PHOTO BY DUKE UNIVERSITY PHOTOGRAPHY, COURTESY OF DUKE UNIVERSITY
WHEN MOST PEOPLE hear the name Mike
Krzyzewski (pronounced Sha-SHEF-ski),
they immediately think of basketball—
and with good reason. He
has coached Duke University’s men’s
basketball team for the past 26 years.
His teams have won three national
titles and made 10 Final Four appearances
in the NCAA tournament. He has been
named Coach of the Year 12 times.
But the truth is there’s much more to the man
known as “Coach K” than his winning records
and national titles. Last June, he talked with St.
Anthony Messenger about those other things such
as his faith, his philanthropy and his desire to be
more than just a coach to his players.
A Strong Foundation
Mike Krzyzewski’s story begins on Chicago’s north
side, where he was born February 13, 1947. His
parents, Bill and Emily, were Polish immigrants.
Bill, who died in 1969, was an elevator operator.
Emily, who passed away in 1996, worked nights
as a cleaning woman in order to help provide for
the family. Mike Krzyzewski often cites the example
his mother set through her work ethic, tenacity
and spirit as a major influence on his life.
Part of that influence was a strong faith, which
his parents instilled in both Mike and his older
brother, Bill. In fact, Mike still places his mother’s
rosary in his shirt pocket before every game.
“I was really fortunate to have parents and an
extended family that believed in God and were
able to impart that belief to me and the other
youngsters in my family. And they did that
through Catholic education,” says Krzyzewski.
He cut his basketball teeth on the playgrounds
of his neighborhood, with a close-knit group of
friends known as the Columbos. Back then, he
was simply known as “Mickey.”
He attended St. Helen Elementary School and
Archbishop Weber High School, an all-boy
Catholic prep school. The nuns and Resurrectionist
Fathers who taught Krzyzewski provided
him with yet another strong example of faith.
One priest in particular made a lasting impression. “Father Rog taught me religion in high
school. But then during those teenage years where
you question a lot of things—not just about your
faith, but how to live it—he was able to provide
answers that a teenage boy understood. Not just
giving them the letter of the law, so to speak, but,
‘O.K., here’s what this really means. This is how
it applies to your life.’ He expanded my view of
what faith was,” Krzyzewski recalls.
While at Weber, Krzyzewski, who had always been interested in sports, also began zeroing
in on basketball as his sport of choice. He was
recruited by Bob Knight to play basketball for
the United States Military Academy at West
“By the time I went to [West Point], I was
strong in my beliefs and I’ve maintained that
throughout my life because I had such a good
foundation,” says Krzyzewski.
A Coach is Born
After playing three years for Army, Krzyzewski
earned his degree in 1969 and began serving in
the Army. On the day he graduated from West
Point, he married Carol “Mickie” Marsh.
During that time, he coached various service
teams, including two years as head coach at the
U.S. Military Academy Prep School at Belvoir,
After five years, he resigned from the Army
with the rank of captain and began focusing on
his coaching career. He joined up with his old
Army coach Bob Knight, who had moved on to
the head coaching job at Indiana University.
Krzyzewski spent the next two years as a graduate
assistant for Knight.
He returned to West Point in 1975 for his first
head coaching job. During his five years there, he
led the team to a 73-59 record. Then he interviewed
for the head coaching job at Duke University.
On May 4, 1980, Duke’s student newspaper, The
Chronicle, announced Krzyzewski’s hiring with the
headline: “Krzyzewski: this is not a typo.” At the
time Krzyzewski was an unknown and unproven
coach. Today he is their beloved Coach K.
Family On and Off the Court
If there is anything the past 26 years have proven,
it is that Coach K is among the elite in college basketball.
That was confirmed in 2001 when both
Time magazine and CNN named him “America’s
Best Coach.” The same year, he was inducted
into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
But Krzyzewski likes to think of himself as
more than just a coach to his players. He takes
pride in the high graduation rate of his players
and keeps in contact with them even after they
And while Krzyzewski’s own personal faith
plays a role in how he coaches, he is very careful
not to impose his beliefs on his players.
“Not every kid I coach is Catholic. They use a
different street to get there than the Catholic
streets sometimes. But there is a core set of values
and principles that you try to teach—although
you don’t teach it as religion—like honesty and
acceptance of responsibility, just being a good person.
Faith is about living the good life and helping
one another, which is teamwork,” he says.
Many of his former players, such as Grant Hill
of the Orlando Magic, hold their former coach in
very high regard.
When interviewed about Krzyzewski by Time magazine, Hill said Coach K was a lot like a parent
to the players. “There’s six inches between patting
on the back and patting on the butt. And as
a parent, he did both and did it well,” Hill said.
And Krzyzewski has experience at being a parent.
