The Success Story That Is Mike Krzyzewski And His Legendary Coaching Career

Coach K - Title Win
[Image via Duke Athletics]

With so much success, it is easy to forget the times when things were not so good for legendary Coach Mike Krzyzewski (a.k.a. Coach K). In fact, he failed to secure a winning record in his first three seasons as Duke’s coach. What changed the following year? Duke recruited a top point guard, known as Johnny Dawkins. His class possibly saved Krzyzewski’s job in 1983 by propelling Duke to its now-infamous winning ways.

The iconic 1986 class included the likes of Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson, and Jay Bilas. They accomplished many of Coach K’s firsts, including his first trip to the Final Four.

This group set the standard for years to come, laying down the foundation for future Blue Devils to succeed. Once Mike Krzyzewski tasted success, he wanted to keep tasting it for years to come. He did just that through multiple eras. We decided to analyze the amazing Coach K’s career, and discuss some of his most impressive success stories. Let’s get started!


A Champion Across Multiple Eras

Mike Krzyzewski & Jabari Parker
[Image via Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated]
We talk about players adapting to new roles and new systems all the time. It is just as important for head coaches to adapt to the major changes in the game. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has certainly proven himself more than capable of rolling with punches. One punch that knocked the Blue Devils down, was when the one-and-done rule was implemented in 2006.

At first, Mike Krzyzewski was against it and almost refused to recruit players looking to use his program as a stepping-stone into the big leagues. It wasn’t until he lost numerous players from his 2009-10 National Championship team that he gave in, and began to bring these types of players in.

Kyrie Irving was the first one-and-done experiment. After an injury had him sidelined for most of the season, there was hope that he could stay another year. However, a strong NCAA tournament put an end to that idea.

Austin Rivers was next. The son of Coach Doc Rivers averaged 15.5 points and 2.1 assists per game. Rivers was drafted 10th overall the following year. After not having any players leave after one year in 2012-13, Krzyzewski faced a great challenge in coaching Jabari Parker.

Coach K Breaks Through To Help Jabari Parker Succeed:

Jabari Parker was considered more talented than Irving and Rivers at the time. He was so good that in high school, he played with a self-imposed regulator based on human conditions. He didn’t want his teammates to be jealous of him and pushed away any special treatment options he had available to him. Even at Duke, he shows signs of playing within himself.

It took Coach K a while to figure it out,  which allowed Parker to finish the season strong once the issue became evident.

The positive experience with Jabari Parker gave Coach K the confidence to deal with three one-and-done players in the 2014-2015 season too. This time, he’d bring in a lot more and had a starting lineup filled with future NBA players.

During that season alone, he coached Justice Winslow, Jahlil Okafor, and Tyus Jones. Coach K’s affinity for one-year players reached its peak when he won the 2014-15 title, led by those three freshmen.


A Trip Down Victory Lane

Duke 1991 Title Win
[Image via Duke Athletics]
Coach Mike Krzyzewski has won 5 national titles, 12 final four appearances, 13 regular-season championships, and 15 ACC tournament championships. He’s also the winningest coach in college basketball history with 1,170 wins as of this writing. The Coach K era was often filled with successes.

On April 2, 1990, Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels overwhelmed Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils with relentless defense and fast-break offense en route to a 103-73 blowout. One of the most mismatched National Championship games. A shell-shocked Coach K praised the star-studded UNLV roster post-game.

A year later in 1991, the teams met in the national semifinals. Duke’s assistant coaches did not want to show the team the tape of the previous year’s 30-point defeat. Coach Mike Krzyzewski overruled their decision because he wanted his players to see it and remember the failure as fuel. He also wanted them to see that if mistakes could be avoided, they could stay within striking distance this time.

Unbeaten No Longer:

The psychological ploy worked. Duke no longer viewed UNLV as unbeatable. The Duke side that featured Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, and Bobby Hurley snapped UNLV’s 45-game win streak. Christian Laettner scored 28 points and 7 rebounds while holding UNLV’s star Larry Johnson to just 10 points on 13 shots. It was Coach Krzyzewski’s first National Championship and it solidified his side as a serious program and formidable force.

The following season’s National Championship game was overshadowed by the East Regional Finals infamous game between Duke and Kentucky. Just 2.1 seconds remained when Grant Hill’s 75-foot inbounds pass found Laettner with his back to the basket. Laettner dribbled once before turning and shooting a fallaway jumper to give his team victory at the buzzer.

Bleacher Report deemed it the best game in college basketball history. They were right, as it still holds up. Plus, Kentucky fans to this day still hate Christian Laettner’s guts.

