What Sets Coach K Apart?

April 7, 2015 Updated: April 7, 2015

Five national titles, 12 Final Four appearances, and more than a thousand wins. As if there were any doubt before Monday night, only the late, great John Wooden can claim a better résumé than Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.

And though all five of his titles are special, this one stands out because he successfully flipped the script on Bo Ryan and Wisconsin.

After topping Kentucky on Saturday night, the Badgers were the favorite to cut down the nets over Duke—an unfamiliar position for Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils, for sure. But understandable nonetheless. Wisconsin beat the best—they must be the best, right?

When the U.S. Hockey team miraculously beat the Russians in 1980 in the semis, they finished the fairytale correctly by downing Finland two days later for the gold.

Even Coach K knows the script. He invented it.

Twenty-four years ago, his Blue Devils shocked the undefeated, untested, and heavily favored UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in the national semis (who had waxed them in the finals the previous season) and then finished the job two nights later when they beat Kansas for the title.

That’s the script that was set up for Ryan and Wisconsin. But they didn’t quite know how to play the part as well as Krzyzewski did. And still does.

Of course, there’s only one Coach K, and he wears multiple hats as the coach.

When his Duke team shocked UNLV all those years ago, Krzyzewski, ever the psychologist, didn’t allow his team to celebrate as if they had won the title. Instead, as time ran out, he held up one finger to everyone to remind them that there was still one more win left. And win is what they did two nights later in keeping the Jayhawks at bay. Then they celebrated.

Meanwhile, when Wisconsin beat heavily favored Kentucky in the semis, you would have thought they won the title based on their elation afterward—they have no Coach K to remind them that the job wasn’t complete.

Even Monday night’s championship game was a lesson in how to manage to win a title through adversity. Though Krzyzewski and his Blue Devils were hit with foul trouble all game long, they were able to adjust their game plan so that it wasn’t ultra-dependent on Jahlil Okafor getting the ball. When things looked bleak, Krzyzewski called timeout and gathered his troops.

Meanwhile, as things were unraveling in the final minute, Ryan held onto his remaining timeouts, even as Wisconsin struggled to find a good shot, and the result was another Coach K grand celebration—his fifth as coach.