Of course, legendary Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski deserved every last minute of the pomp and circumstance afforded to him on his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
And to no one’s surprise, former players (more than 90 of them), coaches, celebrities and Duke fans who had the spare time to camp out in tents for weeks before the game in order to get a ticket, or shelled out four, five and six-figure sums to buy one, packed the arena to honor Coach K. The pregame ceremony was set, the postgame ceremony was set, and their rivals from down the road at the University of North Carolina – a team they had beaten by 20 points earlier in the year – was going to be served on a platter for the occasion.
The only problem was, nobody told UNC. The Tar Heels beat Duke, and put a damper on the anticipation, celebration and certainly the overall mood of what was supposed to be a night to remember for Krzyzewski and Duke faithful.
What happened after the game kind of made it a night to remember, actually. It was unplanned, and unorthodox.
Coach K walked to the microphone at center court that had been set up for a string of laudatory post-victory speeches to commemorate his storied career, and delivered an unscripted moment to everyone watching:
And when someone tried to stop him from going down that road, he stopped them cold and continued. He apologized for the result of the game, but then also made the point that the season (which would continue into the postseason) had been a success, and that it wasn’t over yet. His apology went viral, primarily because we don’t usually see coaches do what he did – and therein lies the lesson for any coach, in any sport, at any level in college athletics. Taking similar actions in your program could yield equally viral responses from an audience that matters just as much as Coach K’s adoring fans inside Cameron Indoor Stadium: Your athletic director, your student-athletes, your fans, and your recruits.
Own your shortcomings. One of the big priorities for athletic directors we talk to when they are in the process of hiring head coaches is finding one that doesn’t require a lot of hand-holding and oversight. For example, finding a coach who knows how to recruit and build a program through recruiting means that coach will have a level of self-sufficiency that will allow the athletic director to spend time and energy on other things rather than worrying about that coach meeting numbers or building rosters. One quality that is becoming more and more rare is hearing a coach proactively owning mistakes, shortcomings or missed expectations. When they do, it stands out. In a society that features a lot of finger pointing and excuse making, finding an individual who will own up to what didn’t happen and their responsibility in it – even if that individual is one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history – is remarkable. And that gets the attention of vitally important people in a coach’s career…people like their athletic director, who wants a coach who can recognize when they’ve fallen short and then outline a plan for how to fix it the next time around.
Clearly communicate standards. Your student-athletes want leadership – the focus group surveys we conduct when we do on-campus recruiting training for college athletic departments clearly show it’s something that’s desired, but not always present. Part of leading is communicating standards, and Coach Krzyzewski made it clear to the sullen players sitting on the bench with their heads down after the loss that what he saw wasn’t acceptable, and that as they went into the postseason, they needed to raise their game. What made that message more receptive to the team it was directed towards was that the coach took ownership of it all by apologizing – he didn’t blame his players, or the administration, or his lack of a budget or the age or his facility, he took ownership – and then he sent the message to his team. It’s a lesson in communication and establishing standards that is a coach’s responsibility to maintain within his or her own program…and it’s more well received after you, as the leader, take responsibility for owning the outcomes.
Create a bond with your fans. As he started to apologize, someone in the crowd started saying “no!”, telling Coach K that they didn’t blame him for the loss on such a big night where he was being honored. He stopped them, and continued with his apology. What stood out to me is that fans felt so much empathy, and so much of a connection with Coach Krzyzewski that they instinctively went to protect him and not see his image tarnished in any way. How often have you seen that happen in modern college coaching? More importantly, what would your fans say after a tough loss that might be able to be blamed on your coaching or an unexpected loss to a team you were supposed to beat? Coach K has built a reputation for winning, yes…but he has also devoted himself to the university, the community, and the people in it. He took the approach that he was going to be there in that job for the rest of his life, and took actions that reflected that. The result is an adoring fan base, willing donors, leaders in the community who will back him no matter what, and a career that meant more to a campus than just his win-loss percentage. How are you creating a bond with your fans? (And by the way, that’s especially important for coaches who don’t draw large crowds…in that case, why don’t you know most of the first names of the people who come to your games? Serious question. Gary Blair, the legendary Texas A&M women’s basketball coach who is retiring after the 2022 season as well, inherited a program that had little campus interest and very few fans when he arrived. In those early days, before games, Coach Blair would walk the stands, handing fans candy and thanking them for coming. Now, Texas A&M regularly boasts some of the nation’s best attendance numbers)
Creating a story for your recruits to buy. And don’t be fooled: This generation of prospects, and their parents, are telling themselves stories all throughout the recruiting process – stories of why they should spend the money attending your school, why you are the coach that’s the ‘best fit’ for their daughter, how the name on your school’s diploma will open doors (or won’t), and why it just ‘feels’ right on campus for them. Stories are the motivators for all of us: They give us justification on who to vote for, where to live, what to drive, and every other emotional aspect of decision making. So for you, when you hear the name Mike Krzyzewski or Duke basketball, what’s the brand image that comes to mind? Do you care that they play in one of the oldest, smallest arena’s in Division I basketball? Do you care about the cost of the school? Do you doubt the education you’ll be getting? That’s all because you’ve created a brand story around Duke men’s basketball because of the way the coach has conducted himself, on the basketball court and off.
How people view you and your program, and your capabilities as a coach and a leader, are largely due to the story that gets told about you – quietly, privately, among administrators, fans, your players and your recruits. Your brand is being etched in stone right now as you read this.
What are you doing day after day to own your mistakes, communicate your standards and hold yourself to those standards as well, bonding with your fans and donors, and creating a story for your recruits to buy into? How you feel about the way your coaching career is going so far might have a lot to do with what you are doing – or not doing – related to those four non-X’s and O’s areas of your responsibilities as a college coach in today’s world.
For more information on how Tudor Collegiate Strategies is helping to mold the futures of hundreds of college coaches and the programs they lead, visit www.dantudor.com or email Dan Tudor at firstname.lastname@example.org.