As I watch the US Olympic Men’s Basketball team work its way towards a second consecutive gold medal, I can’t help but think that Mike Krzyzewski (you can bet I Googled that) is the smartest guy in the room. In perusing his career, I can’t find nary a misstep.
He started out his career coaching at Army, a job with zero expectation, and did pretty well, enough to get hired by Duke. Before Krzyzewski arrived Duke Basketball was good but not great; Wikipedia separates its history into 1906-1979 and then “the Mike Krzyzewski era”. For all intents and purposes, Krzyzewski IS Duke Basketball.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been tempted by the NBA. Numerous times it has come calling, and numerous times he has turned it down. The only time he came close to accepting was in 2004, when the lure of Kobe Bryant and the Lakers was almost enough to get him. Kobe has often said that if he had played basketball in college, it would have been at Duke.
Krzyzewski has been spared the public humiliations that John Calipari, Mike Montgomery, Rick Pitino and other star college coaches endured while failing in the NBA. There have been some successful transitions (Larry Brown immediately comes to mind), but the track record isn’t pretty. Yet, for fans of the NBA at least, that leaves a bit of a black mark on Krzyzewski’s record. Sure, he can recruit and baby 18-year old high school talents, but is he actually a good coach? Is he tactically aware enough, good enough at managing the personalities of grown men, to truly be considered one of the greatest basketball coaches in history?
If Krzyzewski actually listens to the critics, his tenure as head coach of the USA Men’s Basketball team has been one giant middle finger to them all. These days, it is actually kind of difficult to coach the national team. You have to be able to get all of the stars aboard, figure out playing time and rotations for 12 players all used to being the man, and prepare NBA players for the quirks of the international game in short training camps. It’s also a no win job, as the team is expected to dominate the floor every time. I mean, look at the worry in the media after the team BEAT Lithuania, a very good team, in POOL PLAY at the Olympics.
If the 2012 team wins the gold medal Krzyzewski will, in my mind at least, go down as one of the best coaches of all time. Quick test: name the coach of the Dream Team. I can name every member of the Dream Team (that’s a partial lie: when this was a question at a recent trivia night I got 11 of the 12 right, accidentally including Isaiah Thomas and excluding David Robinson, but still good enough to win a pitcher of beer) but I had to look up the coach a minute ago. In 1992, I can say without an ounce of hyperbole, I could have been a player-coach and the Dream Team still would have cruised towards a gold medal.
But Coach K has shown in over 30 years that he can succeed with collegians and pros, domestically and internationally. I sure wish we could’ve (maybe there’s still time?) seen him in the NBA.