Leading a team to seven Final Fours in 10 seasons and becoming the first coach since John Wooden to win back-to-back national titles can take a man very far very quickly—whether he likes it or not. And as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski found out last season, there's much not to like about how outsized success can influence your life.
The 1990s have subjected the Blue Devil coach to a maelstrom of demands and requests—from children, charities, colleagues, even his country, for which he helped coach the Dream Team at the '92 Olympics. It was hard for Krzyzewski to refuse any of them, and all the yea-saying ultimately took its toll in the fall of '94. He underwent surgery for a severely herniated disk, then returned to the sideline too hastily and drove himself to the point of exhaustion, which eventually caused him to miss the final nine weeks of the season. Krzyzewski's West Point pedigree made it all the more difficult for him to watch his abandoned troops stumble to a 13–18 record and a last-place finish in the ACC.
This season he's vowing to be a more disciplined manager of his time. He has given up his duties on USA Basketball's selection committee and his spokesman's role on legislative issues for the National Association of Basketball Coaches. But he's still a thoughtful commentator on what's happening in basketball at all levels. Krzyzewski, now 48, talked to SI's ALEXANDER WOLFF about his team, the game and the lessons he believes he learned during his involuntary sabbatical.
SI: What was the hardest thing about the time you sat out last season?
MK: That the team lost. Because that made me feel guilty. If they'd won I would have felt great. It would have been easier. And then I saw what it did, not just to our team, but to our staff, with [associate coach] Pete [Gaudet] being the lead guy. If Pete had been allowed to coach the team from October 15 on, I think they would have won.
SI: How much of that difficulty with sitting out had to do with the things you were taught at Army?
MK: My physical condition got worse because I spent so much energy trying to get back, not to get better. It sounds crazy, but that's what was happening. And so much of it was guilt. In that period I thought in military terms of "being relieved," of stepping aside, and I did talk to the people in charge about that—that if I can't do it I'll get out of here. You won't have to fire me.
SI: You were in horrible shape last winter, and to recover properly you needed some seclusion. But in your absence, rumors were rampant. Why the complete vanishing act?
MK: Not until after our season did I feel a need to be visible. During the season the players needed to be on their own. For me to be visible would have been contrary to team goals. Too much attention would have been diverted to me, and they didn't need that distraction. Unless you actually show people you're O.K., the worst thing you can do is say you don't have AIDS or cancer or marital problems. So you have to indicate you don't have them without actually saying so, without dignifying the rumors. That's why after the season I went on Roy Firestone's show [on ESPN] and I was visible at the Final Four—to dispel conjecture that I was getting out of coaching or that I was gravely ill. I didn't want recruiting to suffer. But in-season it would have been unfair for me to be visible when I wasn't really part of the team.
SI: Is it true that you sent Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz a note after he recently underwent spinal surgery, pleading with him not to rush back against his doctors' orders?
MK: Yes. I was deeply concerned when I heard all the prognoses of Lou's condition. It was all very familiar to me. Doctors aren't trying to tie you down. They want to see you back at your job as quickly as possible. I didn't realize that. When a doctor says four to six weeks, a coach, with his competitive spirit, thinks, O.K., I'll be back in seven to 10 days. You want to do your duty to your men, to come back and lead as quickly as possible. When people think of coaches, they don't think of injuries. They think of stability, maybe even invulnerability to injury. And being out with an injury isn't something coaches are accustomed to. Being fired, maybe. But not being out with an injury. So you're liable to make a bad decision like I did.
SI: What did you learn from last season?
MK: I spent the time away doing a lot of analysis of why I do certain things. I talked with many people—my wife, Mickie, especially—and asked myself, Why did you do that? Do you still believe this? And I concluded that I like to coach. I like to teach. And I don't do it because I like these tropical storms that keep coming in. People around you get accustomed to your getting it all done, even when things get out of hand. I think of it as having all these phones: a Duke basketball phone, a personal phone, a coaches' phone, a USA Basketball phone, an everything-else phone. The phones ring. The coach at Murray State has an idea about legislation; a coach in Utah has a kid who deserves a look for one of our national teams. The media wants a comment; a high school coach wants a suggestion or a referral; a parent wants a note of encouragement sent to a kid who's not doing well in school. "Let's call Mike," they say. That gets repeated a thousand times over the course of a year, no exaggeration. You always show another coach respect, because I was there once—I began as a graduate assistant. But I've got to learn to answer my personal and Duke basketball phones before others. To me, thinking of it in terms of phones makes sense. Lines in, electronic frequencies—that kind of stuff. If I don't think of it that way, no one will for me. This school isn't equipped as an institution to handle celebrity. Duke is equipped to handle Nobel Prize winners.
SI: Pete Gaudet has left. So has your assistant Mike Brey, who's now the head coach at Delaware. Tommy Amaker is 30, and your two new hires, Quin Snyder and Tim O'Toole, are 29 and 31, respectively. That's a pretty young group. What's your thinking there?
MK: Tommy, Quin and Timmy—but especially Quin and Timmy, because Tommy and I have been on the road recruiting—have supervised all the preseason weight training and individual work. Our kids believe in them and in their enthusiasm. I'm going to try riding that for a while. I feel very enthusiastic, but I don't want to go to the party alone. Sometimes in the past I've felt I've been a little bit too much the source of enthusiasm.
SI: Why is it you don't use a whistle in practice?
MK: I want my players to listen for the sound of my voice. One of my teammates at Army, Jimmy Oxley, used to say to me, "Talk to me when you're on the bench." He would hear my voice and respond to it. I think he became attuned to it. And for me today it isn't just to be able to shout out instructions--that we're running play number 2 or we're in a half-court man defense. It may be that our offense is in front of our bench and [Bobby] Hurley gets a pass and I say, "Shoot!"--and he just shoots the ball. Hopefully it's a voice he trusts.
