Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Review: Coach K (2022)

By Ian O'Connor

In the spring of 2022, it was relatively easy to be tired of Mike Krzyzewski. 

The longtime Duke basketball coach had announced in the summer of 2021 that he would be guiding the Blue Devils for one more season - to make it 42 years, if you're counting - and then step out of the spotlight.

It had been quite a ride. After a bit of slow start (taking over a college basketball program usually requires some time), Duke qualified for the NCAA tournament in 1984. From there, the Blue Devils probably were the number one program in the nation - perhaps not in the argument as a title contender every year, but usually a threat to be in that classification. How about five national championships and 13 Final Fours? Along the way, Coach K won more 1,000 games to set the record for most coaching wins in NCAA Division I. 

Naturally, any "one last season" of such a personality will quickly turn into a celebration. Krzyzewski made the party last quite a while, as he led the Blue Devils to one last Final Four before exiting. Along the way, every major media outlet in the country seemed to do a long story about Coach K. So by the end of the 2021-22 season, there was a little burnout for everyone - no doubt including the Coach himself. 

After all that, it was difficult to grasp the idea of reading a full-fledged biography of Krzyzewski, and that made it easy to wait a little while picking it up. But now in 2023, "Coach K" by Ian O'Connor can be read and enjoyed by all.

It's not particularly easy to turn a biography of a basketball coach into a compelling story. The games and the players involved are familiar to many of the readers, so the story can feel a bit like old news. O'Connor, who has written for a variety of outlets, solves that issue nicely. He throws details at the reader. And then more details. The author talked to about 200 people, and went through a ton of source material as well. It's difficult to believe he missed much, and it is delivered in a very readable way.

Coach K's basic story is familiar to most basketball fans. He grew up in Chicago, a spunky point guard who was good enough to earn a basketball scholarship to West Point. There he encountered a brilliant coach named Bobby Knight, and the two enjoyed an up and down relationship over the years that is something of a subplot to the book. Coach K eventually finished his Army commitment playing and coaching basketball for the most part - tough duty, I know - and then was a surprise choice to coach the Army team at West Point. 

Krzyzewski spent five years at West Point, and then Duke called. Some coaches might not have survived a third year that featured an 11-17 season, but this one received a new contract ... and went about the business of proving that he deserved it. The top seasons and games are thoroughly reviewed; the 1992 NCAA Regional Final against Kentucky - maybe the best college game ever played - goes nicely under the microscope here. Along the way, Coach K also tried his luck at coaching the American Olympic basketball team ... and led it to three straight gold medals. 

There's a great story here about all of the success, and it starts with Mike's mother, Emily. "Why is it you?" she asked her son. "How are you the coach of the national championship team?" As Mike said in explanation, for her "there was always a limit on your dreams."

Krzyzewski changed the argument about the greatest college basketball coach of all time. John Wooden had wrapped up that title, or so it seemed, by winning 10 NCAA crowns in 12 years. But that was a different era, with different rules. Coach K's record 13 Final Four trips might be even more impressive, considering the current environment with more competition and balance.

About the only criticism I've seen of the book is that the information contained in the covers mostly has been discussed along the way. I supposed that might be true for someone who has followed Coach K's career closely - rooting either for him or against him - for more than 40 years. For the rest of us, though, "Coach K" the book will provide context and perspective on the life of one of the best coaches ever.

Five stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.) 

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