May 23, 2013
In 2006, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski was set to "save" the United States Olympic basketball team. All those rich NBA stars supposedly needed a college coach to hammer some discipline into them. Or so that's where some of the narratives went.
Seven years and two gold medals later, Krzyzewski announced Thursday he would continue coaching the team through the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. He'd previously said he was done with the USA job.
The announcement crystallized one thing: USA Basketball "saved," or at least helped maintain, Mike Krzyzewski too.
"It's only helped our program," he acknowledged.
The 66-year-old Krzyzewski said he was calling it quits after winning another gold in London last August. Everyone understood. He's happy, healthy and looking forward to the arrival of a ninth grandchild sometime this summer. He's obviously successful and wealthy beyond his wildest dreams growing up the son of an elevator operator and a cleaning woman in Chicago's northwest side.
It is a time in life when it would be understandable to have no coaching jobs, let alone two. There is nothing left to prove. His job with USA Basketball was done. He has another national title contender at Duke to concentrate on. Except if this was ever about proving something, or ever about giving to the national team, it certainly didn't solely turn out that way. Krzyzewski has benefited in ways that few saw coming. There's been plenty of taking too. It's been a two-way street.
These NBA stars have served as a late in life jolt to the man. He's headed into his 39th season as a college head coach, the winningest of all time, a long-ago Hall of Fame inductee, yet he has the competitive fire of his early years.
The fear around Duke back in 2006 was whether this moonlighting gig would wear Krzyzewski down, cost him precious time on the summer recruiting trail and, by virtue of what some wrongly expected to be endless clashes with millionaire players, sap his love of the game and thus cut his career short.
It has turned out, Duke president Richard Brodhead said Thursday, to be the exact opposite.
"[He's] come back from that process so energized, so exhilarated that I think [he's] more into coaching at Duke in [the] Olympic years than [he] ever was before," Brodhead said.
Krzyzewski was a bit taken aback by the statement.
"I don't think I did it bad before the Olympics," he joked later, without feeling the need to mention the three national titles captured prior to 2006. "We weren't real bad before then."
In the next breath though he acknowledged that perhaps Brodhead was correct.
"I got better doing it," Krzyzewski said of these last seven years. "Just like a player gets better doing it. It energizes you. It's like a teacher learning new material."
The year he started as Team USA's coach, Duke went just 22-11, finishing an unheard of sixth in the ACC. Since then the Blue Devils have averaged 30.3 wins a season and won that fourth national title. They've won seven of the last nine from their forever rival North Carolina and enter next season with a top-five team, led by mega-recruit Jabari Parker.
Maybe Duke was never "down" in the traditional sense, but there is no denying it's up right now. And the coach that everyone expected to scale back a bit is instead doubling down through at least 2016.
"I don't know how you are supposed to feel at 66," he said. "I feel energized, passionate, ready to achieve."
He likened his national team experience to the practice of CEOs serving on the board of directors of other companies or even non-profits, where maybe they pick up some idea or experience foreign to their sphere of work. Diversity and new experiences make you better, no matter the prior level of accomplishment.
"That's what USA Basketball has done for me," Krzyzewski said.
The international game sparked his imagination and made him a better bench coach. He's as good of a recruiter as ever; he landed Parker, among others, despite spending most of last offseason focused on the Olympics.
And those expected tests of wills with the NBA players never occurred. Much of that speculation came from those ignorant to the values of NBA players, who are, by and large, intelligent, dedicated professionals. Krzyzewski was an assistant on the original Dream Team, so he didn't need to be told that. He walked in seeking a partnership, not a fight.
It's paid dividends.
Through the years he's marveled at things, like the feel for the game a guy such as Jason Kidd could impart to him, the ferocity of Kobe Bryant's drive or the way younger players such as LeBron Jamesand Dwyane Wade sought out coaching on even small details.
He's long lived his life – and imparted to his Duke players – an ethos he picked up back in Chicago and up at West Point, one about forever seeking the challenges that lead to constant improvement.
With a chance for four more years with the national team laid out in front of him, how could he walk? The job of getting better is never done.
This is a bit of a new act for Krzyzewski, but hardly the start of the final one. He should have a terrific team in the fall. Recruiting remains strong. His beloved ACC has withstood realignment and will emerge as "the best conference in the history of the game," as he puts it.
He wants to win it. The ACC. The NCAA. The Olympics. Everything. Now as much as ever. He'll coach in Rio de Janeiro at age 69. Brodhead said he's already looking forward to the eventual announcement he'll lead America into the 2020 Olympics.
Krzyzewski laughed at that, but who knows. There are no negatives here.
The other day he was talking with his staff about applying what he learned from coaching a versatile, 6-foot-8 athlete such as LeBron with how he can coach a versatile, 6-foot-8, athlete such as Parker, basically how he's learned to maximize "guys with more than one position." It was one of the selling points of the recruitment.
"[We're going to] mirror some of the things we've done on the Olympic team," Krzyzewski promised.
Nearly 40 seasons and 1,000 victories into his college career and Mike Krzyzewski sounds as ready for Duke's to start as ever; and then eager to see not just what he can again do for his national team but for what his national team can again do for him.