Appreciating Mike Krzyzewski and No. 903

The paperback book stealthily exists on an eye-level shelf, wedged between two bigger hardcover volumes. The pages read like both scripture and vile testimony, depending on your definition of place and people. Bold, angry words grace the cover, cropped around a methodically altered sketch of Mike Krzyzewski’s face.

Aided by a darkened skin tone, ears stretched and pinned back, mouth agape exposing buck-tooth pearls, Krzyzewski looks devilish. Evil permeates the page.

I walk by “To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever,” a partially satirical account of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry authored by Will Blythe, every morning and night. I witness the book in passing and chuckle. A family member – if I remember correctly – gave it to me as a gift shortly after I decided to attend North Carolina. I laughed the first time I saw the cover. I still laugh. But I laugh because it’s a humorous depiction of tradition, sports rivalry and competition, not because it cheaply vilifies Krzyzewski.

To howl at the vilification of Krzyzewski would directly contradict the admiration and professional respect I maintain for the most victorious coach in men’s major college basketball history.

***

Krzyzewski secured victory No. 903, which pushed him past Bob Knight for the career record, 50 miles from where he captured No. 1. It could have happened in Durham, N.C., which most Duke fans probably argue would have been more fitting. But given that Krzyzewski will be revered for No. 903 forever, Madison Square Garden provided the more appropriate setting because ‘903’ exemplifies little more than a crown for the king. The previous 902 – beginning in West Point, N.Y. – tell his story of power and influence.

In 1966, Krzyzewski entered the neo-Gothic compound of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to play basketball for Bob Knight. The tenuous Knight-Krzyzewski relationship has been documented many times through the years (SI’s Seth Davis did a great job here after Coach K’s big win), but there couldn’t have been a better fit for Krzyzewski as a youngster committing to a basketball life. Knight operated and coached in harmony with the Army’s mission, delivering messages and orders without room for misinterpretation. Knight wanted Krzyzewski to be a pass-first, shoot-never point guard, and Krzyzewski came to embrace the role and lead Army to two NIT appearances.

Krzyzewski embraced more than just basketball at West Point, of course. Even a fleeting glance at the history section of Army’s website will provide a detailed review of the academy’s priorities. An educated sense of history, a belief in ethics and principle, and a promise to exhibit unconditional respect take precedence above all else. Krzyzewski studied at a place that grades cadets’ “military leadership performance.” He competed on a campus where authority figures expected all students – athlete or no athlete – to strictly adhere to the Cadet Honor Code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.” He lived this environment.

After graduating from the academy and pledging his five years of service – the final two of which he spent coaching at a military prep school in Virginia – Krzyzewski called upon his college coach, and Knight hired him as a graduate assistant at Indiana. The following year, Army birthed the phenomenon known as ‘Coach K’ by giving Krzyzewski his first college head coaching job.

Like Knight had taught him, Krzyzewski began to develop his defensive and disciplined brand of basketball at West Point. Black Knight victories always became the opportunity cost for keeping athletics and extracurricular endeavors in proper context, and that impacted all Army basketball coaches. At the academy, Coach K won a handful more games than he lost but made only one NIT appearance. Like his predecessors, he failed to guide Army to the NCAA tournament, a feat that has escaped the program to this day.

After five seasons of limited hardwood prosperity with the Black Knights, something unexpected happened.

Duke called, and a legacy awaited.

***

After more than three decades at Duke accompanied by extraordinary success, Krzyzewski has obtained a certain level of iconic status that waltzes with our culture’s habit of deifying men and women who bring athletic victories by the hundreds. We listen to them. We put our trust in them. We follow them.

Krzyzewski fits the bill as a figurehead who symbolizes past generations, lost American ideals, long forgotten times of amateur purity. He maintains an image of cleanliness, a 64-year-old coach who seemingly doesn’t age. He produces basketball players who protect the Duke company line by (mostly) behaving and speaking appropriately. He graduates his athletes at a 100 percent success rate, according to the most recent Graduate Success Rate results administered by the NCAA (Note: You’re wondering how this is possible when players leave early for the NBA. According to the NCAA, players who leave early in “good standing” don’t count as academic casualties.). All of these good things we believe about Coach K may be true. I don’t personally know them to be false.

