Duke’s Krzyzewski blends passion, anger and adrenaline

Coach K opens the summer session of his K Academy Fantasy Basketball Camp

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski discusses the Blue Devils' end-of-summer excursion to play games in the Dominican Republic in August.
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Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski discusses the Blue Devils' end-of-summer excursion to play games in the Dominican Republic in August.

Anger can be as much a part of a coach’s repertoire as the ability to reconfigure an offense to exploit the capabilities of different collections of players. But Mike Krzyzewski is the rare coach who explicitly cites the volatile emotion as a preferred tool in leading his teams. The attribute is part of a mix that’s fueled a Hall of Fame career, helped his Duke program maintain its heading in choppy waters while players come and go in waves, and, to be honest, earned him a reputation for snarling on the sidelines.

Krzyzewski has been coaching at Duke since the spring of 1980. He’s very much a familiar figure, his strengths and foibles well-chronicled and often on public display. Yet there he was in early February, after a seven-game absence occasioned by back surgery, days from his 70th birthday, advancing an unfamiliar argument placing anger as a central factor in his success. Not anger at officials’ calls or at dumb or dirty plays, but as an ingredient in sustaining his personal coaching edge.

“I’ve been blessed over the years to have passion, anger and adrenaline,” a pleased Krzyzewski enumerated after the Blue Devils defeated Pittsburgh. “All three of those things kind of kick in; I’ll see how I handle it now after this.”

Adrenaline and passion are easy traits to understand in a competitor who’s won more games (1,071) than any man in major-college history. Anger, however, is more difficult to see as a constant. Not in Krzyzewski’s firmament. “If you’re a competitor, I think you have to be angry at times,” Krzyzewski noted last week during a break from his duties as head man at the K Academy, his five-day, Duke-based basketball fantasy camp for adult men. For him, those angry times may be episodic, but they are also routine.

Anger can feel powerful and slightly dangerous, an expression of displeasure near the limits of self control. Counseling regimens, books, a lousy Jack Nicholson movie and an even lousier Charlie Sheen sitcom have been devoted to “anger management.” Krzyzewski, who lauded “the power of words” to open his 2006 book “Beyond Basketball,” and sometimes picks at questioners’ phraseology, struggles to differentiate anger as a coaching essential from simply being energized and passionate. He concedes there’s a “fine line” between passionate and angry, and that anger may not be exactly the word he wants. But it’s the word he uses, the word that fits.

“I think anger is emotion,” the former U.S. Military Academy cadet and army artillery captain says in an otherwise quiet coaches’ meeting room at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “If anger is used to destroy bad things, anger is huge. We’ve won wars with anger.”

That cleansing effect, akin to cauterizing a wound, is central to the way Krzyzewski maintains the imperatives of his program. “I can get angry at selfishness, stupidity, like if it’s repeated stupidity,” he says, perhaps attested by the gray finally tinging the edges of his black hair. “Just something that goes below your standards, whether it be how the locker room looks or how we dress.”

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski talks about doing what he loves and dealing with setbacks along the way during an exclusive interview with The News & Observer in December.

Missteps are apt to be more common with the inexperienced rosters increasingly the norm in the second half of Krzyzewski’s 38-year tenure. This coming season the Blue Devils will again be rich in talent, but return players with fewer minutes of college action than any team Krzyzewski’s had at Duke. Only senior Grayson Allen has started more than one game.

In the 19 seasons from 1981 through 1999 no one left early for the pros, and the Blue Devils made seven Final Four appearances in a nine-year span (1986-94). That stability made Duke an outlier among top teams and a target of negative recruiting for holding back players – long before any such charge was leveled at Carolina’s Roy Williams. Since the end of that period, Krzyzewski’s program has seen regular attrition among players with eligibility remaining. Three left early after a loss in the ’99 NCAA championship game, and three more after ’02.

Recently, following a parade of single one-and-done exits, another destabilizing element complicated the equation. As Krzyzewski points out, departures from Duke are coming in substantial clumps: three in 2015 and four after the 2017 season. All but one of the seven were freshmen.

That unpredictable turnover, accompanied by a parallel need to accelerate the seasoning of younger players, has caused Krzyzewski to make allowances he might not otherwise countenance. Of course, the coach hastens to add, that doesn’t mean any compromise in the team’s work ethic, cleanliness, players showing “strong faces” on the court, or a diminution of “truthfulness” in personal encounters.

“You’re more understanding about some slippage, because you don’t have enough veterans, as it’s going on, to kind of stop it, to catch it,” he explains. “Like ‘Don’t do that!’ Instead it happens, and if there’s a stop action (the coaches) have to do it. The more veterans you have, the more they can do in real time.”

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski speaks about recruiting players that may only stay one year in the Blue Devils basketball program.

Last season, Duke finished 28-9 and won the ACC tournament despite a disruptive rash of injuries and a preponderance of underclassmen. At midseason, though, the Devils tottered, going 4-3 during Krzyzewski’s absence.

Watching from his home on a sylvan Durham border, the coach began seeing and hearing too many things he didn’t like. Following a loss to N.C. State at Cameron in which the defense essentially evaporated down the stretch, Krzyzewski called a team meeting at his house, then temporarily banned players from the locker room and forbade them to wear Duke gear. He’d taken similar actions in previous years, kicking individuals and entire teams out of practice or stripping the locker room of everything that wasn’t nailed down.

“That was anger well-placed, well-placed,” Krzyzewski says of his temporary purge. “It’s called team-building.” The coach’s actions struck some observers as harsh, punitive. He dismisses the characterization. “Those are the things we have to live with,” he says, bitterness in his voice.

In fact, Krzyzewski notes the episode and all that transpired behind the scenes were part of a broader strategy that “turned out to be pretty good. Look what happened. What happened is we won seven in a row. So apparently something else happened besides kicking them out of the locker room. What it did do was galvanize our team, have them focus on one thing: Us.”

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski defends his handling of Grayson Allen following the game with Elon where Allen tripped an Elon player. Krzyzewski was talking to reporters after the game.

Reinforcing that message is perhaps more important than ever as elite programs are continually drained of top talent, retarding unit cohesion. Present circumstances similarly work against developing legendary individual careers. N.C. State’s David Thompson (1973-75) may never be challenged as the greatest player in ACC history; even if equivalent talents entered the league they wouldn’t stick around long enough to make a comparably indelible mark.

From an opponent’s perspective, that instability is not all bad. “When I got here a long time ago, Ralph Sampson was a four-year player,” Krzyzewski told a media scrum on the opening day of his camp. The Virginia center was national player of the year from 1981 through 1983. “We had to compete against him for four years. (Michael) Jordan was a three-year player. The world’s changed, and it’s up to us to adapt to it. I think we are, and then we’ll see how successful we are.”

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