Coach K

Eastbay Team Sales Interview with Coach K

Victory and greatness have become close roommates on the campus of Duke University, having roamed the halls of Cameron Indoor Stadium since Mike Krzyzewski walked through the door as the Blue Devils' head basketball coach in 1980.

Krzyzewski has led the Blue Devils to four NCAA championships, 11 Final Fours, 12 Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season titles, and 13 ACC Tournament titles. Coach K's influence has reached internationally as well, having coached Team USA to gold medals in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics, sandwiched around a gold at the 2010 FIBA World Championship.

Leading a team to more than 900 victories - he became the NCAA's all-time leader in November 2011 will do wonders for one's credibility. Which is one reason why Eastbay Team Sales wanted to sit down with Coach K to learn about his approach to coaching, leadership, and the importance of contributing to one's community.

EBTS: Nike is the leader in the basketball world. What does it mean to you to be associated with them?

Coach K: Well, I think as a coach you're always seeking excellence on the court, in what you teach, and in what you wear. And when you think of excellence in apparel and shoe product you only think of Nike. They do the best job in the world of feeling the athlete; knowing what the athlete needs and knowing what that team does. And I think wearing the product, shoe-wise and apparel-wise, makes us a much better program.


EBTS: You are very involved in many charitable programs, such as the Duke Children's Classic, the Jimmy V foundation for cancer research, Duke Children's Miracle Network Telethon. You and your family established and continue to fund the Emily Krzyzewski center. Why are these important to you and how do you think coaches can establish a sense of charity or community within their program?

Coach K: Well, you know I've always felt a coach is a leader. A coach understands people. And then you use that not just in coaching your sport but … if you win and you're successful, at whatever level, you have a chance to have an influence outside of your own team. Sport brings people together, so if you can use that off the court, off the field in charitable work, you can help develop or get that feeling into that charity. It also keeps you balanced as a coach. You know where you get a chance to not just win and lose, or hit a basket, score a touchdown, or whatever it is …you get a chance to have an impact on helping kids, helping people who have a dreadful disease, just helping your community in some way. It gives you more of a sense of purpose. If you are lucky to be very successful, I believe in "To whom much is given much is expected." And I think it should just be expected of you to help those who haven't been as lucky as you have been.


EBTS: Who are some of your coaching role models and why?

Coach K: Well, I have a lot of coaching role models. The main one is the coach who coached me in college, and who has been a dear friend my entire life, and that's Bob Knight. I was lucky enough to be recruited by him to go to West Point and be a starting point guard and eventually his captain. I learned so much, and as a result of being around Coach Knight I met some of the great high school coaches along the way; a guy named Jack Gallagher from Scranton, Pa., who had an impact on my life. But also some of the greats in the profession; Mr. Iba, Pete Newell. And then great players … Jerry West, who is one of the smartest people to ever play the game.

But I've learned from other coaches. Coaching the Olympic team over the last seven years, I've had an opportunity to learn from Nate McMillan, and Mike D'Antoni, and to share ideas with Jim Boeheim, but also to study the international community and learn from those coaches.

So, a coach should always be a sponge in trying to get information while he or she teaches the principles that they always teach. It keeps you alive to constantly be looking for new ways of doing things, and I've been very fortunate to have been impacted by a number of coaches over the years.

EBTS: How has the role of coaching changed in the last five to 10 years?

Coach K: I think the role of coaching continually changes. I've been coaching as a head coach for almost four decades: five years as a head coach at West Point, United States Military Academy, and 33 years at Duke, and the last seven with our national team.

Especially in coaching in the collegiate level, kids still want to trust and be loyal, and work hard and get better, and all those good things. But our culture changes; how we communicate. What music do we like? What fashion? Are there family meals or is everyone eating out? In other words, society is constantly changing and as a coach it's not just what you teach but to whom you're teaching. To me that's how you change.

In other words, how do you communicate with the current group of youngsters that you have as they stay the same age? This is something I think that's important for coaches to recognize. The kids you coach will always be, if it's in high school, 14-18; if it's college, 18-23. But you're getting older. So, I'm 66 years old right now. I'm going to be almost 50 years older than a freshman that I coach. Well, it's not up to him to get into my culture; it's up to me to get into his and maybe teach the values that I'm supposed to teach and try to incorporate both. To me those are the things that change the most about coaching, and I bet I've changed six, seven, eight times in methods and how you teach. As long as I coach I'll continue to do that because that's my responsibility.


EBTS: So, obviously with coaching, organization and communication are a huge part of your job description. What are some of the critical points any coach needs to address and master then?

Coach K: Well, communication is key, and how you develop it is one of the things you have to teach most.

I always say that as a coach I'm teaching an offensive system, a defensive system, and a communication system. But the most important one is communication because the other two will be better if you communicate. Now, there is communication as a team and how you are playing during the game. That's unbelievably important, but it's predicated on the communication that is developed when you have that eye-to-eye contact.

