As a non-American, I’ll never quite understand the passion and pride generated by collegiate sports in the US. I really enjoy watching college football and basketball, but the reverence and status given to the games and especially to the coaches suggests a strange miscalculation of priorities for academic institutions!
The constant turnover of players provides a fascinating dimension to the sports. No other leagues give you an absolute maximum of four years with any player while also preventing the signing of experienced players to help guide the young players (who are almost exclusively under 23). Longevity and culture is therefore primarily provided by the coach and supporting staff.
It’s in this context (and overlooking the ludicrous salaries relative to other employees of the college or State!) that I find the careers of successful college coaches utterly fascinating. The reverence for successful coaches across the US is remarkable and is evident across sports media and popular culture. As one the most successful coaches in college basketball, arguably no coach is quite as revered as Mike Krzyzewski (universally referred to as Coach K).
Coach K was a player and subsequently coach for the US Army’s college team (talk about an educational institute with odd priorities!) and a protégé of world class coach and bully Bobby Knight. Krzyzewski ultimately, and surprisingly to most observers given his limited success at the time, became head coach of Duke University, a perennial basketball powerhouse. Over the ensuing decades he would amass one of the most successful records in the sport’s history.
O’Connor is a masterful biographer grappling with the challenges of competing narratives and telling the story of a complete life in a limited amount of space. Capturing 50 plus seasons of action requires a delicate touch and wise judgment in where to focus and no-one does it better. The book is especially strong in telling the story of Krzyzewski’s youth and identifying how his early days and playing career helped to shape the man and coach he would become. It also rightly delves into greater detail on some of his most famous teams – none more so than the era of Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill.
Coach K’s more recent seasons however feel somewhat out of character as he embraced the one-and-done superstar era. O’Connor explains this approach as a combination of the coaches his own adaptability and his growing taste for coaching the very best players acquired during his stints coaching Team USA.
The best biographies are those that realize every life story can only be properly told through the person’s relationships. Most obviously Krzyzewski’s ever-changing relationship with his mentor Knight stands out. Coach K is often described as possessing many of Knight’s best qualities but much less of his ridiculous, fiery temper.
The other key relationship in Krzyzewski’s life is, unsurprisingly, his marriage. A major failing across lesser sports biographies (and all biographies really) is a failure to capture the role that spouses play in athlete’s and coaches professional lives. O’Connor avoids this mistake and highlights Mrs’ Krzyzewski and the wider family’s role in Coach K’s success and thought process.
O’Connor ultimately paints the picture of a man who combined a relentless desire for success with a genuine affection for other people. This is an excellent biography of a fascinating basketball coach and highly recommended for any college basketball fan.