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‘It’s in their DNA’: As Coach K enters 40th season at Duke, his legacy already lives on

<p>Mike Krzyzewski's disciples are constantly growing as his former guards become coaches.</p>

Mike Krzyzewski's disciples are constantly growing as his former guards become coaches.

The last time that someone other than Mike Krzyzewski headed the Duke men’s basketball program, gas cost about a dollar per gallon, there was only one Star Wars movie and Duke Athletics as a whole had zero national championships.

Over the course of the last four decades—2019-20 marks his 40th season as the Blue Devils’ head coach—Krzyzewski has transformed Duke into the preeminent program in all of college basketball, with five national championships, three Olympic gold medals and the most all-time wins of any college basketball coach to his name.

But one day, the man who has become synonymous with Duke basketball will no longer be the Blue Devils' head coach. And after Krzyzewski is long gone from the world of college basketball, his legacy will live on with dozens of current coaches who played or coached under him, being shaped by the winningest coach in college basketball history.

“Our program has had a lot of success, so you’re around people who work hard together to produce success and you’re not just around a great player or whatever,” Krzyzewski said at Duke’s media day in September. “It’s in their DNA then to do that and they seek other teams like that and they keep growing. And I’m proud of them. We have a lot of people.”

‘I don’t want anybody here that doesn’t want to be a head coach’

The list of current college head coaches that Krzyzewski coached or had on his staff as an assistant is a long one: Harvard’s Tommy Amaker, Howard’s Kenny Blakeney, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, Pittsburgh’s Jeff Capel, Northwestern’s Chris Collins, Central Florida’s Johnny Dawkins, Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley, Niagara’s Greg Paulus and Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski all fit the billing. That doesn’t even include Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, who played for and coached under Krzyzewski, or the scores of others with Duke ties currently serving in leadership roles across college basketball and the NBA.

Selena Qian

Nearly all of Krzyzewski’s disciples were known in their playing days for being hard-nosed guards who were relentless defensively with unrivaled leadership on the court. Amaker won National Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 despite his diminutive 6-foot frame before serving on the Blue Devil coaching staff for nine seasons. Wojciechowski’s resume looks nearly identical to Amaker’s: the 5-foot-11 point guard also earned National Defensive Player of the Year Honors in 1998 before coaching under Krzyzewski for more than a decade. 

Blakeney, Capel, Collins, Dawkins, Hurley, Paulus and Snyder also all played guard for the Blue Devils before advancing in the coaching ranks. Brey is the black sheep of the bunch, a former guard at Northwestern State and George Washington before coming to Duke as an assistant.

It’s no coincidence that so many of his disciples eventually find themselves at the head of their own program: Krzyzewski only wants those with ambitions of being a head coach to join his staff, a common trait among former tenacious guards.

“He gave me an opportunity, and the great thing about being with Mike [Krzyzewski] was he told me when he hired me is that he said 'I don't want anybody coming here that doesn't want to be a head coach,’” Brey, who served on the Blue Devil coaching staff from 1987 to 1995, said at ACC media day.

‘I swear by him’

When his disciples reach their ultimate goal of taking control of their own Division I program, the relationship between Krzyzewski and his mentees does not disappear. Rather, the disciples turn to their former boss and coach for guidance—after all, Krzyzewski has been the mentor, confidante and role model for many of these men for decades.

"He'll always be a mentor to me,” Capel, who coached under Krzyzewski from 2011 to 2018, said at ACC media day. “He's been that to me since I was 16 years old. The friendship part came after I graduated, but probably more when I went back there to work as an assistant. I tell people all the time that when I was 16 and 17 years old, I believed in him. Now I'm 44 and I swear by him.”

Although the relationship between the Blue Devil head coach and his disciples is normally nothing but love, things can get awkward. Inevitably, Duke and the teams coached by Krzyzewski’s mentees will play each other, and while the Blue Devils more often than not come out on top, the student has become the master on a few occasions. Brey’s Notre Dame teams have pestered the Blue Devils since joining the ACC, with the Fighting Irish defeating Duke five times between 2014 and 2016.

