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What It Takes: Coach (K) Mike Krzyzewski

Coach Mike Krzyzewski
Coach Mike Krzyzewski
What It Takes: Coach Mike Krzyzewski
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00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:27 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:34 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:00:40 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:00:52 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance. I’m Alice Winkler. On each episode of What It Takes, we play you a conversation from the Academy of Achievement’s vault, a conversation with someone phenomenal, someone who's overcome obstacles to make history, someone with stories to tell, whether scientist, musician, world leader, or sports legend.

00:01:19 On this episode, that someone is Mike Krzyzewski, or as he is more affectionately known, “Coach K.” And yes, Krzyzewski starts with a K, for those of you who wouldn’t know a free throw if it hit you in the end zone.

00:01:33 ANNOUNCER: Bam! Mike Krzyzewski becomes the first Division I men's coach to win 1,000 games!

00:01:45 ALICE WINKLER: No one has achieved more in college basketball than Mike Krzyzewski. No one. As of this podcast, he's won five national titles as head coach of Duke University's Blue Devils, a position he’s held for over three decades. He’s also won three Olympic gold medals, so far, with the USA Men’s National Team, and two FIBA gold medals.

00:02:11 That's the International Basketball Association. The list of “firsts” and “mosts” in Coach K’s bio is a long read. The cornerstone of his success, he said in this 1997 interview...

00:02:24 MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: The relationships I have with my players are the most important things. It's the most important aspect of my job, and I’m selfish about this. I want to know that I’ve had a positive impact on that young man's life, but I also want him to know that he has an impact on my life. Relationships are not one-way. I think coaching is confused at times as being an arrow that only goes to a player. Those players send arrows back to you, and that's where a relationship is developed.

00:03:00 I don’t make a player. When they go on that court, they're — even though I'm coaching, they're alone out there. In fact, they're in their underwear. I mean, they wear shorts, and they're exposed. They have to know that they can do it. Now, am I there for them? Yeah. But they have to know that they do it, and I tell them, I say, "I'm impressed with how you can do that."

00:03:24 The other thing that I think is really important for kids to understand is that, like, when I come into a locker room before a game, people might anticipate, if they don't know sport that well, that, "Oh, you know, we're going to win one for this, and we're going to do it for Duke, and we're going to” — that's not always the case. Sometimes I go into that locker room, and I'm afraid. And then, all of a sudden I look at Bobby Hurley, or I look at Steve Wojciechowski, or Grant Hill, or kids who've played for me, and I see in their eyes anticipation.

00:03:57 I see ambition. I see a glaze, and all of a sudden I say, "Holy mackerel! I’ve got a chance to coach these guys tonight."

00:04:06 ALICE WINKLER: He also sees in their faces a bit of himself. A little personal background here: Mike Krzyzewski was born into a first-generation Polish family in Chicago. His father was an elevator operator; his mother, a cleaning woman. When he was a kid, he says, he wasn’t much of a books person. He preferred to learn by doing, and he had, by his own description, “ants in his pants.” When he found basketball, he said, it wasn’t just a way to channel his energy, and it wasn’t just something he was pretty good at. It became a piece of him.

00:04:44 MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: I liked that. You know? I liked that, well, here’s Mike, he’s a basketball player, and that connection was good. It helped me have confidence in other areas because it wasn't just Mike. It was Mike who's also a good basketball player, and so I worked at it, and I really liked it. It became a friend. When I had troubles, I’d go out — you can — with basketball, you can do it by yourself, too, so you'd go out and shoot, and you'd fantasize.

00:05:13 You have a — you know, your imagination could run wild, and I always won in my imagination. I always hit the game-winning shot, or I hit the free throw, or if I missed, there was a lane violation, and I was given another one. And it helped me become a much more confidant person, and it was much more than a game to me, and always has been.

00:05:35 ALICE WINKLER: But it was just a game to Mike Krzyzewski's parents.

00:05:39 MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: At that time, we were in a Polish community in the inner city of Chicago. I was the youngest of a bunch of cousins. Polish families are real big, with cousins and aunts and uncles, and my older brother, who is twice as big as me — he's about 6'6", 250, didn't play sports because being in the band or doing — those were things that you did. They were not frivolous. Playing sports was somewhat frivolous, but I liked it, and I rebelled a little bit and wouldn’t go to music lessons and things like that but would go and play ball.

00:06:14 And then they learned to love it because they saw how much it impacted on me in a positive sense. I had a really bad temper when I was growing up, and sport helped me channel that temper into more positive acts.

00:06:32 ALICE WINKLER: When his parents eventually came around, they embraced the teachers and the coaches who worked with Mike on his game. In high school, there was one coach in particular who had an enormous influence on his life and, to this day, his own approach to coaching — someone who told him he was better than he thought he was, someone who pushed him.

