacted swiftly, loyally and unreasonably.
"It incensed me," he said. " . . . Maybe I'm being too sensitive."
His anger touched off The Incident. He called a meeting with members of the Duke Chronicle staff and, with his team looking on, launched into an eight-minute lecture that included some profanity. Unbeknownst to him, a staffer taped him. Krzyzewski was stunned and subject to widespread criticism when it was excerpted. At a second meeting with the students he apologized for his language, but not its content.
The glimpse of a harder, less reasonable Krzyzewski, one who is not so consistently correct, was provocative. "He is a guy who doesn't mince his words," said former player Mark Alarie, now with the Washington Bullets.
The loafered, well-trimmed Krzyzewski doesn't look like an abuser of students or deliverer of tirades. "He's a genuinely nice guy," his wife Mickie said. "And that's after 21 years." He rather looks like a teacher, gentle-eyed and understanding. Neither impression is an absolute. He is simply Duke's basketball coach: smart, profane, quietly humorous and sometimes wrong. When he thinks he is right he is unwavering.
"Koubek deserved an A," he said. Fish Out of Water
The class of '69 was at West Point during a strange period. Another member of that class, Lucian K. Truscott IV, the scion of a military family, haunted Greenwich Village in his cloak and boots, investigating the '60s culture and gathering material for his indicting novel, "Dress Gray." Krzyzewski got weekly reports of the pandemonium in the rest of the world by phone from the girl he would later marry in the West Point chapel, complete with sabers.
He had gone to West Point with no clear idea of why, except that Coach Bob Knight had recruited him and his parents desperately wanted him to. He arrived terrified, and ignorant of a growing antimilitary sentiment.
"My parents, because of their origins, felt it was a place for the rich and the privileged," he said. "For their son to have that chance, it was the ultimate honor. I can't tell you why I did it. I was the most naive person in the world. I mean, I didn't want to be a soldier. I don't drive Jeeps.
"Where I was from you didn't know what was happening. You didn't follow Vietnam. You followed the Cubs. And you followed the neighborhood."
West Point made him over, broke him down piece by piece and put him back together. He came with good credentials -- a member of the National Honor Society, vice president of his high school class, an all-state basketball player -- and found that none of it meant much to those at Army, where the only permitted answers were, "Yes sir," "No sir," and "No excuse sir."
There were several things he immediately found he could not do, to his humiliation. He could not put up a tent. And he could not swim. In survival training, swimming was required. The only water he had been around came out of the hydrants.
"I was The Guy from my neighborhood," he said. "I always felt I had to be perfect. So I had never done anything I could fail at. At first you're afraid to fail, to look foolish."
Krzyzewski got out of the military as a captain, went to Indiana to work with Knight for a season as a graduate assistant, and then West Point called him back, looking for a head coach. He was 73-59 in five years there before moving to Durham, N.C. Duke is where he made his reputation, West Point was where he learned his trade.
"Really, a lot of what I do as a coach I learned there," he said. "When you think about the ultimate team, you think about the guys you go through a lot of crap with. You have more empathy for a kid who's afraid, or a kid who's cocky. . . .
"Yes sir, no sir, no excuse sir. Now I hear they have a new one: 'I don't understand sir.' They didn't have that when I was there." A Free Enterprise System
Krzyzewski teams frustrate those who like defined, position basketball. His philosophy involves a motion offense that stresses freedom and a tenacious man-to-man defense that is almost a misnomer because it is played with such togetherness.
"Our lineups are so funny sometimes," he said. "People ask me who plays what. I'm like, 'I don't know, do they seem to care?' I don't know who the hell my four man is, or my three or my two. It's like, if you grow a plant in a jar, it will take on the shape of the jar, but if you just let it grow, who knows what can happen?"
It is a system that thrives on individual personalities. That is partly because of the nature of recruiting at Duke, to which maybe only three or four of the top 25 high school players each year can gain academic admission. A player recruited and coached by Krzyzewski is carefully screened, and before he leaves he may find his psyche somewhat altered. Krzyzewski serves as everything from coach to confessor and his players have slept at his house. Krzyzewski's degree of control over his players is encouraged by Duke officials.
"We see him as someone we'd want the kids to spend as much time around as possible," said Duke President Keith Brodie. "At some programs they want to protect the kids from the coach. Not here."
Krzyzewski's sense of his players' specific abilities and foibles is instrumental to his success. In another system Billy King might never have played the way he did for Duke in 1987-88 when he became the NCAA's defensive player of the year as the Blue Devils made the Final Four. In fact, King, never much of an offensive force, might not have started at all for someone else.
"He knows each and every player," said King, now a coach at Illinois State. "He knows your personal life. He can read you. He knows if a certain guy would fold under pressure, he knows if a guy is going to get angry and needs to sit down. He even watches people in the stands. He even knows the officials."
Another Krzyzewski signature is his insistence on communication. He has long searching talks with players, and expects them to have similar conversations among themselves. His love for talking extends to Duke's students and fans; he has been known to wander out to visit with them, or send them pizzas.
So when Krzyzewski summoned Brent Belvin of the Chronicle, who had graded the team, and other staff members to a meeting, they did not expect the anger they encountered. It wasn't a surprise that Krzyzewski has a temper, which he has vented on officials many times. He maintains that intimidation was not his intent. "It wasn't a tirade," he said. "A tirade is when I get a technical."
But Belvin won't soon forget his feelings. "That's exactly the atmosphere he created," Belvin said.
Belvin perceives Krzyzewski as "a basically nice guy" who is hypersensitive to Duke's pristine image as a school and as a team. That is a notion partly seconded by King, who said, "He looks at Duke as a reflection of himself. It's as if you're coming into his home. He wants everything to be perfect, just right." He may also have grown unaccustomed to criticism because of his success at Duke. People suddenly were eager to fault the coach with a faultless reputation.
"What it taught me is how things get blown out of proportion," Krzyzewski said. "I said I was sorry if they hadn't heard curse words before, but that I was right in what I said. It's over."
His current team brings Krzyzewski to a curious, puzzled smile. He has not yet figured it out completely. With three freshmen receiving considerable time and senior captain Robert Brickey injured for a month, he clearly has extended himself, teaching and coaxing and trying to draw more out of the group. "Try it, at first you might look foolish but just try it," he says, convincing a freshman to lengthen his jumper from 15 feet to 19. "They wear you out and they get you excited," he said.
Rest isn't on Krzyzewski's schedule, his day beginning when he rises early to have breakfast with the youngest of three daughters, and ending sometimes well after midnight. He is chairman of the player selection committee for U.S. international teams, he is on the board of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Last summer he put out a book and an instructional video. Next summer he will coach two U.S. international squads.
Sometimes he would just like to mow the lawn, something untaxing and unachieving. His greatest flaw as a coach may be that he has gotten so relentlessly good at it.
"At times I just want to say, 'Yo, where's my sabbatical?' "