The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The four leadership styles of the Final Four coaches

Placeholder while article actions load

The four men whose teams will face off in Saturday's Final Four games of the NCAA men's tournament have been called a "Mount Rushmore of modern coaches." Each of them — loved or hated though they may be — is among the NCAA's most veteran, heralded greats and reminds us how much college basketball continues to be a coach's game.

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski has won more than 1000 games. Michigan State University's Tom Izzo will be coaching his seventh Final Four team. Kentucky's John Calipari is aiming to make his team the first one undefeated in college basketball since 1976 if the Wildcats go all the way. And though Wisconsin's Bo Ryan may have been called an "underrated pillar of the sport," he's one of only five active Division I coaches to win more than 700 games.

Yet while all may share the fact that they're accomplished, hard-nosed and driven, there are plenty of differences among them. Below, a look at the four men leading this year's Final Four teams.

MIKE KRZYZEWSKI

Coaching style: Krzyzewski's focus on recruiting players with "character" may be part of his recipe for success, but that clean-cut approach has also lost him some fans, who are turned off from Duke's elite, private school image and see his efforts to share basketball's life lessons as sanctimonious. Yet whatever you think of Krzyzewski's approach to coaching, over the past three-plus decades he's proven that it works.

His players tout his hallmark ability to adapt to the team he has, rather than force a system on them, while still holding fast to core principles. He also believes that a big part of his job is to get rid of distractions, ask players to help set standards rather than rules, and befriend his stars. (It's "a lonely position," he once told Duke professor Sim Sitkin, where there "is always some level of jealousy.")

By the numbers: Years in current job: 35. Final Four appearances: This will be his 12th. National championships: Four (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010).

Books written: At least five, including Beyond Basketball, Leading with Heart, The Gold Standard and Coach K's Little Blue Book.

Random fact: He likes popping bubble wrap, according to a recent ESPN profile, is a big gardener, and still seeks advice from his high-school geometry teacher.

Leadership quotes: “Too many rules get in the way of leadership. They just put you in a box . . . . People set rules to keep from making decisions.”

"Setting priorities is taking care of first things first." - Krzyzewski to a struggling eighth grader who wrote him a letter this year

JOHN CALIPARI

Coaching style: Calipari is a controversial figure in college basketball.He's known by his detractors as a slick, always on-the-move salesman — a "walking, talking ego" whose former teams had to vacate victories because of NCAA violations, though he was not charged. His supporters, meanwhile, see him as an unparalleled recruiter who knows how to bring in the best talent. (Detractors find an issue here too, saying his one-and-done approach to basketball, where many freshmen are quickly recruited to the pros rather than staying in school, is part of the problem.) Whatever the question marks, Calipari's repeat success at taking a new crop of stars each year and getting them to quiet their egos and play as a team — an undefeated one, no less, this year — is no small feat.

By the numbersYears in current job: Six. Final Four appearances: This will be his fourth. National championships: One (2012).

Books written: Four. Players First is the most recent; Bounce Back and Refuse to Lose are others.

Random fact: When West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, a friend of Calipari's but recent on-court opponent, had a heart attack back in 2002, Calipari's cousin was working in the ambulance. As Calipari recounted the story in the New York Times, “when they got him and they put him on the ambulance, my cousin said ‘Coach Huggins, you’re going to be all right, I’m Coach Calipari’s cousin,’ ” he said. “And [Huggins] went ‘Oh my goodness, I’m not going to make it.’ ” Calipari was later the first non-family member to visit Huggins in the hospital.

Leadership quotes: "I coach for the names on the backs of the jerseys—not just the front." - from his recent book, Players First

TOM IZZO

Coaching style: Izzo has coached the Michigan State Spartans to 18 consecutive NCAA tournaments.  Known for impressive consistency, he always seems to manage to find a way to win. This year's young team could have been the one to break the tradition, yet Izzo motivated them by embracing rather than ignoring that pressure to make the postseason — bringing in past players to talk about how important it was not to miss a year. Fellow coaches, colleagues and former players laud his brutal honesty, his paranoia in the pursuit of perfection, his work ethic and his open-door policy. Bottom line: He's known for coaching his teams beyond the expectations set for them, year after year.

By the numbers: Years in current job: 20. Final Four appearances: This will be his seventh. National championships: One (2000).

Random fact: NFL analyst and former San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci has been friends with Izzo since high school, and they were roommates in college.

Books written: None known.

Leadership quotes: "Just give me two hours. And you're going to have 50, 60, 70 years of memories. Two hours. Can you sacrifice and reach down and give me two hours so you can have memories for you, your family, your kids and your kids' kids." - a nearly choked up Izzo motivating his team before Sunday's win against Louisville, which secured MSU's spot in the Final Four.

"Until you go to that first one, you just don’t realize how big it is," Izzo recently told The Post, savoring the experience of a tournament win. "And once you experience it, anybody you care about — anybody you care about — you want them to be able to experience the same thing.”

BO RYAN

Coaching style: Old school. Ryan names plays after long-retired players, reports the New York Times, and tells jokes about the fruit baskets used by basketball's inventor, James Naismith. He's known for focusing on the basics: His teams still play man-to-man defense, and he runs an offensive system known as the Swing that requires players to learn all five positions. High-school coaches throughout Wisconsin have copied it. The rare Division I coach who spent years coaching a Division III team before a stint at a mid-major and the last 14 years at Wisconsin (where he's taken the team to the NCAA tournament each year), Ryan isn't known for recruiting only top stars. That's a contrast, writes ESPN, with Calipari's "grab-every-McDonald's-All-American-in-sight, Minute-rice approach." Ryan wants to get to know recruits — many (but hardly all) of which are unsung — and then develop them, put his trust in them and empower them to lead.

By the numbersYears in current job: 14. Final Four appearances: Two. National championships: None at the Division I level; four at Division III.

Random fact: Ryan loves to body surf. “I’m willing to bet I’m the best over-60 body surfer you’ll ever see,” he told the Times.

Books written: Several books on basketball tactics such as Passing and Catching the Basketball: A Lost Art, The Swing Offense and Applying and Attacking Pressure: Platteville Basketball, as well as an autobiography, Bo Ryan: Another Hill to Climb.

Leadership quotes: "When you look at a number, our guys did a pretty good job, but there are things to do better," he said in post-game remarks. "We have to play them again. Little things you can't let get away from you."

"You just gotta have those voices in the locker room, those leaders on the team who believe in doing things right and pass that down to their peers," he told the alt-weekly Madison, Wisc. newspaper Isthmus. "When your peers say, 'This is what we need to do,' that goes a long way." 

Read also:

A milestone for Coach K, college basketball's leadership sage

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Loading...