00:06:55 MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: His name was Al Ostrowski, and he wasn't even a former basketball player, and had not — he was a younger guy. He was in his twenties, but he really believed in me. He was the first person who taught me not to be afraid of failure. You know, he'd tell me to shoot 25 times a game. I said, "No, I can't do that. Everyone will hate me." "You do it, and you — " you know, even though I didn’t do that all the time, he kept pushing me to get — to be better, and — he saw me — if success or talent were on floors, maybe I saw myself on the fifth floor.

00:07:33 He always saw me on the 20th floor, and as a result, I climbed more floors when I was with him, and I've tried to use that in my way of teaching. And he even helped me choose West Point to go to school, where I was afraid of that, and he felt that that would give me many more floors in my building. And he was right.

00:07:57 ALICE WINKLER: There was another teacher Mike Krzyzewski especially remembers, a teacher who had absolutely nothing to do with sports but who gave him fundamentals he still relies on as a coach. Her name was Sister Lucinda, a nun at the all-boys Catholic school he attended. Sister Lucinda showed him respect, taught him sensitivity to others, and gave him a code of ethics. Because of her, he told the Academy of Achievement, he considered becoming a priest.

00:08:28 Obviously, he chose a different path, but in his own way, Coach K has dedicated his life to ministering to young people — mind and spirit, as well as body. Now take a moment here and picture a post-game TV interview with a major sports figure basking in the glory of victory. The big shout-out is almost always saved for Mom, and so it is with Coach K.

00:08:53 MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: The person who’s inspired me the most my whole life is my mom, because she taught me commitment. You know, we're not — we weren’t dirt poor, but we weren’t real rich or anything, and I would always have what I needed. And I would look in her closet, and she'd have two dresses, and she taught me to be outside of yourself, to get outside of yourself, and to connect with — to be committed to somebody.

00:09:24 And it's the same thing that I try to teach, but my mom, throughout my life, has been the person that I have always looked up to, and she never went to high school. She — in an all-Polish way, she said, you know, "Mike, I went to eighth grade twice because the teacher liked me." And she had a very — she had great self-effacing humor and loved life. And my mother, when I used to come back in Chicago in recruiting, I'd always stay with her.

00:09:56 My dad passed away when I was a senior at West Point, and I’d come back. We had already been on TV, and we'd just be sitting there late at night, and she'd say, "Mike, how did — why — how is it you?" — you know, and she wasn't knocking me. It was just that our group of people wasn't supposed to be able to do that. And I would always tell her, I said, "Ma, because of you. And it's because of you." She was a remarkable, remarkable lady.

00:10:30 ALICE WINKLER: So Mike Krzyzewski had a belief in himself fostered by his high school coach, an ethical compass care of Sister Lucinda, and the gift of commitment and humility from his mom. So where did his legendary leadership qualities come from? Gail Eichenthal, who conducted this interview for the Academy of Achievement, asked him that question. Those, it seems, he came by naturally.

00:10:56 MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: I knew I was a leader, because everybody — I always organized things. When I grew up there weren’t, in the city, little leagues. Parents worked all the time. They didn’t have time to then take their kids out to play baseball and football and all that. And we understood that as kids, so when we went to a playground, we congregated at a schoolyard, and then, if you had ten people, twenty, six, somebody had to organize, and I was always organizing them.

00:11:31 Not that I thought I was better, but I felt that the game couldn’t start unless I organized it. That may sound so arrogant, but I really — I believed that, and I would try to impose my will all the time in those types of settings, because I found that if you didn't, people would just stand around and do nothing. So I knew that I had that. The other thing I knew I had is that I had a high level of competitiveness. I hated to lose.

00:12:06 And at times, I did probably ugly things, you know what I mean? With my temper and throwing stuff and all that. But I knew that I had those two things, the leadership and a high level of competitiveness, and some of my friends would tell me that. "Well, let's wait until — " At that time I was called Mickey. "Hey, let's wait until Mick comes," or "Mickey will” — you know — “will show us what to do." And it's still something that I think I do now.

00:12:34 I think I lead and I teach, and if we win basketball games from doing that, then that’s great.

00:12:41 ALICE WINKLER: Winning basketball games? Not a problem for Coach K. His original ambition was to become a high school teacher and coach, but he was so good that Bobby Knight, who he’d played under at West Point, hired him as an assistant coach at Indiana. He then got an offer to be head coach at West Point and was finally lured to Duke University, where he has stayed put since 1980. Duke attracts top tier athletes who are also top tier students. Coach K says he loves the depth of these kids, but there are unique challenges.