Duke went on a 23-6 run in the game’s final 6 minutes to win 71-51, over the Michigan Wolverines in the finals this same season. The Blue Devils became the first team to win consecutive championships since UCLA in 1973. Bobby Hurley, the NCAA all-time leader in assists with 1076, was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.


Miracle Minute

Jay Williams
[Image via Craig Jones/Getty Images]
Christian Laettner was already living rent-free in the minds of many college basketball players. Again, Kentucky fans STILL hate this man. Just ask them. But other Duke players earned hatred from the fans of opposing teams as well. Most felt no one could be as hated as Laettner. Enter Jason Williams.

The incredible Jason Williams somehow scored 8 points in 13 seconds against Maryland in the National Semifinal. They were down by 11 points before this and managed to get a 10-point rally in the final 60 seconds of the game. This incredible moment is still one of the most memorable comebacks in college basketball history. Due to all of this happening in just one minute, Duke fans began calling it the “Miracle Minute“.

A lot of people credit Williams for this moment, and rightfully so. He did score most of the points and helped to secure the win as a result. However, his teammates truly helped him with this. This especially includes the amazing defensive work of Shane Battier.


The Star-Led 2001 Run

Duke Team with Battier and Dunleavy Jr
[Image via Pinterest]
On April 2nd, 2001, the Duke Blue Devils and Arizona Wildcats met at the Metrodome. The 2001 NCAA Championship game was one of the last to feature teams loaded with upperclassmen NBA prospects. Both Duke and Arizona featured stars who had already succeeded with major awards to their credit before this game.

This was one of the few periods in college basketball history that players would stick around at least until their Junior year before going pro. Thus, we had a game filled with stars as the Wildcats were going to attempt to send these Blue Devils back to hell.

In the end, Duke managed to pull away thanks to the shooting of Mike Dunleavy Jr. and two huge put-backs from Shane Battier. This was a perfect end to Battier’s college career, as this defensive mastermind deserved to go out on top. This would be Coach Krzyzewski’s third NCAA National Championship. One of his most difficult runs yet.


A Good Team Becomes Great

Duke 2010
[Image via Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images]
The 2010 title story was different. Nobody thought this was a great Duke team this season. After bowing out early in the tournament several times in the years prior, the Blue Devils were the underdogs. Naturally, that was an odd position to be in for Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his team. They did end up making it into the tournament and all the way to the Final.

Interestingly, this was the first Duke team to reach the National Championship game that didn’t feature an All-American on the team. This Blue Devils team was good but seemed to lack great players. That is why many credit Coach K’s incredible coaching efforts for this title run.

Duke’s Senior Captain Jon Scheyer, who is set to take over as Duke HC after Coach K’s retirement, stepped up. Nolan Smith’s career-high 29 points and Scheyer’s 20 points were crucial in a low-scoring tie. The stage was set for Brad Stevens’ 5th seeded Butler side, featuring star forward Gordon Hayward, to make history.

However, while Duke has relied on shots at the buzzer to win them a National Title, this time they ironically needed a miss.

The game was tied 61-59 when Hayward pulled down Brian Zoubek’s missed free throw and launched a half-court shot for all the marbles. It looked perfectly measured, and it seemed the ball was surely going in, but it wasn’t meant to be. Duke was back at the top of the college basketball world yet again.


Coach K’s Fifth

2015 Duke National Title Team
[Image via]
In 2015, when Coach Mike Krzyzewski embraced the one-and-done talents of Tyus Jones, Justice Winslow, and Jahlil Okafor, nothing could stop the Blue Devils. This season just showcased the immortalized coach’s ability to win in multiple eras. Duke marched through the bracket largely unchallenged. Seriously, they were owning some teams.

Wisconsin were worthy opponents though, having led by 9 points in the second half. Unlikely sources in freshmen guard duo Grayson Allen and Tyus Jones spearheaded the comeback. First, Allen scored 8 as he re-entered the game to provide a much-needed spark.

An inspired Jones did the rest as the two combined for 39 points. Duke won 68-63 over Wisconsin, giving Coach K his fifth championship. As they held off the Badgers and cut down the nets once again.


Mike Krzyzewski Vs. The World

Coach K & Kobe Bryant
[Image via Yahoo Sports]
A humiliating 2004 Olympics campaign led by Larry Brown, who had just won an NBA Championship with the Detroit Pistons, forced a change in management. Much was at stake after program overlord Jerry Colangelo selected Mike Krzyzewski from the collegiate level, instead of the NBA’s Gregg Popovich.

Mike Krzyzewski was hired not just to win gold, but also to change the culture of this team. His old rival at North Carolina, Dean Smith, had endorsed him as the only college coach capable of pulling this off.

