Ian O’Connor tells the definitive story of Duke’s Coach K
Quick. What’s America’s most hated team? The New York Yankees, AKA The Evil Empire? The Dallas Cowboys? The Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics?
It’s none of the above.
That title, especially during March Madness, lives in the college basketball ranks and belongs to the Duke’s men’s basketball team. Its legions of haters will tell you that Blue Devils get too many calls from the refs and never feel the NCAA’s full wrath for alleged infractions. All the while, the Blue Devils win and win a lot of with a holier than thou attitude. Their message: We play by the rules, the right way, and we’re better than you! Most of the time, they are. (Last year, in the midst of Covid, they definitely weren’t.)
For the last 42 years, Coach K has helmed the Blue Devils, and he has been quite simply the best in the business. And yes, college basketball is a business. Coach K reportedly makes 7 million a year and that doesn’t include speaking engagements or sponsorship deals. For Duke, it’s money well spent. During his tenure Coach K has 12 Final Four appearances, five national titles and three Olympic gold medals as coach of Team USA. Coach K, the face of Duke, has transcended the role of coach. As he has stated himself: He’s a brand, a multi-million dollar brand.
It’s a remarkable story of Horatio Alger proportions, and author Ian O’Connor does a very nice job telling it in Coach K: The Rise and Reign of Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K’s story starts in blue-collar Chicago. The son of a cleaning woman and an elevator operator, Mike was a playground rat and eventually a high school star – but not a superstar. The Big 10 stayed away, but Mike caught the eye of West Point coach Bobby Knight.
Eventually, Mike became an assistant with Knight at Indiana and the US’s national team. With Knight’s support but no college head coaching experience, West Point hired Mike to be their coach. In Coach K, Knight and K’s often turbulent relationship gets plenty of compelling page time. At West Point, Mike won some but lost a lot too. In his final season, he went 9-17. Despite this, Duke took a flyer on the 33-year-old Mike.
Coach K was born–well not quite.
In Durham, winning wasn’t immediate. It was only after Coach K secured one of the best recruiting classes in the country did the Ws start to pile up.
Duke stood out, and it wasn’t just because they were good.
In a sport dominated by black men, Duke was very white. Remember the crafty point guard Bobby Hurley and the controversial center Christian Laettner, who was the subject of his own ESPN documentary: I Hate Christian Laettner? Their fans, the ESPN-friendly Cameron Crazies, were painted and loud and very controversial. In one fun episode, Coach K misinterprets a Crazie taunt and attempts to tame the Crazies.
In this century, as the game evolved, Coach K adapted. (His mentor, Coach Knight, did not.) Coach K expanded his recruiting net, going after players from backgrounds that were not postcard perfect. As the US’s Olympic coach, he built bridges with NBA multi-millionaires, most notably LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, no easy feat. Ironically, both did not attend college. This Olympic experience helped Coach K immensely in the current one and done era. Who will forget when one and done Dukie Zion Willamson, described by O’Connor as a Mack truck on a pogo stick, busted out of his sneaker with Obama looking on? Yes, Duke gets its share of celeb courtsiders.
Coach K is not all cheers and chest bumps. There are a handful of very poignant scenes, including one with North Carolina coach Dean Smith. Even hardened Tarheel fans will be touched. And O’Connor delves into the grievances of Duke haters–but probably not deep enough to satisfy the North Carolina faithful.
O’Connor had to cut 30,000 plus words from his original manuscript. His book left me wanting to read those words. If March Madness is on your menu, Coach K should be ordered.