00:13:17 MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: I’m fortunate, now that I coach at Duke University, and we've won a lot. I have some kids who don't — haven't failed that much, but then when they get to college, they’re going to fail, and I think that’s the thing that I can help them the most with. You know, let them fall down. Let me pick them up so that I can develop that relationship where we can do it quicker, you know. And they're not destroyed by it, and I'm going to do some things that put them in tough situations, because they're not going to develop fully by just me patting them on the back or saying, "You're a good boy, and you can do that."

00:14:00 You know, because we're not only trying to build good habits. Sometimes we're trying to destroy bad habits, a bad habit being the fear of failure. I'm going to knock the heck out of fears. Fear of looking stupid. Do you know how many kids don't want to do something because they're afraid of looking stupid to their peers? And that when they do fail, like, that looks stupid, or there comes a time where they start protecting instead of extending.

00:14:33 How do you destroy that? Is there a book on that? Is there one — is there a pill that you take? It's different in every individual.

00:14:43 ALICE WINKLER: As someone who leads by example, Coach K doesn’t often fear failure himself, but he had a revelation during his team’s fifth trip to the Final Four: perhaps he had gotten a little too comfortable with his team’s failure to grab the championship title.

00:15:01 MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: To reach the Final Four is like, you're in “la-la land,” you know? You've achieved. You’ve got to have your stamp of approval. Well, my team — my 1986 team did that the first time. Then we did it in '88, '89, and '90, but we did not win the national championship, and I feel that, because of achieving at a high level, I rationalized somewhat at a moment where maybe I could have pushed my team a little bit more.

00:15:34 So in '91, when we did win it — for the first time, we won it — that was the biggest obstacle to me, was so that we made it and we were playing in Nevada, Las Vegas, and they had won 45 in a row, and it was almost like it would be okay to lose. Everybody would say, "Well, that would be all right," and I was most proud of that game because it was the first — not the first time, but maybe the most significant time that, as a leader, I helped my group overcome rationalization at the highest level.

00:16:12 And when we beat them and then beat Kansas for the national championship, it was an amazing accomplishment, for me. I didn't care — everyone was saying, "Boy, you won the national championship," but for me, it was amazing because we got over that final hurdle. Or I did, as a leader and a teacher, and now I know how to do that, and I thought it helped me the next year when we won it a second time.

00:16:37 ALICE WINKLER: Mike Krzyzewski says he didn’t let himself enjoy the first win. He was too focused already on the next year and on the question he often returns to: "What floor of success are we on? Can we go even higher?" Coach K relies on the power of metaphors and carefully chosen words. He says they can sometimes make the difference between winning and losing.

00:17:03 MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: I even played a game, a mind game, a word game, with myself, where — after you win, people the next year will say, "You’re defending your national championship," and I prohibited the use of the word “defend.” What I said for that team, I said, "We’ve already got the national championship for that year. We’re going to pursue." And sometimes the difference between “defend,” “protective,” “pursue,” “go after,” I think, was the difference in us winning it the second time.

00:17:40 Now you might ask, "Well, why didn’t you win it the third time?" And I probably didn’t do as good a job of coming up with those words, or someone else did a better job of coming up with their words and talent than I did, but it’s interesting what the human mind can do. That and good players. You need some good talent.

00:17:59 ALICE WINKLER: Oh yeah, good players, but Coach K quickly reminds us that the individual talents of the individual players, no matter how great, are secondary to the team.

00:18:09 MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: Teamwork is the beauty of our sport, where you have five acting as one, and you become selfless, and the — and you're — even though we want huge individual egos, our collective ego is unbelievable, and the ability of people to throw themselves into that situation, I think is remarkable. It's becoming more and more remarkable as people become so vested in their own interests.

00:18:41 And the ability to give and connect with others, to me, is the single most important thing that we teach. And then the quality that we need to teach the most is trust, to be honest with one another, so that — like, I have a rule on my team: when we talk to one another, we look at each other right in the eye, because I think it's tough to lie to somebody. You give respect to somebody. It's you that I'm talking to right now. And as the result, I know that there are going to be times on that bench where there are two seconds to go or where a kid's having a bad game, and I’ve got look at him and say, "Look, you're playing horrible, but you're not horrible. Now get your head going," and whatever words I might use, and “I believe in you.”

00:19:31 And I may not even say it that way. It might be two seconds, and we have to connect. If we haven't done the work beforehand, you can't wait until those two seconds to do it. Like, I speak on — to a lot of groups about — and with business groups, a lot of them ask about crisis management. "What do you do if — " I say, "Well, the main thing you do with crisis management is trust one another." "Well, how do you get that?" Wow. It takes awhile, you know, but being honest with one another is the very first and most important step.

00:20:04 And so you have to have that trust developed before the crisis. If you — now, if you haven't had it up to that time and you have a crisis, then maybe you can use that crisis — you're going to probably lose during that time, but maybe you can use that as something that will mold your group together, as long as when those things happen you have a thing called collective responsibility. Everybody wants collective responsibility when you win, or a lot of people want individual responsibility during that time.

