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46 years of family: Coach K on and off the basketball court

As Coach K enters his final season, the whole country is waiting to see how he can close out his career.
As Coach K enters his final season, the whole country is waiting to see how he can close out his career.

When Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski announced his forthcoming retirement in a press conference in early June, he said, “My family and I view today as a celebration.” 

It was a celebration of an illustrious career, one that has seen five NCAA championships, three Olympic gold medals as head coach of the United States men’s basketball national team and 1,170 collegiate wins, the most of any head coach in college basketball history. 

However, the day of Krzyzewski’s retirement was also a celebration of a four-decade long tapestry woven with the threads of the entire Krzyzewski family. Duke men’s basketball and the Krzyzewski name have become synonymous, and as Duke faithful everywhere reflect on 41 years of Coach K, it also becomes time for the Krzyzewskis to reflect on the program that they have been so intimately tied to. 

“For us, there is no greater joy than being part of our players' respective endeavors through basketball, and more importantly, their lives off the court,” Krzyzewski said at his retirement press conference. "Our family is eternally grateful to everyone who contributed to our career for the past 46 years. So, to the countless members of our extended family, thank you very much."

‘Our career’

While the announcement of Krzyzewski’s imminent retirement sent shockwaves through the basketball world, it was really the final step of a career that has prioritized family since the very beginning, even when their family was a small one of just two, Krzyzewski and his wife Carol “Mickie” Krzyzewski.

The two met when Krzyzewski was still a cadet at West Point, and, though they humorously recall that Mickie was Krzyzewski’s third choice for their first date to a Chicago Bears game, they have been a team for 52 years now, having wedded in 1969. Three daughters and nine grandchildren later, it’s still the two of them at the head of the table both in the family and in Duke men’s basketball. 

“It’s always been, for the two of us, our career,” Krzyzewski said, referencing him and Mickie, at the Blue Devils’ media day in September. “When [then-athletic director] Tom Butters, God bless him, hired me, he mentioned to Mickie, ‘I just want you to know, I’m not hiring your husband, I’m hiring your family,’ and that was a really big-time thing to say to a 33, 34-year-old couple getting ready to take a real big jump into the ACC.” 

Krzyzewski joined Duke as head coach in 1980 with his wife and three young daughters in tow, a quintet he, according to his grandson Michael Savarino, lovingly refers to as “the starting five.” However, though the Krzyzewskis had each other by their sides, braving a new environment was not all smooth sailing for the young family. Despite Krzyzewski having been head coach at West Point for five years, the Blue Devils were a whole new mountain to climb. 

In an interview with The Chronicle from 2015, Mickie recalled how, after moving into their first house in Durham, she had picked a wallpaper for the bathrooms, but when installers came to put it up, they questioned her choice. At first, Mickie was surprised, thinking the men were criticizing her interior decorating taste, but then they explained and it turned out that the wallpaper she’d chosen was Carolina blue. In that moment, for the first time, she understood the gravitas of joining a program like Duke with such rich traditions and realized the long road they had ahead of them.

“To all of that, we were a little naive. I was not familiar with North Carolina, I hadn't ever really been here,” Mickie said in that earlier interview. “We moved in and were just really kind of bright eyed about everything.”

‘Part of everything’

Beyond the history, simply adjusting to the intensity of the ACC while raising a family was a journey for them, but looking back, Krzyzewski says that, because of his family’s unwavering support, that journey has, “been pretty easy, really.” 

While Krzyzewski credits his family’s support, Mickie credits Krzyzewski and his proactive effort to bring the family into the program from the start and carrying on throughout his entire tenure at Duke. 

“He let us be part of everything. When the girls were little and they were on a team trip, they were allowed to ride on the team bus. We still, to this day, go into the coach's locker room,” Mickie said in the 2015 interview. “Our daughters and our grandkids, we see him as soon as possible after a game and no matter what, win or lose, he's got a hug and a kiss for each of the grandkids.” 

She believes that openness was key to not only surviving what could have been a difficult situation, but thriving in it. 

“He allowed our family to be a part of his career...I credit him for being smart enough, secure enough and loving enough to let us in,” Mickie said. 

However, while an intentional effort, involving his family in his career as a coach was also a labor of love, as Krzyzewski got to share his passion with his daughters. 

