Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Duke Blue Devils: Coach K has his team Marching again

The man looks 35, he's 64. The man coaches basketball, but teaches life. On Sunday, this man got his 900th win, two shy of all-time leader and mentor Coach Bobby Knight. With his 900th victory, Coach Mike Krzyzewski has his Dukies back in the sweet sixteen looking to win back to back titles for the first time since 1992.

Since becoming Duke's head coach in 1980, Coach K has led his Blue Devils to four NCAA Championships, 11 Final Fours, 12 ACC regular season titles, and 13 ACC championships.

He has received every accolade a coach can, but seems to never take his foot off the gas pedal. All he does is push harder. The ability to coach and win at any level is what makes Coach K so rare. From Army, to Duke, to the Olympics, and World Championships, he brings his calm demeanor, a stabilizing persona, and winning attitude. There have been a plethora of extremely successful college coaches who were unable to translate their success to another level. Rick Pitino is a prime example. One of the best college coaches in the country couldn't last with the Knicks or Celtics, but had a niche with college basketball. It can't be an easy task from teaching young boys to coaching grown men. To survive coaching in the professional ranks, you need to be the top alpha dog among the other alpha dog personalities in a locker room. Coaching USA basketball, Coach Krzyzewski was able to take the best individual players in the world and have them play as one unit with limited practice time.

From Kobe and Lebron to Carmelo and Bosh, playing for the USA team got more enticing the moment they knew Coach K would be leading them. He was never overwhelmed or intimidated by their multi-million dollar Nike deals or McDonald’s commercials, but taught the game of basketball to these 25 and 30-year-old men the same way as his 19 year-old boys at Duke. Since taking over in 2005, Coach Krzyzewski has won gold medals at the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship, the 2010 FIBA World Championship, and 2008 Summer Olympics.

The aura around Coach K and the Duke program make athletes who could go to the NBA after one year, stick around for two and three and sometimes even four. These athletes are sacrificing private jets for team buses and Ritz-Carlton's for Howard Johnson's to be part of the program. Shane Battier played at Duke for four years and Carlos Boozer for three. Boozer was recruited by many top-tier collegiate basketball programs, including UCLA and St. John's, but he wanted to play for Mike Krzyzewski.

Coach Krzyzewski's allure lies in his desire for team success over personal achievement. He seamlessly intertwines the on the court demeanor of Bill Belichick with off the court personality and charisma of Dick Vitale. Ever since Duke became a dominate power in the ACC, rival fans from Tarheel nation to Boston College have hated their success, surmising their failure. But, a fan of the team or not, you have to be a fan of what Duke stands for: Academic and Athletic excellence.

In an Era where the higher paycheck has become more seductive than the job, Mike Krzyzewski has stood his ground. Over his 30 years at Duke, he has had four serious offers to coach in the NBA. Two of the jobs were with the two most notable franchises, the Celtics and the Lakers. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, reportedly offered him five years, $40 million and part ownership. The latest offer came in 2010 from the New Jersey Nets and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. The offer was reportedly 15 million a year, which would have made him the highest paid coach in the NBA without coaching a single game.

Coach K's strong principles seem to stem from his humble upbringings in Chicago and summer visits to Kiesterville, Pa where his maternal grandparents emigrated from Poland. His discipline and perseverance started when he enrolled in West Point Academy training to become an officer in the army. When scandal in college sports has run rampant like the black plague, it's comforting to know that the most identifiable program in college basketball has a seemingly incorruptible leader.

It's not a coincidence that many former Duke player's have gone on to fruitful and successful careers after basketball. Jay Bilas was a four year starter from 1983-1986. Now Bilas is a lawyer and one of the nation's most trusted basketball analysts for ESPN and CBS Sports. Billy King, who served as a captain of Duke's 1988 Final Four team, is the general manager of the New Jersey Nets, and former general manager and team president of the Philadelphia 76ers. Mike Krzyzewski prepares his player's for life after basketball while he is teaching it.

Reading this article, you might wonder where my fascination with Coach Krzyzewski and the Duke program comes from. I have no affiliation or geographical proximity to the school. This was all prompted from watching my Pitt Panthers fall to Butler in the round of 32 this past weekend. Pitt finished first in the Big East; the most dominate conference in college basketball all year, only to fall short of the final four once again. Pittsburgh's coach Jamie Dixon is a really good one which made me think about how great Coach K must be. His team's blossom in the regular season and continue to flourish in the NCAA tournament almost every year.

Mike Krzyzewski has the chance to pass Bobby Knight this tournament season for the most wins ever. But, you better believe he cares infinitely more about championship number 5 than win number 903.

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