We have two standards that I use with every team: One is that when we talk to each other we look each other in the eye. And the other is we always tell each other the truth at a moment's notice. If you have those two things, the single most important ingredient in building a great relationship with you and an inpidual player, or you as a team, is trust. So, if you're always talking to each other, (you're) telling each other the truth. You believe in one another, you trust one another, and to me that's the major foundation that you build on when you are trying to build a unit.


EBTS: What are some suggestions or coaching lessons you might want to pass along to a younger coach or coaches at a high school level?

Coach K: As you're beginning your career you're beginning at a high school level. The very first thing is to really be proud of the fact that you have the opportunity to coach and don't take it for granted. We have, I think, as good a profession as there is on this planet because we have an opportunity to influence someone's life, not just to teach them how to shoot a jump shot or win a game.

I can tell you that one of the most important persons in my life was my high school coach, Al Ostrowski. We are still great friends. He was just a few years older than me. He was a young coach coaching me in high school. He believed in me more than I believed in me at that time. He saw things that I would have hoped to have seen but couldn't see at the time. And I thought I had confidence, but he believed in me more.

He got me to a level that I would not have (reached) alone, and as you go through this you keep developing as a coach. The single biggest thing to realize is you can be that impactful for your athlete that you have the privilege to coach, and to make sure that you are constantly learning about the game and about ways that you can influence. So, get better.

Get outside of your comfort zone: Work camps, watch other people play, go to a college practice, seek out information. I still do that. I've been coaching for almost 40 years. I do that all the time because the game is beautiful and no one knows the game completely; nobody. Nobody knows the game completely because no one knows people completely and the game is about people. As long as you recognize that, then you have a greater chance, I think, to be successful.

EBTS: In your mind, what is a Duke basketball player and what is Duke basketball?

Coach K: Well, we believe our program is about the commitment to excellence and seeking excellence in all areas on and off the court. We believe that winning is trying to do your best as a unit every time; to have the discipline to try to be at your best no matter what the circumstances are. Obviously, that puts you in a position where, I like to say, you're worthy of winning. Now, you can be worthy of winning and the other guy is worthy of winning too and sometimes then you lose. It is something where you never try to beat yourself with a bad attitude, lack of preparation, lack of commitment. You can go down the list of things that would make you unworthy of winning. So, we constantly seek to do that, and then if we lose in those types of situations you shake a person's hand and handle a win or a loss in the same professional way. Then you go on to the next thing that you're going to do.

What I look for in a basketball player is someone who has balance. He has to have talent – enough to compete; we would like to compete for a championship every year at Duke. He has to have the academic qualifications to do well at our school and be prepared. The third thing – and they are all of equal levels – he has to have good character. Is he easy to coach? Is he a good friend? Does he surround himself with good people? Is he a really good teammate? Does he listen to his coach? Does he respect his parents? All those things that we look for in character, and if those three things connect we have a kid that we think would fit really well into our program. Over the years having that base, those standards, and putting them into a Duke University/Duke basketball environment I think has produced some exceptional men; not just national champions, or players of the year, but really good men. And that is part of our mission at Duke University, to prepare them for the rest of their life too.


EBTS: In terms of recruiting and player development, how important are AAU, local summer camps, and clinics?

Coach K: I think it is important for a player to make sure he is working on his game the entire year and to change locations. I still believe the single biggest part of his development is with his high school because you learn to be a part of something bigger than you. You learn about winning, and losing, and competing, and being a good teammate while you are keeping a balance of academics, social, and basketball. I still think that's the biggest arena. I think AAU has taken on a bigger part of basketball for kids because sometimes they end up playing twice or two and half to three times as many games as they do in the high school part of it.

Now when they are in AAU there are a lot of great AAU programs. I still think that in AAU you have to teach and sometimes you have to play three games in a day. Where the value of winning a game is not lost, I think in some respects that is lost. Where our sport doesn't become, inpidually, "What did I do today," it is "What did we do today." I think by playing so many games, you can fall into that. How did you do?

And parents can say that: "How did you do?" "Well, I scored 8 points and got 6 rebounds." "Oh, I thought you would score more." They never even ask … did you win? How did you play? Did you help a teammate? How did you talk on defense? Were you enthusiastic? And so we have to be careful in playing so much that we only talk about things that are a little bit more superficial than they should be. Is it important to a player's development? Yes, as long as we don't lose track of those things.

Then being a part of clinics if your coach has a clinic … players don't get a chance to go to many clinics; coaches do. And I would suggest that you try to do that, but I would also suggest that you go to practices. There is usually a local junior college, pision III, II, or I program in your area. Go and watch them practice. Watch other people teach. If you are at a summer camp that you are working, if you're not teaching a station, go and watch somebody else teach so you can learn how to teach better.