“Debbie [Savarino] was young, really young, and when they used to have Super Eight projectors, I'd be home watching, and she would watch film with me, and at the end I’d do all those figures on the wall,” he said at the Blue Devils’ media day. 

Years later, Krzyzewski is still proud that all his daughters know the game of basketball, and his oldest, Debbie Savarino, even serves as an assistant athletic director at Duke today. But it all stemmed from that early decision to, as Mickie called it, “open the door” between his career and his family, and that decision has paved the way for a lifelong relationship between the Krzyzewski family and the program. 

‘I just break down crying’

Given how profoundly family has influenced Krzyzewski’s career, it’s fitting that he is sharing his final season with his grandson Michael. 

“I was blessed to be able to grow up around the program, and I’m blessed to be in it,” Michael said, reflecting on his time with Duke men’s basketball since joining the team as a walk-on in 2019. “I feel like I know [Krzyzewski] so much better, as a coach and as a grandfather, just from being around him every single day. Like, I literally see him everyday. So having little interactions like that is something I’m incredibly, incredibly grateful for, and I wouldn’t have it if I didn’t come here.” 

It wasn’t always a given that Michael would join his grandfather at Duke despite demonstrating basketball prowess from a young age, but when it came time to decide, the decision was obvious. 

“I visited a ton of schools. But everything I was looking for was right in my backyard, like everything I wanted in a school,” Michael said. 

Now, he’s glad he made that decision, as the experience of sharing three years with his grandfather, including Krzyzewski’s final season, has been “bittersweet,” and he points to the day before Krzyzewski announced his retirement as being “one of the best days of [his] life,” as it was a turning point in their relationship. 

Michael says that on that day, Krzyzewski called him into his office and told him two things: that he was going to announce his retirement the next day and that he was putting Michael on scholarship. 

“He just told me how important I was to the team and the role, the specific role I've been playing and how good of a job I've been doing and how he wanted me to elevate that role even more, and how I need to be a little more vocal, I need to be a leader,” Michael recalled. Then Krzyzewski told him he was putting him on scholarship, and “I just break down crying. I probably cried for about 10 minutes,” Michael said. 

Still, despite the bond they’ve formed over three years with the Blue Devils together, Michael joked, “I'm definitely not his grandson when we walk into the gym, or when we're on Duke’s campus at all.”

“When we walk in the gym, he's ‘Coach.' When we walk out...he's completely different. And that just shows how he can turn it on and off. And not many people can do that,” he said. 

‘No Duke hanging in the house’

It’s that line that Krzyzewski has been able to draw between family and basketball that has made the family so strong. Even as the Krzyzewski family has grown in and with Duke men’s basketball, family has always come first. 

“The things that we would hang in our house or on our fridge was stuff that the girls had accomplished. So there was no Duke hanging in the house. We tried to make sure that they knew that they came first to us and that they were more important to us,” Mickie said of drawing that line from the moment they joined the Blue Devils and had to decorate their new home in Durham. To this day, Michael says there is “never, ever” basketball at the family dinner table.

Still, even as he built a home filled with “lace and pink” for his daughters instead of Duke blue, Krzyzewski’s family has guided his career at every step. 

In an interview for Time Magazine in 2001, Krzyzewski said, “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 thing. I tell them it's not guys 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,” speaking on the influence his daughters and family have had on his coaching. 

That family legacy continues. Aptly named “The Brotherhood,” Duke men’s basketball is head-to-toe a family affair. Aside from the Krzyzewski family's involvement at every level of the organization, Krzyzewski has made sure that family is a priority for not only himself, but for his players and staff. 

In his interview with Time Magazine, Krzyzewski said he looks for how recruits treat their parents as a way to discern character, and he makes sure that players know they are not just joining a team but joining a family. 

In his book “Leading with the Heart,” Krzyzewski writes, “As a basketball coach, I have no problem telling a team, ‘I love you guys,’” a lesson he says he learned from his own family growing up. 

Now, with just one more season of Krzyzewski-led basketball, all of the Duke community can reflect on those lessons too, lessons borne out of Krzyzewski’s intense and intentional love for his family. 

Even as the Blue Devils say goodbye to arguably the greatest college basketball coach ever, they will always carry the legacy of the Krzyzewskis, every single one of them. 

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


Sasha Richie

Sasha Richie is a Trinity junior and the Blue Zone Editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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