Recently on Relevant Radio®, John Morales and the Morning Air team welcomed one of the most decorated and legendary coaches in the history of basketball, Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski, onto the air for a discussion about his upbringing, life as a basketball coach, and what role faith played in his career.
Born in Chicago to Emily and William Krzyzewski, Coach K was raised a Catholic and attended St. Helen Catholic School and Archbishop Weber High School. After graduating from high school, he went on to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where he played basketball for the legend Bobby Knight. After leading Army to a fourth-place finish at the National Invitation Tournament, Krzyzewski entered military service where he directed service teams for three years.
After achieving the rank of captain, Krzyzewski left the military to pursue a career coaching basketball. He became an assistant coach at Indiana for one year before becoming head coach at Army for five seasons. He finished there with a record of 73-59 and he was only 33 years old. In 1980, Krzyzewski was named the head coach of Duke University in North Carolina where he spent the rest of his college coaching career.
While head coach of Duke, Coach K led the Blue Devils to 35 NCAA tournament berths, 15 ACC Tournament Championships, 13 NCAA Tournament Final Fours, and 5 NCAA Tournament Championships. He’s won a combined 10 Coach of the Year awards and was head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Basketball team where he led the team to 3 Olympic Gold Medals (2008, 2012, 2016). Coach K was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001, and then the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Coach K, who retired after the 2022 season, said he doesn’t miss the process of preparing for and coaching a game. He did it for so long, feels like he gave it all he could, and is now enjoying the retired life. However, what he does miss are the relationships. After such a long and illustrious career as one of the best coaches in college basketball, Coach K saw the careers of many young men flourish, both as players and coaching staff.
There are currently twenty-two NBA players who had the chance to play for Coach K during his time at Duke, including Jayson Tatum, Zion Williamson, Kyrie Irving, Brandon Ingram, and Seth Curry. But besides preparing his players for the next level of play in the NBA, Coach was equally interested in turning these boys into men by creating a culture that rewarded good character, good sportsmanship, and playing sacrificially.
Because Coach K values relationships above all else, retirement has been a blessing for him. He has ten grandkids who all live nearby, and so he’s had the chance to get to spend a lot more time with his family and watch them grow up through their own basketball games, plays, and recitals. He jokingly added that while they do sometimes ask him for basketball advice, he’ll often offer it even when they don’t ask.
Being a mentor and coach came second nature to Coach K, having the role models that he had growing up. His mother was a cleaning lady and his father was an elevator operator, but somehow they found the resources to send him and his brother to Catholic private schools. His parents saw the value in a strong foundation in the Catholic Faith. And so did a young Mike Krzyzewski. He thanks his parents for sending him to St. Helen and Weber because it awoke in him the drive for self-discipline and also an attachment to his faith.
One priest in particular, the late Father Francis Rog, was instrumental in helping Mike understand his faith when he had questions. As Krzyzewski said, you will have questions about your faith for your entire life, but the difference is when you have somebody by your side to guide you versus when you don’t. Between Fr. Rog, his high school basketball coach, and the examples they set for him, Coach K knew he wanted to become a teacher and coach someday.
Under Bobby Knight, Coach K learned several things about himself, basketball, and life: self-discipline is everything, failure is never your destination, and your limitations are not set in stone. Knight had a reputation for being one of the most fanatic disciplinarians in sports, but Kryzyzeski says he saw the value in it. West Point is where he learned to become a leader, to hunger for victory, and to become a man of strict character, authority, and resolve.
That’s how Coach K became the winningest coach in college basketball history. That’s how he won 5 NCAA Championships. And that’s how he won medal after medal for the U.S. Men’s National Team. But in the good times, and even in the bad, his foundation remained in his Catholic faith. It gave him the humility to be grateful for the successes and accomplishments that he achieved, and it gave him the strength to push through the heart-breaking defeats and losses that also visited his career.
“Any success that I’ve had has been a shared success. It’s not been an individual success. For me, I’m realistic: We won all those championships and Olympic Gold Medals because we were able to get a group of very talented individuals to play as one. And when we accomplished the goal of winning the championship, that was a shared celebration, and those are the best. Those are the very best.”
Along with the talented athletes, brilliant coaching staff, and the support of his family that surrounded him, there was no greater catalyst to his success than the power of God. Coach K, who referenced his habit of attending 7:45 am Mass at Immaculate Conception, said he prayed the Holy Rosary before every game and offered it for some intention and for the glory of God.
“I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do. Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.” (John 17:4-5)
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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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