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Mike Krzyzewski: Life Beyond the Rim
By Susan Hines-Brigger
Duke University's men's basketball team is prepared for March Madness. For its coach, life is about much more than sports.

Q U I C K S C A N

A Strong Foundation
A Coach is Born
Family On and Off the Court
Finding a Balance
Lending a Helping Hand
Credit Where Credit Is Due

Mike Krzyzewski

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 Point.

“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.

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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, Virginia.

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 graduate.

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 success.

“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.

 


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