HeroVet: Mike Krzyzewski, Duke Mens Basketball Coach
The NCAA Men’s Basketball “Final Four” was a thrilling set of games pitting longtime rivals. It also showcased military roots in three of the coaches, led by the Duke’s Mike (Coach K) Krzyzewski, who then claimed his fifth championship Monday night.
Coach K – a product of West Point and the U.S. Army – led his Duke Blue Devils over Wisconsin for the 2015 Championship, 68-63, making him the NCAA’s second-winningest coach in terms of National Championships with five. He is second only behind only UCLA legend and WWII Navy Veteran John Wooden. Krzyzewski already leads the NCAA with the highest number of “March Madness” games won.
It is the cherry on top for Krzyzewski, who earlier this year coached Duke over St. John's, 77–68, becoming the first Division I men's basketball coach to reach 1000 wins. The feat earned him the new nickname “Coach 1-K.”
"I don’t look at myself as a basketball coach. I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball," he once said. He’s also brought the glory back to the USA Men’s Olympic Program, reversing its riches to rags story to bring it back to the top of international basketball superiority.
Coach K’s “Redeem Team” Brings America Back to Olympic Glory
By beating Spain for the gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Coach K led the Men’s basketball team to the top of the hotly competitive global game once again. His team was nicknamed the “Redeem Team,” referring to its drive to retake the gold medal as the “Dream Teams” of the 1990s did.
"We have not had one second of a problem as a coaching staff with our team," an emotional Krzyzewski said after the 2008 gold. "It’s been the greatest experience of my life."
He repeated the feat in 2012, leading the Men’s basketball team to gold once again in the London Games, and separate FIBA World Championships in 2010 and 2014.
Krzyzewski, the son of Polish immigrants, credits his mom for much of his success, even to this day. “My mom’s been the greatest person in my life,” said Krzyzewski, 61. “She gave me the opportunity to dream and then the opportunity to go to private schools.”
Emily Krzyzewski died of cancer in 1996, but the indelible imprint on her son remains. The coach with the golden-hearted mom sees to it that others get an opportunity to succeed. To that end, he honored his mother in 2006 by placing her name on the marquee of his pride and joy, the Emily Krzyzewski Center, a learning facility for less-fortunate children in Durham. In so doing, Coach K has inadvertently challenged himself.
“I knew that with her name on it, this’ll be a lifetime commitment,” says Krzyzewski, who helped raise more than $14 million toward the nonprofit center’s goal of $50 million. “We felt it would be a great example for the kids, with the relationship that I had with my mother serving as the spirit of the center.”
In 2010, the Emily K Center celebrated its first class of graduating seniors. Every one of the students received multiple college acceptances.
In addition to the Emily K Family Life Center, Krzyzewski and his wife, Mickie, are keenly involved with children through Duke Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Miracle Network of 170 hospitals across North America. “You know, to those who are given much, much is expected,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to be given much and I understand that you should do something with that. It’s very humbling. Knowing you have the opportunity to do that, you better do it.”
The Military - and Bobby Knight - Give Coach K His First Break
After graduating High School, the Chicago native attended The United States Military Academy at West Point and played basketball while training to become an officer in the Army. He was captain of the Army basketball team in his senior season, 1968-69, leading his team to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). From 1969-74, Krzyzewski served in the Army and directed service teams for three years and then followed that up with two years as head coach of the U.S. Military Academy Prep School at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
In 1974, he resigned from the Army having attained the rank of captain. Bob Knight, his former coach at Army, offered Krzyzewski, then 26 years old, a graduate assistant position at Indiana University. That 1975 squad posted an 18-0 Big Ten mark and a 31-1 overall record. He then moved on to coaching himself, become Knight’s best-known disciple, and the rest is history.
“Coach Krzyzewski’s success as a basketball coach and exemplar of the ideals of West Point has become renowned. Throughout the Nation, the nickname – "Coach K" – brings to mind an extraordinary man and the rock-solid values he embodies. Through his lifetime of achievements, he has done much to burnish the national image of West Point,” said West Point Association of Graduates Chairman and CEO Thomas B. Dyer said in awarding Krzyzewski its 2005 Distinguished Graduate Award.
Final Four Legacy
The 2015 Final Four traces a military legacy beyond Coach K. Tom Izzo, the impassioned coach of Michigan State, fell to Duke on April 4 in the semifinal. He is also the son of an Army veteran and credits his father’s style with his form of scrappy play.
“[I am more like] My dad [than mom],” he once told the New York Post. “More high-strung, wears his emotions on his sleeve. My dad was a guy who left high school before he graduated, went into the Army, came back when he was 36 or 38 and went back to high school when I was in the fourth grade.”
William “Butch” Ryan Sr., the father of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach who unsuccessfully challenged Coach K in his pursuit of history Monday night, died in 2013, but his influence remains strong.
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was very close to his father, “Butch,” a retired coach, teacher and community leader from Chester, Pa., who had a passion for helping kids. Butch Ryan was a World War Navy II veteran who earned a Bronze Star.
“There were parents, especially moms, who wanted their kids to play for my dad because he didn’t take any nonsense,” Bo Ryan told the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper in 2002. “But he was fun. People wanted to be around him. This expression about tough love? They haven’t seen it unless they’ve seen him 30 years ago.”
In addition to a loving son, Butch Ryan enjoyed a long marriage to his wife of 68 years, Louise Ryan.