In a press conference following his noteworthy 1000th win on Sunday — the most ever by a Division 1 men's basketball coach — Duke's Mike Krzyzewski took a moment to reflect on the game. The Blue Devils were behind during much of the matchup against St. John's at Madison Square Garden, and until the team rallied late in the second half, it looked like they were going to lose. "At halftime I sent a text out to destroy all the books I've written on leadership because they weren't working," he said. "I'm not sure I've ever been involved in a game like that."
It was a throwaway comment at an emotional moment, but it encapsulated Krzyzewski's storied career. Few coaches have managed to make their jobs as much about leadership beyond the court as on it — a distinction that has earned Krzyzewski both enormous respect and outsized resentment.
Perhaps more than any other figure in the sports world, Krzyzewski's name has become synonymous with leadership. He has done far more than write books on the topic (any successful coach can do that). Krzyzewski has been called in by none other than Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey to speak about leadership with officers in the Army. He has a center on leadership named after him at Duke's top-ranked business school. And he commands lofty speaker fees for corporate speaking engagements.
All of which is to say, Coach K's reputation as a leadership sage goes far beyond the sports world. Elite executive recruiters muse over what a genius CEO he would be. Real CEOs have compared his leadership skills to IBM's Lou Gerstner or GE's Jack Welch. American Express put him in a commercial, saying, "I don’t look at myself as a basketball coach. I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball."
What has made Krzyzewski a leadership guru in his own right is, of course, his record: four NCAA titles, 11 trips to the Final Four and a 1,000-308 career win-loss record.
But it is also Duke's reputation as a clean-cut program and Krzyzewski's emphasis on recruiting players with character, then further building it in each of them. The accolades piled on him in recent days have highlighted his commitment to remembering people's names, his decision to keep the very Polish-sounding Krzyzewski even though his father had changed his name to Kross, his disciplined focus on the next game, and his ability to see the team's big losses (rather than big wins) as the most important.
Ironically, however, it's that same effort to make basketball about more than just a game that has drawn Krzyzewski some scorn over the years. Yes, many hate Duke because it's not the underdog, because it's an elite private school and because, when it comes to college basketball, Cinderella stories are just much more fun. Yet some are also turned off by what they see as smug sanctimony about basketball's larger life lessons.
As one writer put it, Duke basketball is "never peddled as just basketball. It's always a morality play, a lesson in doing things the 'right way,' a metaphor for winning-the-games-of-business-and-life (and hawking the accompanying airplane ride/Father's Day book while giving b-school leadership seminars)."
Then again, is there anything so wrong with that? Coach K's leadership-guru gig may rub some fans the wrong way, and it's always risky to put coaches too high on a pedestal. But it's pretty hard to scoff at a coach who seems sincere about leading and developing young players, and even harder to argue with the tremendous success of reaching 1000 wins.