He and Mickie have three daughters: Debbie
Savarino, Lindy Frasher and Jamie Spatola. They
also have four grandchildren—Joey, Michael,
Carlyn and Emilia Savarino. In June 2004, Coach K and Mickie celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary
by renewing their vows in Duke’s chapel.
Mickie Krzyzewski recalls that, when she gave
birth to their third daughter, she asked her husband
if he was O.K. with another girl. He replied, “Mickie,
I have 15 sons,” referring to his players.
Krzyzewski once said that his wife and daughters
have made him a better coach. “Over the years, the
girls have exposed me to an environment where
they share their feelings, and I’ve tried to teach
my players to do the same things. I tell them it’s not
doing girl things; it’s being a real person—to hug,
to cry, to laugh, to share. If you create a culture
where that’s allowed, all of a sudden you have
some depth,” he told Time magazine.
Finding a Balance
But sometimes success can be a double-edged sword.
For instance, halfway through the 1994 season,
Krzyzewski returned too quickly from back surgery.
Suffering from pain and exhaustion, he had to
leave the team for the rest of the season. He returned
the next season, though, with a new energy and outlook.
Given his position, finding time for everything—
including his faith—is still a struggle. He tries,
though, to keep things in perspective.
“I think your faith is with you when you’re busy
or when you’re not busy. It’s with you all the time,
and faith doesn’t have to mean that you’re in
church every day. You live your faith daily.”
For instance, he says, “Sometimes getting to Mass
on a Sunday can be problematic with travel and all
that, but I don’t put it on myself if I miss because
of that. You do some form of prayer every day or
some form of thanks without being showy. I’d
rather have my faith be more of a private thing.”
Because of that, he admitted to some discomfort
being interviewed for this article. “There are a lot
of people out there who have good faith. I mean,
stronger than mine probably.”
But he is strong in his faith. “I’ve never questioned
my belief in God because it’s shown to me
every day, almost every second of the day, why
there is God,” he says.
Lending a Helping Hand
Coach K is also very aware of how fortunate and
blessed he has been because of his career. That is
why he and his family have become so involved in
giving back to others. Among the organizations
with which he is active are Duke Children’s Hospital,
the Children’s Miracle Network and the V Foundation
for Cancer Research, founded by his friend
and former North Carolina State basketball coach,
the late Jim Valvano.
One project particularly close to his heart is the Emily Krzyzewski Family Life Center in Durham,
North Carolina. The idea for the Center came out
of a need for a new gymnasium for Kryzyewski’s
parish, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church,
and a desire to honor his mother’s legacy.
According to the Center’s Web site (www.emilyk.org), its goal is “to build a better future for
the children and families in our community by
creating an environment that fosters the development
of life skills that are fundamental to reaching
one’s highest potential.
“Our longer term goal is to identify, develop and
nurture the future leaders of the community in a
way that prepares them to achieve excellence in their field of choice, act as role models and
mentors, and encourages them to engage in
and lead change in their communities.”
For Mike Krzyzewski, it reminded him of
a local community center that played a very
important role in his life when he was a kid
in Chicago. He is quoted on the Web site as
recalling, “It didn’t matter whether they were
Polish or Puerto Rican kids or from wherever.
They were God’s kids.” He wanted other kids to
have that experience.
Getting involved with these organizations, he
says, is a no-brainer.
“If you’re lucky enough to be in good health
and have been fairly successful, it’s obvious that
you should share those things with people who
have not necessarily always had those opportunities.
So when I’m working with the children’s
hospital or cancer research or the Emily
Krzyzewski Family Life Center, to me that’s a
way of helping people because I’m able to do
that. I think it would be really selfish for somebody
where everything has gone well for them
not to share it.
“I can go to Duke Children’s hospital right
now and there are probably four or five kids in
there with leukemia or a kid with a brain tumor
and they didn’t do anything to deserve that. And
the parents didn’t do anything wrong. It just
happened. So the fact that it hasn’t happened to
you, you have to help those who have something
that goes wrong for them. It just makes
sense to do that.”
Credit Where Credit is Due
There is no doubt that Mike Krzyzewski has
enjoyed success in his life. But he also knows
that a lot of people had something to do with that
“I feel that the success that I’ve had in my life
is a result of God-given talents that were helped
to be developed by a number of people and that
I need to use those talents in a proper way. To me
that’s living your faith.”
So at the end of the day, what would Coach K
like to be remembered for? Is it the titles and
the awards? No. Mike Krzyzewski says he would
like people to remember “just the fact that I’m an
honest man, a truthful person and somebody
who cares about people, not just himself.”
Chances are they’ll probably also note that he
won a few basketball games along the way.
Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of
St. Anthony Messenger.