Still, the horrific incidents that recently came to light in State College, Pa., have kicked our society back towards sobriety, a tragic reminder that the pomp and entitlement fostered by our culture facilitates the fleeing of morality. We believe iconic figures in sports to be impenetrable even though sin continually proves otherwise. Krzyzewski has a 14-page bio on Duke’s athletic website, a bio that allows readers to publish comments via Facebook. Fans offer their favorite Coach K tales and seek career and life advice. They leave e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers in a public forum despite the miniscule chance the coach reaches out. They subscribe to the image thinking they know the man.

To Krzyzewski’s credit, he didn’t voluntarily climb this pedestal and doesn’t pretend to sit high upon it. He doesn’t, through word or action, suggest he lives outside of the NCAA-sponsored world of amateur athletics-induced capitalism. Krzyzewski works for a private university and runs a business that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, produced $26.7 million of revenue in the 2009-10 season, the highest among men’s basketball programs in the country (figures for Duke’s national championship season a year ago haven’t been made available).

For his efforts and victories, Krzyzewski enjoys a level of affluence unbeknownst to most Americans. Duke University tax filings obtained by the News & Observer showed that Krzyzewski made $4.95 million in salary during the 2009-10 season; again, before his Blue Devils won another national championship. Coach K has parlayed his basketball success into many other opportunities.

He has coached the USA national basketball team. The Los Angeles Lakers courted him multiple times, forcing Duke to remain competitive in compensation packages. His basketball program has a sponsorship deal with Nike. After Krzyzewski broke Knight’s record Tuesday evening, his amateur players put on special Nike ‘903’ caps made to commemorate the occasion, like professional athletes would do after winning a championship.

Anywhere you look, Krzyzewski embraces the realities and truths of big-time college basketball. He has very much adopted a corporate protocol, outlining a system that encapsulates the entire mission of college sports – win games, make money and help kids earn an education.

To the naked eye, Krzyzewski runs a traditional program – one that places emphasis on recruiting players who have genuine interests beyond basketball rather than selling out for every one-and-done protégé. When a TV analyst recently asked Kentucky head coach John Calipari about his recruiting classes, the ones headlined every year by kids expected to spend one season in Lexington, Ky., Calipari responded, “You need those guys because that’s how you assemble great teams, not by getting mediocre players to stay around.”

Krzyzewski has proved otherwise in his career, which accentuates his basketball and business brilliance. Yes, Duke plays the one-and-done game. Kyrie Irving played less than half a season last year and declared for the draft. Highly-touted Duke freshman Austin Rivers could leave for the NBA after this season. There have been others.

But this idea that Duke basketball revolves solely around privileged kids whose families place a premier emphasis on education because they have the financial means to survive without professional sports doesn’t paint the full picture. It doesn’t illustrate Krzyzewski’s plan. His ingenuity comes from a much more calculated place than that.

Coach K hordes players who value the collegiate experience because that method breeds continuity, competition and stability. Calipari’s method brings substantially more risk as the faces come and go each season.

In a piece for SI.com celebrating Krzyzewski’s career achievement, former Blue Devil Grant Hill provided a small window into the desires and nature of Coach K. “(Krzyzewski) was demanding, intense, constantly pushing and prodding us to produce more,” Hill wrote.

Krzyzewski has mastered the art of squeezing production from talent. He built a seemingly good faith system that employed his players to produce as students and produce as athletes.

The latter group has produced 903 times.

***

As Krzyzewski hugged Bob Knight on the MSG floor after Duke beat Michigan State to give Coach K the record, I thought about that book. I dug it out from my book shelf and stared at the cover, the cartoonish Krzyzewski face glaring back at me. I laughed.

I flipped through a few of the dusty pages, skimming the text. I thought about not only what Coach K had accomplished, but how he accomplished it. How has a man – this coming from an outsider’s uninformed perspective – won so many games, built such a forceful basketball empire, lasted so long in an age when moral corruption and greed seem so prevalent?

A brilliant system.

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