As Coach K began to prepare his Team USA roster, later known as the “Redeem Team,” it became clear he had to be different. In college, players adapt to the coach and the culture they have established. Yet in the professional territory, this could not work. Therefore, Coach K adapted to the players. This was a humbling, yet rewarding move.

After ripping into Orlando Magic Center, Dwight Howard, and not getting the response he wanted, it was evident that a different approach was needed. By the start of his Las Vegas training camp in 2008, Krzyzewski had given a lot of thought to what approach might work with the pros.

Working with Kobe Bryant was never gonna be an issue. The Laker Legend had expressed his desire to play at Duke if he’d gone to college. He even wanted Coach K to be the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004. Finally, the two got to work together on this 2008 Team USA unit.

Kobe showed up in Vegas two days early to prepare, because obviously…that’s the black mamba way. He knocked on Coach K’s door and asked to guard every opponent’s best perimeter player, promising to destroy them. Bryant did exactly that.


Coaching LeBron James

Coaching LeBron
[Image via AP Photo/Charles Krupa]
LeBron James had never played for a college coach before. After a tiff over the dress code, the tension between James & Mike Krzyzewski was rising. It didn’t help that LeBron had lost a major international competition under Coach K in the 2006 World Championship semis against Greece.

Over the next two consecutive summers, Krzyzewski traveled to Akron just to get to know the 23-year old juggernaut. They stayed in touch after this, and James even called Coach K and congratulated him on his 800th win. Their relationship was improving, but players were still skeptical of Coach K’s ability to lead the team to success in the 2008 Olympics.

LeBron was still only 23-years old and according to one Team USA source:

“He didn’t always steer the team in the right direction. LeBron had to learn to be a killer. Kobe was an assassin, LeBron was a showman.”

Essence Of Leadership:

Mike Krzyzewski encouraged players like LeBron, Kobe, Dwyane Wade, and Jason Kidd to address the rest of the team in a classroom-type setting at the Wynn Las Vegas resort. Krzyzewski handed out folders containing an image of the gold medal, an image of the Olympic bracket, an itinerary, and a blank page titled standards.

Jim Delaney, USA Basketball executive, calls what followed “the essence of leadership” in one of the best team meetings he’d ever witnessed.

Coach K asked each of these players to define the standards of what the entire team was going to accomplish. He was going to ensure they lived up to those standards. It was a simple yet well-thought and respectful way to communicate with the players.

They spoke from the heart. Kidd spoke about respecting each other and showing up on time, Kobe’s speech focused on defense, rebounding, and the grit that former USA Basketball teams had not displayed. LeBron seemed reluctant to speak, maybe because he had never won a championship at that point. It was important for LeBron to speak, and to extend his power to Coach K.

Yet Coach was getting impatient. He was wearing his 1992 Dream Team ring. A ring he won as an assistant on Chuck Daly’s staff. However, he took it off and told the players he would never wear it again as he wanted to replace it with a 2008 ring.

As Coach K was ready to give up on James and end the meeting, James finally decided to speak. He spoke beautifully about being a no-excuse team. The entire room exhaled in what was described as an “emotional and empowering meeting.”


The “Redeem” Team

USA Gold Medal
[Image via (Bob Rosato/ Sports Illustrated)]
Mike Krzyzewski was never intimidated by the NBA players. He was a star in his own right and had an ego too. Still, he knew he couldn’t berate the players like in Duke. Not that they gave him much reason to.

Jim Boeheim, who joined the U.S. Staff, says that only one player was ever late for a Coach K practice or meeting. That was Dwyane Wade, by five minutes. Boeheim claimed: “Mike just called him out and Dwyane said it would never happen again.”

This team was all about accountability, and LeBron held Coach K accountable. In the final Olympic tune-up game against Australia, Kobe took some questionable shots and didn’t move the ball enough. LeBron told Coach K that he had to fix it. Of course, this was something Coach K was already aware of.

However, he now had to handle it with the added pressure of his young superstar watching.

Coach Krzyzewski asked Bryant to stay back for a private meeting the next morning. He pulled out a laptop and sat with Bryant in a room. He pointed out that some of his shots were questionable and that his teammates were standing around watching him on some drives to the basket.

Coach K insisted there had to be more ball movement. Bryant responded well to the criticism and took care of it. Because Kobe was the most coachable athlete around.

Team USA’s unity, discipline, accountability, and hard work paid off. The United States defeated Spain in a thrilling Olympic final. This was just the first of three gold medal triumphs under Coach Krzyzewski as head coach of Team USA for the World Championships & Summer Olympic Games.


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