GREENVILLE, S.C. — The first to be promoted was Mike Dement, who in 1986 was named the head coach at Cornell. The latest was Nate James, who just completed his first year at Austin Peay. The next to follow is Jon Scheyer, who will assume full control of the Blue Devils’ program as soon as Sunday evening or as late as the day after the national championship game in early April.
For decades, Mike Krzyzewski has crafted a coaching tree with branches in nearly every conference, as programs look to capture Duke’s style and success through hiring one of his top assistants.
“It’s like getting a freaking TED talk or some kind of company seminar or retreat. You get that every day,” James said. “It’s just an endless amount of knowledge that’s consistently poured into you each and every day, each and every season. You try to soak up and drink up as much as you possibly can.”
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Along with the record-setting win total, the national championships and the laundry list of All-America and NBA players, this coaching tree is part of Krzyzewski’s deep impact on college basketball. Eleven former Duke payers or assistants are currently head coaches on the college or NBA level, including Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, Pittsburgh’s Jeff Capel, Northwestern’s Chris Collins and Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz.
As his tenure comes to a close, these branches have the potential to maintain Krzyzewski’s impact by exporting the lessons learned under his direction.
“One thing he’s shown me is how to deal with the pressure,” Scheyer said. “His character in being focused on the task at hand, going through it every single day. He’s really shown me that you don’t need to worry about what other people are saying. You show up every day and be a competitive coach. Keep the rest on the outside.”
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Several branches on the Krzyzewski coaching tree have made their own legacies.
Brey has led two programs, including Delaware, into NCAA Tournament play, and is the winningest coach in Notre Dame history. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker has made five tournament appearances while making three different stops. Snyder made four consecutive NCAA fields at Missouri, taking the Tigers into the Elite Eight in 2002, and is poised to lead the Jazz into the NBA playoffs for the sixth season in a row.
Other former assistants have tasted only intermittent success or fallen short of expectations entirely. Collins took Northwestern to the only tournament bid in program history but has seven losing records in his nine seasons. Central Florida coach Johnny Dawkins made just one tournament appearance in eight years at Stanford, though he’s won at least 18 games four times in six seasons with the Knights.
Longtime assistant Steve Wojciechowski made just two tournament trips in seven years at Marquette, never advancing out of the first round. David Henderson replaced Brey at Delaware in 2000 but was fired after six seasons. Overall, two members of the Krzyzewski tree have reached the Elite Eight but none have made the Final Four.
But every extension of Krzyzewski’s tree has tried to translate his formula for success at schools without Duke’s track record and national recruiting appeal.
“I think every player, every coach, everyone that’s been around coach for a significant amount of time tries to wean that from him,” said James.
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The fundamental principle behind Krzyzewski’s approach has been his acute attention to detail, from the days spent scouting and planning to steps as mundane as how to properly make a bed, or deciding the night before what to wear the next day — likely a byproduct of his experiences as an Army cadet and officer.
This level of commitment to even the most basic task is “just mind-boggling,” said James, an all-conference forward at Duke who served as an assistant at the school from 2009-21.
“It’s a way about him where he goes meticulously through his day-to-day life, making sure that he’s giving his players and the game his all. He’s trying to win the day, literally, every day.”
With his assistants as with his players, Krzyzewski would preach the importance of four acronyms: PATD (pay attention to detail), FTP (finish things properly), SOU (sense of urgency) and TYI (trust your instincts).
“He led by example, and (what) we all had to do is follow suit and all sort of follow in the same direction,” said Pittsburgh associate head coach Tim O’Toole, who has known Krzyzewski since the late 1970s and was a Duke assistant from 1995-98 before spending nine seasons as the head coach at Fairfield.
“Every day I worked there was Christmas morning, it really was. I was beyond blessed.”
From this starting point, Krzyzewski has stressed the importance of “being their own guy,” as he said Saturday — an insight gleaned from question-and-answer sessions over meals with his own coaching mentors, including Henry Iba and Pete Newell.
“If there are things that you like that we’ve done, do them. But be you. Take good lessons from a number of people, but don’t try to be anyone else,” Krzyzewski said.
“Every one of my assistants that’s gone on, I just tell them, ‘Just follow your instincts.’ That’s what I’m telling Jon Scheyer as he’s putting his program together this year. That’s the thing that I’ve loved, in watching them do their thing.”
Urging his assistants to chase their own style makes sense: Krzyzewski is and has been the defining figure in the sport for more than a generation, casting immense pressure on every coach who has left Duke to pursue the chance to run his own program.
“I can’t be (Krzyzewski), and I would never try. I’ve got to be me,” James said. “That’s what he teaches us. As a coach, I can’t coach like him. But I can try to instill in my players the same things that he instilled in me as a player and what he instilled in his players when I was on the staff. It’s just the daily commitment and preparation to be the absolute best you can be.”