Real Talk with Coach K

A TFK Kid Reporter talks with celebrated basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.
By TFK Kid Reporter Lino Marrero
Split screen shot of people talking

Lino Marrero is a TFK Kid Reporter. He was named a 2021 TIME Kid of the Year finalist for his eco-friendly inventions, innovative thinking, and passion for changing the world. Here, he speaks with renowned college basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, also known as Coach K. 

I’ve seen the impact a coach can have on a young person’s life. Coaches teach valuable lessons, like grit and perseverance, and they inspire us to be better, on the court and in life. Mike Krzyzewski is one of the greatest coaches of all time. I’ve grown up cheering for him and the Duke University Blue Devils basketball team. During March Madness, I’ve rooted for Duke to win it all. Krzyzewski led the Blue Devils for 42 years, until his retirement, in 2022. His teams won 1,202 games, five national championships (getting to 13 Final Fours), 15 Atlantic Coast Conference championships, 13 ACC regular-season titles, and three Olympic gold medals. It was an honor to spend time with him, and to learn what it takes to lead a successful coaching career.

Krzyzewski cuts down the net after the Duke Blue Devils defeat the Wisconsin Badgers at the National Collegiate Athletics Association college basketball championship in Indianapolis, Indiana, in April 2015.

When you were a teenager, what profession did you aspire to?

I was fortunate at your age, 16, in that I knew I wanted to be a basketball coach and a teacher. I went to Catholic school in Chicago, and I thought I’d become a high school coach, because of the impact my coach had on me, and that one of the priests had on me. I didn’t know people can have that impact, except for your family. I wanted to make sure I had that same impact on the youngsters that I’d have the honor to coach or teach.

If you hadn’t been a college basketball coach, what do you think you might have done?

I would have been a high school coach. And I would have been really happy. I didn’t follow this occupation to make a lot of money. I did it to lead the life that I thought I would love. So I think I would have been happy if I were in Chicago, with a good high school team, and having that opportunity to teach.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to be a coach at the college or professional level?

If you want to become a coach, the main thing, first, is to be a good student and get an excellent education. Develop your mind, and make sure you continue to develop your body. And keep developing your spirit, your moral ethos. Get involved, become a manager, or work at camps. Try to be around people who love what you love. If you do that, you’ll find out if you really love coaching.

I’m 76 years old. I’ve lived my whole life doing what I love. A lot of my buddies I grew up with tell me I’ve never worked a day in my life, because I’m doing what I love. If you love it, then you’ll do the hard things necessary to get it done. 

What does the day-to-day of coaching a college basketball team look like?

It’s very busy. Everybody wants to win, but not everybody wants to do all the necessary preparation to win. A basketball game has a time limit, but preparation has no time limit. So, during the season, you’re doing things pretty much the whole day. If it’s a night game, you’re staying up most of the night afterward, watching tape, analyzing it. A college coach has to spend a lot of time recruiting new players. Every day, you’re on top of that, because you’re only going to be really good if you get really good players. And in analyzing good players, you have to tell whether they’re also really good kids. So we always look at talent with character. I also speak at a lot of events. I’m retired, but I have a lifetime contract to be an ambassador for Duke, doing things outside of coaching and recruiting. There is no normal day, which is good. 

What are some things you look for when recruiting players? And what would you advise young players who’d like to be recruited by a college team? 

We look for three things, and they’re all equal. 1) Talent level. We want to win a national championship, so the kids we’re looking at have to be really good players, and really good workers. 2) Can they be coached? Duke’s a great school: Are these kids good students? Would they feel comfortable—in fact, excited—to be in our environment? 3) Character. We watch how prospective recruits interact with their teammates. They’re usually the best player on their high school team—the best player in their state, a lot of the time. But do they have empathy for their teammates? When a teammate does something good, are they excited? When a teammate’s down, do they have empathy for that teammate? When there’s a time-out, are they paying attention to the coach? We get teacher evaluations about their leadership, and we visit them at home. I look at the relationship they have with their parents. Not every youngster has a father, but all of them have mothers. And I especially look at the relationship a youngster has with his mother. Is there respect? Those three things have all got to be there. We recruit talent with character, not talented characters. 

Is there a secret to motivating a team when you’re down and there isn’t much time left on the clock?

Well, we don’t have canned speeches. All of it is spontaneous, and based on the team you have and the situation you’re in. But it’s always a winning message, that we can get it done. At times, you might ask questions: “Are you ready? What do you think?” So when they go onto court, it’s not “mine,” it’s “ours.” They’re not following an order; rather, they’re coordinated in one thought, to get something done.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your time as a coach? 

There are so many. The most important thing is to develop a relationship with the players, with the team. To sustain excellence on a team or in an organization, it has to be a values-based organization. We want to make sure we have integrity, respect, courage, selfless service, loyalty, duty, and trust. And I think it starts with trust.

There have been many great moments in your career. Which one sticks out for you? 

We’ve won five national championships, three Olympics, and two world championships.

The biggest accomplishment is always in the Olympics, because it’s the world. You’re coaching your country’s team. I’ve been a very lucky guy, to have had so many moments. Some of them were not victorious moments. Some were losing moments. But to be in that moment is still an honor. It’s an honor being in the arena, as I say. Not many people go into the arena. And when you go into the arena, there’s someone else there, trying to win. And you need to respect the other team or person in the arena. I think I’ve done that during my career. 

You coached the U.S.A. Basketball Men’s National Team for 11 years. How does coaching professional basketball players differ from coaching college basketball? 

College players are young men. You’re helping them become better. I call it “crossing bridges of improvement.” You do that together, and it’s very exciting. The U.S.A. team—they’re professionals. They’ve crossed bridges. So you communicate with them in a different manner. You don’t necessarily communicate different things: You still talk about values and playing together. You have to know your audience. With the U.S.A. team, extreme individual talents have to be brought together to do one thing, win a gold medal. When you’re leading, you always have to be adaptable to the group you’re with.

Krzyzewski celebrates with the United States Basketball Men’s National Team after defeating Spain at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
Men with gold medals posing for a photo

I guess that’s what makes you such a great coach: You’re willing to change with the circumstances.  And expect the players to do that too. Adaptability is a key component to sustaining excellence. That’s why I never agreed with the saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s always broke. There’s always something to fix. Don’t tell me how we used to do it. Tell me how we’re gonna do it.

So what does the future hold for you? 

We run a nonprofit here in Durham, North Carolina, called the Emily Krzyzewski Center. It serves about 2,000 kids, many of them low-income kids, helping them get to college. It’s about 17 years old now, and named after my mom. I do a lot with that. I do quite a bit with cancer research with the V Foundation. I just want to continue to have an impact on the improvement of our society, to do good things and be a part of good work.