00:20:38 When you fail, all these fingers are pointing, and I have a thing where I say there — like, the five fingers on your hand, a basketball team, if you can get them all together — we have a fist analogy, and you can — and you start going — like, that's how we — I want you to play. If when we lose, I say, "You didn’t do a good job," there's no fist, so now we're punching like that.

00:21:07 Collective responsibility is the saying — is saying, we lost. Why did we lose, and how can we get better? If we can do that, it's an amazing thing that happens. And with my thing, though, is that it'll happen, and then in March or April, it ends. The — I have a life expectancy of a team from — of about eight months, and then the next year it's a whole new team.

00:21:35 ALICE WINKLER: Coach K’s favorite example of trust, connection, and collective responsibility aligning into the perfect fist of teamwork is the regional final between Duke and Kentucky in 1992. Probably not surprising, if you're a basketball fan, since it is widely considered the single best college basketball game in the history of the sport. In overtime, with 2.1 seconds left in the game, Kentucky scored, moving into the lead 103 to 102.

00:22:09 ANNOUNCER: How did he find the courage to take that kind of shot?

00:22:16 MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: The shot that put us behind was a bank shot, right from straight on, and you don't do that. People don't shoot bank shots, so, to me, it was a little bit of a lucky shot, and so I was — I didn’t want to lose that way.

00:22:30 ALICE WINKLER: Coach K was pissed. He called a timeout. As his players approached him on the bench, he threw down a towel. It might as well have been a gauntlet.

00:22:41 ANNOUNCER: Two point one seconds left. No team has repeated as NCAA champions since UCLA did it in 1973. Will the dream die here for Duke?

00:22:57 MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: And so I used my anger properly. I met my team, and I told them, "We’re going to win," and I looked into their eyes. Then when they sat on the bench, I looked at them again. I said, "We are going to win," and then I felt we were connected. And then I asked Grant Hill — instead of telling him what to do, I asked Grant Hill, I said, "Grant, can you throw the ball 75 feet?"

00:23:25 And he said, "Yes, I'll throw it," and by saying it already, I think he had already done it. In fact, if you had interviewed him now, he would say, "Well, I gave my word that I was going to do it." I asked Christian Laettner, "Christian, if we bring you up, will you — can you catch?" And he says, "Coach, if Grant throws it, I'll catch it." And all of a sudden there was that — some people would call it bravado or cocky talk, but we had gone from walking off the court scattered, mentally and physically, to now, a minute-and-a-half later, to believing that we were going to win.

00:24:03 And everybody interacted in that — like, Laettner's remark there was like, "Yeah, come on! We'll do it." And Grant threw it, and Christian caught it, and he shot it, and he hit it, and we won.

00:24:15 ANNOUNCER: There's the pass to Laettner. Puts it up! Yes!

00:24:23 ALICE WINKLER: There aren't really any big accolades left for Coach K to win — no prizes, no honors — but Coach K says for him, that was never really the point.

00:24:35 MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: My goals are not to win a national championship. My next big challenge is my next team. What will these kids bring to me? Even the guys who I've had who’ve played for me before, who will they be when they left me in April and came back to me in October? It's amazing what — how will I be able to react to who they are now? And how will I be able to try to put them together to mold a unit that will best make use of their talents?

00:25:07 That, to me, is what I do, and then if people want to watch us do that and get excited about it, then that’s great. I don’t coach for the fans. At Duke University, we have a beautiful cathedral, and in the cathedral there's an altar — and there are a lot of wood carvings, and it's just amazing — and I have to think whatever man or woman, or both, did those things, that if they were just sitting by a lake, making something, that they would make that as good as the one in the altar, because they did it for themselves.

00:25:50 Their standards were so good, and then they allowed other people to share it. That’s how I try to coach my team.

00:25:57 ALICE WINKLER: That's Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of Duke University's Blue Devils, as well as the U.S. Men's National Basketball Team. He is the most successful college basketball coach in history; though, I think I can actually hear fans of John Wooden out there shouting at me through their mobile devices, "But Coach Wooden won a record 10 national championships over a 12-year span at UCLA!" Don't worry, the Academy of Achievement has a fantastic interview with the Wizard of Westwood as well, and we'll be posting that episode sometime during March Madness.

00:26:34 Meanwhile, if your heart lies in the East and you can't get enough of Mike Krzyzewski, otherwise known as Coach K, go to There are extra video excerpts from this interview you've been listening to, and, of course, there are lots of other inspiring stories and life lessons on What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. So subscribe, send links to your friends, tweet, post reviews, let us know how we're doing. Thanks for listening. I'm Alice Winkler.

00:27:06 Tremendous thanks, as always, to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for making What It Takes possible.


What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.