Mike Krzyzewski offers a lesson in sportsmanship

March 27, 2014 

The generally accepted sports axiom in these parts has it that N.C. State fans hold a seething hatred for all things to do with UNC-Chapel Hill, that Chapel Hill has no love lost for N.C. State, that most people like Wake Forest (the smart neighbor kid who can’t hurt anybody) and that one truth is unanimous: Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski put the “evil” in Blue Devil.

Even at Raleigh’s Players Retreat, N.C. State’s off-campus heartbeat, the appearance of Coach K on a big screen will prompt a little hissing. And this in a place where a UNC-Chapel Hill customer once ventured to say, “You guys would pull for the Taliban against Chapel Hill.” To which another customer replied, “Well, no I wouldn’t. I’d be neutral.”

So perhaps it would be more accurate to say Krzyzewski gets the hissing unless he is beating Carolina.

In any case, immediately following Duke’s loss to Mercer in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Friday night, an email from a former colleague who attended a prestigious private university that isn’t Duke, popped up. It said: “DOOK LOST!!!!!!!” The guy has no interest in college basketball.

The animus has no basis in some judgment of Krzyzewski’s character. He is articulate, generous, a family man, an upright citizen, a successful coach who insists that players do their schoolwork, and an employee of the same school since 1980.

Yes, he is known to play the coaches’ psychological game of getting on game officials, but in that he is not alone.

No, the root of the antipathy for Krzyzewski shared especially by UNC-Chapel Hill folks but by many others, is that he has won four national championships and more games than any coach in NCAA history.

But still, his critics always said this: The guy hates to lose and doesn’t take it well and that’s the truth, brother. Yesiree.

Then came Friday, and Duke’s anticipated step toward another championship season. But Mercer knocked Krzyzewski’s team out of the tournament.

Whereupon, in one of the season’s more memorable moments, Krzyzewski appeared in the door of the Mercer locker room and said this: “You guys have a hell of a basketball team. I love the game and you guys play the game really, really well and your coach coaches it well. If we had to be beaten, I’m glad we got beaten by a hell of a basketball team. So good luck to you.”

A few of the tall trees of Mercer appeared ready to tumble. Some were too stunned to speak.

And in an instant, the lingering image of the bombastic explosion of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, ejected from a game at Duke near the season’s end, was replaced in the mind’s eye by Mike Krzyzewski standing in the door of another team’s locker room offering up a few words of congratulations.

The first was a ridiculous display of poor sportsmanship, the second a subdued display of the very best sportsmanship. The first is all too common in the high-pressure world of big-money college athletics. The second is uncommon.

It called to mind another uncommon moment of which Coach Krzyzewski likely has no memory. Some years back, an editor suggested a piece calling for a shortening of the college basketball season...money out of control, a distraction from studies, all that. It was of course something that was never going to happen, but what the heck, I called all the coaches within a certain mileage radius.

Krzyzewski was the only one who returned the call. He surely knew, as he explained why he thought it would be a bad idea to limit the season, that pigs would fly before the NCAA shortened the season that is a revenue milking cow. But he answered the questions seriously.

Toward the end, I said, figuring it might make him mad, “Well coach, I hope you don’t think you’ve wasted your time, but we’re probably going to come out for limiting the length of the season. It may seem ridiculous, but we’re kind of in the business of being idealistic here.”

To which he calmly said, “Well, you should be.”

Basketball teams don’t always win. Class always does.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service