I did that when I was a young coach, as a grad assistant at Indiana for Coach Knight, and really when I got the head job at Army at 28. The first guy I hired was the guy I thought was the best teacher that I had seen, Pete Gaudet, who was a high school coach in Massachusetts. So you learn. You are in a constant state of learning.

EBTS: What are your thoughts on specialization versus multi-sport athletes at the high school level?

Coach K: Well, I think that there has to be some level of specialization. I don't think there has to be the ultimate commitment to only one sport, and if there is it may be better to come later in your junior and senior year.

A number of the guys who have played for me have played a couple sports. It's a little more difficult playing football and basketball, just because the conditioning is different, the body type is different. A number of our players played soccer.

I think soccer is great. My current staff… my associate head coach, Steve Wojciechowski, was an all-state soccer player. Luol Deng, who is one of the great players of the NBA played soccer his whole life because it teaches footwork, conditioning. Anything to do in track is really good. As far as going to college and doing both, it takes an exceptional player because the seasons overlap (and) you're going to rob one of the sports.

If you find that you are really good in something, go for it. I would suggest, though, if you do it the whole year long, take a break from it. Learn how to condition on different surfaces. Learn to swim. Learn to do biking, whether it is stationary or other. In other words, don't always be on the same surface. Also, it cleanses your mind.

I would say, when you are working, a lot of people have coaches to help them; inpidual coaches and that. I think that's a good thing, but I also think a kid needs to go into a gym alone or into a schoolyard alone, work on his game and fantasize. I don't think kids do enough of imagination, where they picture themselves in a big game and hitting a big shot, or dribbling, or hitting a big free throw. In today's day and age their imaginations are controlled for them by something they are playing. My feeling is that a kid needs to go on his own and put it in there himself in addition to all this instruction.

EBTS: For high school athletes looking to play at the next level, what advice would you give to them?

Coach K: Well, first of all, always be easy to coach. You are never going to get there alone. I tell my players all the time … I ask them, "Is two better than one?" and they would normally say yes. I said not necessarily. Two is only better than one if two can act as one. So, if you're that player that wants to get better, you need to act as one with your coach.

You need to come enthusiastically. You have to be easy to teach so the coach is not coaching your attitude, or having that be an obstacle. You should come willing to work with enthusiasm and say, "Make me better, help me get better." And then that coach is coaching more technique and can get you to another level.

I would also suggest parents do that. Parents have a way of not wanting their kids to fail. Part of the process of getting better is looking bad. It is failure. You can't get an app for better. It's experience, and the things that you have to get better in are physical habits. Physical habits are only taught with intensive and persistent repetition. You are going to make mistakes in developing those habits. You're going to look bad at times. When a kid does that there has to be a unified effort behind that youngster to help him or her get better.

EBTS: In short, what does it take to be great?

Coach K: I think being great means just being the best that you can be. I will never be as great as LeBron James. I wasn't given those gifts, but he wasn't given all my gifts. Being great is something that you should be able to say about yourself. I define being great or being a winner by always trying your best, and putting in the preparation to do that, and being willing to accept the outcome. In other words, have a great self-esteem based on work and accomplishment.

EBTS: Briefly describe what these words mean to you:

Team – Acting as one. Five fingers going in separate directions aren't going to do it. Five fingers working together can do a lot.

Leader – Strong. Trustful. Getting people to do something they could not do inpidually, in a unified effort.

Excellence – Excellence is being the best that you can be, and you can do that in any moment anywhere. That's what it is all about, really.

Winner – A winner is someone who gives his or her best effort all the time. No matter (the) competition, time of day, or circumstance. That's what being a winner is all about.

Passion – Passion is that inward force that gets you to use all your gifts at a higher level, and if you can find it. A lot of people can't find it. If you can tap into it, you will take whatever physical ability you have to the next level.

Greatness – Being able to overcome obstacles and the accomplishment of goals. Again, greatness is not measured by how many people see it, greatness is measured by the person doing it. So all of us have the opportunity to be great.

Player – Someone who gives himself completely to a coach and a team and says, "I will do anything you want me to do to help this team win." That is a statement that every one of our Olympians says to me before we compete in the Olympics, and those are the top players in the world.

Dedication – You will give everything that you can in an ethical way to what you are doing. Whether it be your development, a team, a goal, a group, or an inpidual goal … you are willing to pay the price, whatever that price means. Dedication usually means you have to sacrifice in one area to give to another.

Patience – Patience is something I wish I had more of it. Not anticipating the outcome too early. That you're not completely in charge of that outcome, but you are in charge of the time frame that you use to affect the outcome. Patience is a learned quality, and it is a very important one.

Coach – A coach is a teacher. A coach is a friend. A coach has an amazing responsibility, and if they handle that responsibility well, a coach can feel better than anyone on this planet when it's accomplished.