America's best coach is crying. Not very much, and over the death of his mother five years ago, a completely acceptable reason for tears even by the standards of the tough-hearted college-basketball fans who worship him. But Mike Krzyzewski is definitely crying. "My mom gave me--and I didn't realize it growing up--unconditional support and unfailing love," he says. "You can't get any better than that. It created, for both my brother and for me, a safety net. That's why I've never been afraid to lose."
During his 21 years as men's basketball coach at Duke University, Krzyzewski (pronounced Sha-sheff-ski, or Coach K to his acolytes) has not lost very often. He's 533-164, with three national championships, six Atlantic Coast Conference championships, and nine Final Four appearances. No college hoops coach has won more in the past two decades, and Krzyzewski has accomplished all this with a program that turns out real-deal scholar athletes--kids who go to class, graduate and don't mind telling everyone about it. "He has put together what the rest of us are trying to do," says St. John's University coach Mike Jarvis, Krzyzewski's close friend. "It's a program that wins not only on the court but off the court."
For all the winning he does, Krzyzewski doesn't talk much Xs and Os. Ask him why Duke has been so superior under his reign, and he'll cite the influence of his wife and three daughters. "Over the years, the girls have exposed me to an environment where they share their feelings, and I've tried to teach my players to do the same thing. I tell them it's not guys doing girl things; it's being a real person--to hug, to cry, to laugh, to share. If you create a culture where that's allowed, all of a sudden, you have some depth."
Crying as the key to victory sounds a little squishy, especially from a guy who graduated from West Point and claims none other than Bobby Knight--chair-throwing, microphone-hogging, student-berating Bobby Knight--as his basketball mentor. But Krzyzewski believes creating an atmosphere that infuses his players with the same kind of support and love he received growing up is crucial to Duke's success. Unlike most other coaches, Krzyzewski avoids depth charts and assigned positions, insisting that they lead only to competitive anxiety and unrealistic expectations. As a result, Duke has no players whose sole job is to back up another player. Instead, Krzyzewski tells his young men time and again that he trusts them, that they should "run their own race" and that when they step on the court, "all they have to be is themselves." Says Grant Hill, a three-time All-America: "When I was there, for two or three years, we didn't really run any plays. He basically allowed us to run around the court and explore our creativity." "It's very empowering," says Steve Wojciechowski, a former Blue Devil star who is now a Duke assistant coach. "As a player, it also makes you more vested. It's not just his team. It's our team."