Sports

What Was Mike Krzyzewski’s Mission, Really?

The retiring Duke legend’s victories can’t be separated from all that he whitewashed.

Coach K gesticulating and yelling in a suit on the sideline, as he does
Coach K during the second half of Duke’s game against Virginia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 22, 2020, in Durham, North Carolina. Grant Halverson/Getty Images

At the halfway point of the 1989–90 college basketball season, Mike Krzyzewski’s secretary reached out to the sports department of the Duke Chronicle. She said the coach wanted the student journalists to come by for a meeting, so they could get to know the players better. When the newspaper staff showed up, Krzyzewski reamed them out in front of his basketball team, saying the Chronicle crew didn’t “appreciate what the fuck is going on” and advising them to “get your head out of your asses.”

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Krzyzewski threw this tantrum because the school paper had published an article he didn’t like. The offending headline: “Solid overall play makes Duke the ACC frontrunner.” In that story, a Chronicle writer gave Duke men’s basketball a midseason grade of B+. Krzyzewski called that “an insult to me.” He believed his Blue Devils—who would go on to reach the Final Four, then get blown out by UNLV—deserved an A+.

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We know all this because a Duke Chronicle reporter secretly tape-recorded the meeting, and the newspaper published a front-page account of Krzyzewski’s tirade. The Chronicle’s sports editor called the coach’s locker room scolding “humiliating” and said, of Krzyzewski, “he treated us as if we worked for him.” Krzyzewski later apologized for the language he’d used but not for the message he’d delivered. Two years later, in a piece headlined “Blue Angel,” he told Sports Illustrated that it still rankled him that the students from the Chronicle never apologized to him.

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Duke haters cite this ancient history as evidence that Krzyzewski is inauthentic—that the sainted Coach K is secretly a profane jerk. I’m bringing it up now, as the 74-year-old Krzyzewski announces his plan to retire after the 2021-22 season, to make the opposite point. The man we’ve gotten to know in public in the past 40-plus years—the five-time NCAA champion, the namesake of Duke’s Fuqua/Coach K Center of Leadership and Ethics—isn’t two-faced at all. He’s the exact same guy who privately beckoned a group of undergrads under false pretenses to lecture them on how to behave.

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Before he forged his own identity, Krzyzewski was known as Bob Knight’s protégé. Knight, who coached Krzyzewski at West Point, is famous for winning a lot of games, enforcing a strict code of discipline, and being an enormous jackass. While acknowledging Knight’s influence, Krzyzewski has long pushed back at the notion that he patterned himself after the red-faced, chair-chucking legend. The differences between them, though, have more to do with style than substance. Both coaches saw themselves, and marketed themselves, as molders of men. Both have also staunchly defended an NCAA system that Taylor Branch memorably described as carrying “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation,” wherein coaches (most of them white) enrich themselves via the labor of unpaid athletes (most of them Black).

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Krzyzewski is very good at coaching basketball. He’s a Hall of Famer and corporate icon because he’s great at selling his program to both teenage basketball stars and defenders of the status quo. Krzyzewski went 38–47 in his first three years at Duke, and would’ve lost his job if not for a talented recruiting class that changed the Blue Devils’ on-court fortunes. Once Duke got to winning, Krzyzewski supplemented his coaching contract with a multimillion-dollar Nike deal and started earning six figures per speech on the white-collar lecture tour.

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Krzyzewski is “one of the great leaders, motivators, and humanitarians of sport,” broadcaster Jim Nantz once said. “I think executives like me aspire to be his peer, and I don’t say that tongue in cheek,” then–Bear Stearns president Alan D. Schwartz said of the Duke coach in 2006. “If you do not realize the opportunity you has infront of you to play for Coach K and at the same time attain a Duke diploma, then that is certainly your loss,” a Duke alum wrote to Elton Brand after he left school early to join the NBA. She added, “I just wish that you has spared us the notion that you were continuing in the tradition of being a Duke student-athlete, in emphasizing excellence in both academics and athletics.” Brand would go on to earn more than $165 million in salary. He is now the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers.

