Commentary

Jacobs: Duke's Krzyzewski shows leaders how to lead

October 31, 2013 

The major public threads of Mike Krzyzewski’s life – basketball, leadership, service to country – intersected briefly near the midpoint of Practice Number 20 for the 2013-14 Duke Blue Devils.

Krzyzewski strode the Cameron Indoor Stadium court the other day in a Duke blue shirt and black pants while players swirled through drills defined on a handwritten practice plan by purpose and time span. Assistant coaches Jeff Capel and Steve Wojciechowski pointed and barked; near the end of practice they would direct units wearing blue jersey tops (reserves) and white (starters) in a 12-minute scrimmage.

About the time this year’s ACC favorites engaged in a “5-on-0” drill, as described on the practice schedule, a contingent of approximately 50 outsiders slipped through portals covered by tarps declaring “Practice Closed” and filed into a specified section of the otherwise-empty arena.

The visitors were present by invitation, about half from Duke and half associated with the 2013 Leadership Summit at the Coach K Leadership & Ethics Center at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

The summit group was made up ofchief executives from a variety of entities. “Invitees represent those at the top of their industries who also care deeply about societal impact and leveraging their power and influence for the greater good,” according to promotional material about the summit. “Rethinking the Paradigm of Control” was the theme for this year’s annual event.

“Krzyzewski is so brilliant at leadership,” Sanyin Siang, executive director of the Coach K Leadership and Ethics Center, had said in a telephone interview. In keeping with the educational opportunity, some CEOs watched practice intently. Others chattered incessantly with a neighbor. As most everywhere in American society, a few attendees took the opportunity to give their cell phones a digital workout.

A smattering of young military men sat behind the civilians in the upper deck above the scorer’s table and team benches. From that vantage point the array of banners hanging from the rafters across the way – permanently celebrating retired jerseys and championships won – strongly resembled a collection of stationary, rectangular clouds.

The seating apparently was restricted to one area by design. Much as Dean Smith did at Tar Heel practices during his 36-year tenure as head coach at Chapel Hill, Krzyzewski kept his back to the outsiders as he addressed his team.

The 34-year Duke coach’s voice was indistinct to those upstairs. During one stoppage he could be heard chastising players in conversational tones for lacking “a sense of urgency,” a familiar coaching admonition. A few moments later, standing hands on hips surrounded by the squad, Krzyzewski’s displeasure was expressed in saltier, more emphatic terms.

The coach of the USA Basketball Men’s Senior National Team would meet with the Leadership Summit participants several times over the two days they were in Durham. The glimpse of practice was part of the “think tank” experience, Siang said.

“Sports is a wonderful analogy to what’s happening in the real world,” she said. “Think about the ‘organized chaos,’ fast pace. It is also a great laboratory for leadership development.”

Among the attendees, seated in the wooden bleachers closest to the court, was four-star general Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. military. Dempsey, who holds a Master of Arts in English from Duke, later explained to a gathering of ROTC enrollees that he was present in pursuit of continuous learning. He has a full colonel on his staff who’s assigned to orchestrate such opportunities.

Both Dempsey and Krzyzewski, a former Army captain of artillery, are Vietnam-era graduates of the U.S. Military Academy. The coach took his team to West Point earlier this year as part of its own continuous-learning junket.

Krzyzewski, an executive-in-residence at the Duke business school’s Center of Leadership and Ethics, mounted the bleachers prior to the end-of-practice scrimmage to explain to Leadership Summit members what he had observed of his team and what the session had aimed to accomplish.

“We’re trying to teach three systems at the same time,” he said. “We’re trying to teach an offensive system, a defensive system, and a system of communication. When you’re tired or whatever, one of the first things, especially guys do, is they keep their damn mouth shut. They do not say a damn word.”

The practice stressed talking to one another and getting back to pressure defense, Krzyzewski said, following several days in which the focus was on zone and zone press tactics. The very nature of teaching the less-preferred defenses had caused the team to come to expect stoppages for illustrative purposes. Consequently, with habits not yet firmly established, the squad’s return to continuous action on defense was “only somewhat successful,” the coach observed.

The starters won the scrimmage 29-23. Andre Dawkins, a starter on previous occasions this year, did not practice. That left fellow senior Tyler Thornton to play with Quinn Cook, Amil Jefferson, Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker on the first team. Sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon, ostensibly an off-guard, ran the blue squad on which veteran reserves Josh Hairston, Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee showed notable improvement.

The most visible offensive presence in the open portion of practice was a freshman whose numeral 1 is not likely to join the other retired jerseys anytime soon. That’s because wunderkind Parker – well-muscled, long-armed, his 6-foot-8 stature and hairstyle reminiscent of a young Grant Hill – isn’t expected to tarry long in college.

Following practice, Parker blended with teammates on the Cameron visitor’s bench as Dempsey addressed the Duke squad. As the 30-year Blue Devil fan commenced his remarks, Krzyzewski emphatically signaled for silence from an ever-growing corps of ROTC students from Duke, North Carolina, N.C. Central and N.C. State who perched noisily in the upper deck, momentarily oblivious to Dempsey’s rank or the decorum of the occasion.

The general’s talk was brief and low-key. When he finished he moved slowly down the line of seated players. One by one the sweaty undergrads stood, each receiving a souvenir coin from Dempsey in the process of shaking hands.

Once the basketball squad departed, Dempsey, 61, addressed the large contingent of uniformed ROTC students that had descended to sit court side. Then he stayed to answer numerous questions about military life.

“The U.S. military competes every minute of every day,” the general stated emphatically, articulating an ethic that helped shape the life of the coach celebrated by a Cameron banner for having more victories – now 957 and counting – than any man in Division I basketball history.

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