Mike Krzyzewski's image change
The Duke coach hasn't altered who he is, but the perception of him has softened
DURHAM, N.C. -- The situation amuses Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel every time.
Sometimes it's a recruit or his parents; it's even happened with some of his friends. After Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski has interacted with the group and walked out of earshot, predictable comments follow.
"They'll say, 'He's nothing like I thought he was,'" Capel said.
Mike Krzyzewski is just like you.
He has 900-plus wins and two gold medals more than you, but aside from that, he's normal. It's just taken a while for most outside of Durham to acknowledge it.
"That's kind of funny. I guess when you're so extraordinary in your field, people tend to think that you go about things differently," said Jay Bilas, who played for Krzyzewski from 1982 to 1986 and is now an ESPN analyst. "And he doesn't. He's a normal guy in every other way."
Talk to those who know him best and they'll tell you Krzyzewski's personality hasn't changed much in his 38 years as a head coach. What's different is that the public is starting to know his personality too.
Social media nowadays has led people to share what would otherwise remain private. Although Krzyzewski isn't on social media in a sense, he has followed that lead and opened up as well. If there's one thing that has made him successful over the years, it's been his ability to adapt to changes without altering his core values.
"If you're going to be a leader for a long time, you adapt to the people you coach or you have the ability or the honor to lead," said Krzyzewski, who opens his 34th season on the Duke bench when the Blue Devils host Davidson (7 p.m. ET on ESPNU). "You also adjust to the current culture that's prevalent in your society."
Sophomore forward Rodney Hood, who transferred from Mississippi State, said his perception of Krzyzewski changed after arriving on campus.
"Looking at Coach, I thought he was a military guy who didn't take no nonsense and stuff like that," Hood said. "Now that I'm here, he's still like that. But people don't know he has a great sense of humor. He jokes all the time."
Like when he jumped in a drill during a recent practice to demonstrate a technique. He ended up falling down, hurting his knee and telling Bilas the self-deprecating story of how he'll "never jump in a drill again."
Capel said normally the only glimpse outsiders get of Krzyzewski is sitting on the Duke bench in his trademark pose -- thumb under his chin and index finger resting on his temple while locked in a scowl of concentration.
"People are starting to see the human side of him now," said Capel, who played for Krzyzewski from 1993 to 1997. "Normally they just see that on the sideline."
Now they're seeing him with Beyonce. At least, in a picture taken during a Sports Illustrated Man of the Year ceremony last year.
Krzyzewski surprised many outside the program in September when he told the story of meeting Beyonce and Jay Z to a group of Duke graduate students camped out for basketball tickets.
He stepped up to her like she didn't know who he was, even though he was fresh off the podium giving a lengthy introduction for LeBron James.
Beyonce might be the one singing diva you'd least likely expect Krzyzewski to know much about, much less fawn over. Yet there he was in front of her, nervous and stumbling over his words like a teenager.
Assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski said Krzyzewski had shown clips of Beyonce performing ever since he had seen her star in the remake of the movie "Dreamgirls." At a time when it's almost trendy for college basketball coaches to display their association with entertainers, none have been quite as authentically clumsy as the story Krzyzewski told.
"The story is genuine," Capel said. "It's not like something that's made up to look cool or whatever. He looked like a 12- or 13-year-old kid whose crush spoke to him for the first time."
That's why Krzyzewski has succeeded in ways that his mentor did not. Legendary Indiana coach Bob Knight, who coached Krzyzewski at Army, never publicly showed that kind of vulnerability.
Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, who played from 1982 to 1986 in Krzyzewski's first full recruiting class at Duke, said it's just another sign of how Krzyzewski has adapted.
"A lot of times people will say, 'Back in my day' -- you get older you hear that," Dawkins said. "But you won't hear that from him. He stays current because of the young people he's coached. They keep you young; he understands the value in that."
Arguably no experience has invigorated Krzyzewski -- and endeared him to the public -- like becoming the head coach of Team USA. He's learned as much coaching the team as the players have learned from him.
Capel recalled seeing Krzyzewski, college basketball's winningest coach, taking notes during a session on defense conducted by Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who served as an assistant coach on the U.S. national team, said that scene was not unusual.
"You coach a Jason Kidd and talk to him about basketball and what he's thinking; it's a different level from college," Boeheim said. "College kids wouldn't understand what Jason Kidd is talking about, but it's helped him. You learn a lot of things."
Krzyzewski took over at a time when participating in USA Basketball had become unpopular among NBA players. In 2005, when Jerry Colangelo began the process of selecting a new head coach for the U.S. national team, he gathered a virtual Hall of Fame reunion of basketball coaches and players to first discuss how to change the culture of USA Basketball.
Michael Jordan was there. Larry Bird was there. Lenny Wilkens, Chuck Daly and Jerry West et al were all present to lend their thoughts on whom the next leader should be. As they discussed a short list of names, one Hall of Fame coach spoke up in a way that pleasantly surprised Colangelo.
Legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who had his share of monumental head-to-head battles with Krzyzewski, gave his former rival a big endorsement that Colangelo, the chairman of USA Basketball's board of directors, called "one of the great comments" to come out of their discussion.
"There's only one college coach up there that can get the job done," Colangelo recalled hearing Smith say. "And that's Coach K."
Given that he was "just a college coach," Colangelo knew it could be a bit risky in choosing him over San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. But he believed Krzyzewski could shake up the culture.
"He's one of the great communicators you'll ever find," Colangelo said. "He's so well respected by the players -- even the pro players -- that was really a non-issue. I never was concerned that he had never coached an NBA game. Players are players."
Two gold medals later, Krzyzewski is aiming for a third in the 2016 Games.
There's no longer any question about whether NBA players would respond to Krzyzewski. They not only showed that they were willing to play as a team, but they also were clamoring to play for Coach K.
"I had a great time playing for him, have a lot of respect for him as a man and what he did for me as a player," Brooklyn Nets guard Deron Williams told ESPN.com while the team held its training camp at Duke. "He just helped me grow. Those two Olympic experiences with him, really four years I spent with him, four summers, was great. It gave me a chance to get to know him and play for one of the best coaches to ever coach."
The respect he's garnered among pros from the Olympics has only helped his image. Plenty of people put aside their feelings about Duke to pull for Team USA to re-establish its rightful stature in international basketball.
"He was the right man at the right time; he's done an incredible job," Colangelo said. "And he would tell you he thinks he's a better coach for the experience."
On a much smaller stage than the Olympics, Krzyzewski continues a practice at Duke of inviting the NCAA Division II national champion to play the Blue Devils in an exhibition game. He usually follows that with a second game against a historically black college.
It may not seem like a big deal, but it's popular among the schools and players that get a chance to play in a venue and against a team they normally see only on television.
"In both cases, both those groups year in and year out will give you their best," Krzyzewski said. "It's their day in the sun, their day to play in a historic place against a program that's been really good. And I like that. It's not an offense or defense -- it's an attitude."
And with that, a lot of attitudes toward Krzyzewski are changing too.
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