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Krzyzewski, for his part, encouraged Brand to go to the NBA after his sophomore season, calling that move “absolutely a no-brainer.” In one of his many books on leadership, the coach described this as an example of “trust in action.” Brand came to him, Krzyzewski explained, because “he knew that I wanted what was best for him.”

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It’s worth noting that Krzyzewski’s players, both at Duke and on the U.S. national team, genuinely revere him. And Krzyzewski is no doubt sincere when he says that he wanted the best for Brand, and everyone else who suited up for him. But as Coach K, his acolytes, and his commercial partners will tell you, his project extends well beyond the confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium.

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“I don’t look at myself as a basketball coach,” he said in an American Express ad that ran incessantly during the 2005 NCAA Tournament. “I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball.”

A leader who happens to coach basketball is someone whose area of influence extends beyond the court and into the boardroom—and, if he’s so inclined, into the student newspaper office. A leader who happens to coach basketball treats people who are not in his employ as if they work for him. A leader who happens to coach basketball knows what is best for everyone.

That “happens to coach” bit is a tidy piece of misdirection—a claim that his role as the public face of so-called amateur sports is inconsequential to his larger mission. The truth is that Krzyzewski is wealthy, famous, and revered because he’s sold the idea that college basketball is, in the right hands—that is, in his hands—a deeply honorable enterprise.

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“Duke basketball has come to represent the wishful public-service-announcement version of college athletics,” Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff wrote in 1992, in the same piece where Krzyzewski complained that the student reporters he’d yelled at in the locker room never apologized to him. “It is the most collegiate of programs, only partly because virtually all players who pass through Durham wind up graduating.” Krzyzewski, Wolff went on to note, “has such rapport with the students that he could chew them out for not cheering hard enough after a narrow home win against Maryland.” Such rapport indeed!

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Starting around 2010, Krzyzewski actively embraced one-and-done players like Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson. He’s also come out in favor of athletes getting compensated for their name, image, and likeness rights, saying “that we in college athletics must continually adapt, albeit in a sensible manner.”

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Even so, Krzyzewski has done more than any other figure to buttress the NCAA’s farcical claim that high-level men’s basketball is less a buck-raking enterprise than an opportunity for young men to learn valuable life lessons. In his 41 seasons at Duke, he’s worked to preserve a system in which coaches accrue power and profits while some of the world’s greatest athletes get labeled selfish ingrates for exercising what little autonomy they have. “Kids don’t stick to the school that they pick and they want instant gratification,” Krzyzewski said in 2012, decrying the rise of transfers in the college game.

On Thursday, Stadium’s Jeff Goodman reported that a “source close to Coach K” said that he’s retiring in part because of “the transfer portal being out of control.” That same source told Goodman that Krzyzewski’s retirement was also inspired by “name, image and likeness coming into college basketball.” That claim seems confusing given the coach’s public support for NIL reform. But, if true, it’s perhaps an indication that Krzyzewski supports players’ rights so long as they don’t make his job more difficult or complicated.

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Krzyzewski actually thought about leaving the college game way back in 1990, when things got complicated in the wake of his contretemps with the student newspaper. Back then, he listened when the Boston Celtics came calling, but ultimately decided to stay at Duke. “I realized I’m not just a basketball coach,” he explained. “And if I were in the NBA, that’s what I’d be. I want to be a teacher and work with kids and see them grow up. What’s neat is that I can win a lot of basketball games while I’m doing that.”

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A couple of decades and a handful of Duke championships later, Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils found themselves getting blown out by Oregon in the 2016 Sweet 16. In the waning seconds, the Ducks’ Dillon Brooks took and made a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired. After the game, the losing coach pulled Brooks aside to tell the winning athlete that he’d acted out of line—that Brooks was “too good of a player to do that.” When Brooks revealed the content of that exchange, Krzyzewski initially denied having said anything of the sort. He told the truth only after the audio got released.

This, in public and private, was the man who built the winningest program in modern college basketball, and who built himself into the sport’s most enduring brand: a vicious competitor, a self-appointed moral arbiter, and a basketball coach inclined to blow the whistle on anything but the crooked pastime that he made his own.

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