SI: You might play Indiana in the Great Alaska Shootout this year. What's the status of your relationship with Bob Knight, your college coach and the man who gave you your first assistant's job?
MK: It's not as close as it was, because you grow apart running your own programs. But it's good even if our contact isn't as frequent. Coach Knight isn't on the road a lot recruiting. He does things his own way. Seven or eight years ago we'd do clinics three or four weekends a year, and we'd get to spend at least a day together. And I'm not a big hunter or fisherman, which he likes to do in the offseason. I wish we were closer, and it's a little bit sad, really. But I do hope we play in Alaska—and I hope it's because we both won.
SI: You and the NBA have flirted with each other over the years, most recently in the spring of '94. In light of what you went through last season, what are your feelings about coaching in the pros?
MK: It's not of interest to me in the immediate future. In the distant future, I wouldn't say I'd never look at it. But for the foreseeable future, as long as I'm coaching, I see myself coaching in college and coaching at Duke. But the way I'm approaching this comeback is, I want to coach in an idealistic way, on my terms, and I'm not sure that will work. I hope it works. The fact is, I didn't get exhausted because of all the things that got out of hand; I got exhausted because of my back and my competitiveness and all that. It was after we won and all the extraneous things crept in—that's when I had to have an out-of-body experience, if you will, to enable me to see what my priorities really were. But if over the next few years I find that the way I'm trying to do things now isn't compatible with what I want to get out of coaching, I could see myself not coaching—or going to the NBA.
SI: Over the summer the ACC was stripped of its stars by early defections to the pros. Of course your life is made easier by not having to concern yourself with Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Joe Smith and Cory Alexander anymore. But are you worried about this trend and its effect on college basketball?
MK: It doesn't alarm me. The rookie salary cap will help keep players in school longer, which I think is good. That wasn't the NBA's motivation in adopting the rookie salary cap, of course, but the residual effect will be good. The NCAA allows a kid to take out an insurance policy to cover what he might lose in projected pro earnings if he was to get hurt while playing another year in college. Well, you couldn't get an insurance company to underwrite the amount that, say, Chris Webber got for coming out early a few years ago. But an insurance policy could cover what Joe Smith signed for under the rookie cap. So we should see the pendulum swing back some.
SI: If you were king of college basketball and could by fiat change something about the game, what would you do?
MK: Well, off the court, I'd erase the recruiting rules and try to come up with a better way. Right now the premise of the rules is a lack of trust. That's a horrible way to do anything. Let's trust one another, knowing there'll be some coaches who'll break the rules, and put it upon the coaches to govern themselves. Some people say we could do that now, but that's baloney. There's not a coach alive who knows every rule and interpretation, and unless you know it all you're not going to turn someone else in, because you're probably doing something wrong yourself that you don't even know about. Another thing: Did you notice last year how many kids had to wait until the last minute before they made their test scores? Let's say a kid is being recruited by Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, Jim Boeheim and Jim Harrick. What's wrong with all five of these people, sometime in the kid's sophomore or at least the start of his junior year, calling him up and saying, "Look, have you signed up for your SATs or ACTs yet? What courses are you taking in your junior year?" The NCAA sends literature to guidance offices, but this would be from a voice the kids respect, the voice of someone they're going to have to listen to if they're going to make it to the pros. But everyone says, "Oh, if coaches make that call, one of them will get an advantage." There's so much lack of trust. Also, I think you should be able to watch your kids play in the fall [in the preseason coaches are allowed to work only with groups of up to three players for up to two hours per week], even if it's for only an hour a week and you're holding hands with your compliance officer. This fall we've had a new rule permitting two hours a week of individual instruction, and that's been great. But if I were an English teacher working with you on sentence structure, I could tell you, "Yes, that sentence is grammatical." But I'd never be able to see what you've really learned unless I let you write an essay.
SI: What would you change on the court?
MK: We have a great game. I wouldn't mess with it too much. But I think we should either reduce the amount of time on the shot clock or bring back the five-second closely-guarded rule. There's too much dribbling by one person, and the beauty of the game is five people working together.
SI: You're saying this as some-one who got to the Final Four in Charlotte two seasons ago with Grant Hill dribbling the ball an awful lot.
MK: The Grant Hill Offense. The Going-to-Charlotte Offense. [Smiles.] Of course you're going to use the rule, but it's a stupid rule. It's not exciting. And if the only reason we got rid of the five-second call is that referees don't like to count, that's ridiculous. If the refs can't count, then let's reduce the time on the shot clock. Of course, when I say that, people say I want a shorter clock because that would be to our advantage, because we use a pressure man-to-man. In fact, we play many different ways. I just think the game is better with more passing, more movement and selective dribbling, which make things happen.
SI: Do you feel that you know the players you're coaching this season?
MK: Not as well as I'd like and not as well as I'm going to. I don't think this is a team I'm going to get on a lot. I think they're ready to do that on their own. If I yell at them, it'll probably be with a positive spin. Like, "Boy, I haven't seen you do that before," or "If you're going to play like a loser, you're not showing what you're capable of doing." I really believe that to get to so many Final Fours, to win like we did, we've been able to develop some really good interpersonal relationships to go along with some pretty good talent. And last year we just weren't able to get the interpersonal side of things going—the collective responsibility, the no-blame, the confidence in one another where you know that if you fall, someone will catch you, so why not jump? We hadn't developed that through December when I was still there, and then I was taken out of the equation. None of that was any fault of the kids.
SI: Nor of the coaching staff that took over when you left?
MK: No. None. Sometimes a damn tropical storm just knocks your house down.