The biggest stage between Krzyzewski and a disciple came in March’s NCAA tournament, when Dawkins and ninth-seeded Central Florida nearly pulled off an upset against the top-seeded Blue Devils, falling 77-76 in a game that required incredible luck for Duke to win.

After the heartbreaking loss, a resigned Dawkins couldn’t help but reminisce of the time when Goliath was on his side. Even after Krzyzewski’s pupils have long been on their own, even if he rips their hearts out, Krzyzewski will always be their mentor.

“He'd probably put me on the line now, and I'd probably start running suicides,” Dawkins said following the Knights’ devastating loss to the Blue Devils. “That's just part [of the mentor relationship], once someone's coached you, they're your coach for the rest of your life.”

Dawkins’ reference to running suicides evokes memories of Krzyzewski’s military background and his own mentee relationship with a celebrated coach. The then-scrawny Weber High School product played point guard at Army in the 1960s under head coach Bob Knight before serving in the military. When the Chicago native returned from duty, Knight—who held the Division I wins record until Krzyzewski passed him in 2011—hired him as an assistant at Indiana, before the young coach took over the job at his alma mater in 1975. After a five-year stint at Army, Krzyzewski was hired as the Duke head coach in March 1980. The rest is history.

Krzyzewski himself was a heady, defensive-minded guard who rose through the coaching ranks quickly, largely through his close ties to a college basketball legend. In each of his pupils are striking similarities to Krzyzewski’s own story.

‘Love every single one of your players’

While still coaching under Krzyzewski, his mentees soak in every word he has to say. After all, who is better to teach how to run a college basketball program from than one of the most successful coaches in the sport’s history?

Though many branches already exist, Krzyzewski’s coaching tree is not done growing. On his current staff, there are multiple likely future head coaches, with all four fitting the Krzyzewski assistant formula: young former Duke players known for their defense and intangibles on the court.

“Every single day that he’s with us, he’s teaching us valuable lessons,” Nolan Smith, Duke’s Director of Basketball Operations, said. “He even makes points to say, ‘When you all become head coaches, make sure you do this.’ I’m constantly taking notes from him. I feel like every single one of our assistant coaches does the exact same thing because every single day it’s endless knowledge for the future careers we want to have as head coaches.”

It’s not just Krzyzewski’s current assistants who feel his impact on a daily basis. His disciples are constantly reminded of their mentor and look back to their time with him for guidance.

“Coach K has left an incredible legacy at Duke over the course of his 40-year career,” Wojciechowski said in an email to The Chronicle. “He’s touched every aspect of the University’s campus and the greater Durham community as well.  In regards to his former players, he’s impacted us in so many positive ways, that on a daily basis we are able to reflect on the lessons we learned under his tutelage.”

As for the coaching lessons from Krzyzewski, it’s simple.

“[K’s biggest lesson] is to just love every single one of your players,” Smith said. “He truly loves and cares about every single one of his players and he prepares. He prepares better than anybody that I’ve ever been around, for anything."

‘I hope it keeps going’

Krzyzewski will turn 73 during the 2019-20 season and the unfortunate reality for Duke is that he is approaching the end of his tenure—even though finding a touch of gray among his jet black head of hair is hard to find. 

As such, any discussion of Krzyzewski’s legacy inevitably leads to the question of succession: who’s next to lead the Blue Devils? While trying to replicate Krzyzewski’s success at Duke is an impossible task, the next Duke men’s basketball head coach will likely come from his crop of mentees.

It may be that one of his pupils takes over Krzyzewski’s former position at the helm of the Blue Devils, carrying on his legacy through his sustained success at Duke. But all the more likely is that Krzyzewski lives on in college basketball for years to come thanks to his dozens of mentees rising through the ranks, making their own legacies along the way.

As for if he thinks his legacy will continue on through his disciples, Krzyzewski remains optimistic.

“I think that it will keep going. I hope it keeps going.”

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.

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