DURHAM, N.C. -- Mike Krzyzewski is happy. He’s surprised anyone might think otherwise. His health is good, and his 17-member immediate family is doing well.
Happy is not a word we ordinarily associate with the public side of the intense, unfailingly analytical coach. Then again, the prospects just ahead would please any basketball coach in America.
Krzyzewski is on the cusp of directing not one, but two inordinately talented teams – the USA Basketball Men’s National Team, ultimately the 2016 U.S. Olympic squad, and the 2013-14 Duke Blue Devils.
He’s said previously his enjoyment of coaching is unabated. So is his touch in fashioning extraordinary teams --two of his last three Duke squads were bedeviled by injuries and still managed 30 or more victories.
The upcoming Blue Devils will be unusually athletic and versatile, able to force action using their defense in ways that haven’t been the case recently.
When Krzyzewski announced eight seasons ago he would engage in refashioning the attitudes, structure, and achievements of USA Basketball, a few voices were raised in objection. They argued it would create an unfair recruiting advantage for Duke. The talent kept coming, as this year’s newcomers attest, but in no greater proportions than before.
Far more skeptics emerged to insist Krzyzewski’s divided attention couldn’t possibly benefit the school that pays his salary.
Of course we know now the Blue Devils have thrived since 2006. Over the past eight years they won the 2010 national championship, finished second or higher all but once during the ACC regular season, went to the NCAAs each year, and compiled a cumulative 236-51 record, an 82.2 percent success rate that surpasses Krzyzewski’s career average.
Meanwhile Krzyzewski guided USA Basketball to Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012, a world championship in 2010, and an overall 62-1 record since 2006.
Following the American triumph in the 2012 London Olympics, Krzyzewski announced he was stepping aside as on-floor leader of the country’s national team. “When I said I wasn’t going to do it, I wasn’t going to do it,” Krzyzewski insists.
That decision came despite finding the experience invigorating and rewarding, a way to replenish his enthusiasm and deepen his understandings of the game. “I got better from doing it,” Krzyzewski observed. “I’ve loved it.”
Duke associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski, who will continue serving beside Coach K with USA Basketball, says working with the pros was a way for his boss “to fill his tank” rather than see his energy and engagement dissipate in a swirl of comfortable sameness.
“Coach, he’s developed into being a master at that, and USA Basketball is the latest way that he’s filled up his tank,” says the former Duke guard. “And when his tank is full, the people who benefit are the kids who play at Duke, and Duke. That’s why I appreciate that Duke understands – that what most people look at as it takes him away from Duke has honestly delivered bigger returns to Duke than if they had not allowed him to do it.”
No wonder, then, that at the press event announcing Krzyzewski had agreed to remain with USA Basketball, Duke president Richard Brodhead rather inclusively called the result “a win, win, win, win” situation.
The key mover in all this was Jerry Colangelo, the Managing Director of the USA Basketball Senior Men’s National Team. He did not want the collaboration with Krzyzewski to end, and said so publicly and privately.
“I thought time would be what he needed in terms of a tonic to think through the positives and also weigh the positives and whatever negatives there may be,” Colangelo said after Krzyzewski consulted closely with his family and agreed to re-enlist. “I think his legacy is very much tied to USA Basketball, as it certainly is to Duke University.”
Colangelo and Krzyzewski introduced order and continuity to what had been a catch-as-catch-can American system for developing teams for international competition. They developed a structure, a stable roster, and fostered a sense that serving as representatives of the U.S. was an honor.
Competitively, Krzyzewski hammered home the attitude Americans should no longer think or act as if victory was their birthright in a game they invented.
“That’s a very arrogant way of looking at it,” he insists, a viewpoint he said led to consecutive American failures in Olympic competition prior to his arrival. “As long as it’s five against five, we can lose at any time. And that’s the respect you have to give your opponent, and that’s what we do with our preparation.”
Duke fans will recognize that approach, which continues to work rather well for Krzyzewski’s teams against all comers and in all circumstances.