There are plenty of successful Black athletes who will tell you that one of the biggest and best influences on their lives and careers has been a 75-year-old White guy in North Carolina.
A legend in sports
Mike Krzyzewski (aka “Coach K”) has served as the head men’s basketball coach at Duke University since March 1980. After his more than four decades at the helm of one of the winningest teams in the NCAA, he is set to retire at the close of the 2021-22 season. Duke’s associate head coach Jon Scheyer, who played under Coach K from 2006 to 2010, is slated to step into those very big shoes.
Coach K has led the Blue Devils to a history-making series of wins. He holds the record among NCAA Division I men’s basketball coaches for number of games won. Under his guidance, the team racked up five national championships in 1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, and 2015. His Blue Devils have also garnered 12 Final Four positions. For his many successes, Coach K was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001.
Oh, and he also coached three consecutive US men’s basketball teams to Olympic gold medals.
Struggling and striving
Born in Chicago in 1947 to Polish immigrants, Mike Krzyzewski played high school basketball for his hometown’s Catholic League, taking highest-scoring honors for two years. When he attended college at the United States Military Academy at West Point, he played for Bob Knight, another coaching legend of the game.
Krzyzewski went on to serve as coach at the US Military Academy Prep School in Virginia, as well as other service teams, before being hired as Knight’s assistant coach at Indiana University. He was there for a single season but returned to the US Military Academy to coach in 1975.
Then came Duke. Despite Krzyzewski’s talent and Knight’s glowing recommendation, his first couple of seasons there were far from stellar, with zero recruits in 1981. Over the following two seasons, his combined record looked mediocre at just 21 wins and 34 losses.
Becoming “Coach K”
With his 1983-84 team, though, everything changed. This is when Mike Krzyzewski became the Coach K so widely respected and beloved today. He’d brought his first Black player, Johnny Dawkins, onboard as a guard, and Dawkins’ play was stunning. That was the first in a consecutive string of 11 seasons in which the Blue Devils amassed 20 or more wins, along with tournament positions.
Coach K and his team garnered those five Final Fours in a row—the second-longest winning streak of its kind—between 1988 and 1992. Duke won its first two national championships consecutively, too, in 1991 and ‘92.
The ‘92 season was especially spectacular, with the Blue Devils going 34-2 and earning top ranking in the nation throughout the season. And the championships kept coming, with Coach K recording his 66th career NCAA tournament win in 2005, surpassing his mentor, Knight, in number of wins in 2011.
Part of the solution
The start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the simultaneous intensification of calls for racial justice through Black Lives Matter protests brought out the best in Coach K. Always credited as an inspirational leader and communicator who earned the loyalty of his players, he stepped up during a nationally charged moment in a way few White public figures of his stature and popularity did.
Coach K told an interviewer in 2021 that he and his four assistant coaches—three of them Black American—got together daily during the pandemic to talk in-depth about racial justice. While he’d always considered himself supportive of this issue, these conversations ignited a new understanding and passion in the coach. He finally said to himself, “I’ve got to do something.”
So he made a heartfelt video, asking assistant coach Nolan Smith to stand on the other side of the camera. He directly addressed Smith, as he had in their many conversations, and the viewer.
“Black Lives Matter,” Coach K told the world. “We should be saying it every day.”
In words that remain eloquent and inspiring to many—and infuriating to some—he continued, “We have chosen the easier wrong for four centuries.” And then, “It is time to choose the harder right.” This is not a “political” position, he has reiterated. It’s simply the right thing to do.
After the video went viral in June 2020, Jeff Capel, a Black American former Coach K assistant coach and now Krzyzewski’s counterpart at the University of Pennsylvania, commented on how meaningful his former boss’ words were as wave after wave of young people of all backgrounds sought to bring about a better world. “He’s tried to learn, he’s tried to educate himself,” Capel said of Krzyzewski.
Then in August 2020, Duke hosted an event registering students to vote, and Coach K was among the speakers.
“I’m so damn proud of you,” he told his players and students, for their work toward racial and social justice. “I’ve listened to my players,” he said. “We can make a difference.”
“Your generation is the generation that’s going to do it,” he continued. Growing up in the 1960s, he learned a lot of ways of thinking that were wrong, but he told the students, “I want to be on your team.”
When Coach K announced his retirement, fans and journalists began speculating on who could continue his legacy. Many wanted to see a Black head coach in the role, such as Harvard coach Tommy Amaker and Johnny Dawkins, now head coach at the University of Central Florida. That Coach K’s handpicked final choice was Jon Scheyer, his only White assistant coach, stung a bit. But Scheyer has excellent skills and deserves a chance, especially since he has his mentor’s imprimatur.
In the 1980s, when Krzyzewski was recruiting Dawkins and other Black players for Duke, the school was seen as elite and very “white.” The “cool” kids—and most who had struggled through racism and inequalities—preferred the University of North Carolina and the Tar Heels. Thanks to Coach K’s outreach, that line of thinking had taken a turn for the better by the late 1990s. It helped that he added Black former Duke players, like Dawkins, to his assistant coaching staff.
But for many, Coach K’s lasting legacy is his founding of the Emily Krzyzewski Center at Duke. Named for his mother, this nonprofit hosts programs that boost the scholastic, leadership, and long-term professional possibilities for talented but underserved students.
His father, who was only able to attend two years of high school, and his mother, who only completed the eighth grade and worked nights scrubbing floors at the Chicago Athletic Club, instilled in him an unbreakable work ethic and a quest for knowledge. It was his mother who encouraged him to pursue higher education at West Point.
Now, some 2,000 students pass through the doors of the Emily K Center every year, a testament to Coach K’s commitment to paying his parents’ dedication forward to a new generation of kids.