Duke’s ‘Coach K,’ An Army Vet, Has Advice for Transitioning Service Members

Coach K
“Failure is not your destination” — leadership advice from Duke Blue Devils head basketball coach and former Army officer Mike Krzyzewski. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

One of March Madness’ central figures can trace his leadership roots, on and off the court, to his time in an Army uniform.

Mike Krzyzewski, who is pursuing his sixth national title as head coach of the Duke Blue Devils, played under Indiana legend Bobby Knight at the U.S. Military Academy, earning three letters and serving as a captain his senior season. He received his commission in 1969, left service in 1974 (as a different kind of captain) and returned to his alma mater as head coach for five seasons before taking the Duke job in 1980.

Along with his five NCAA basketball titles and more than 1,000 collegiate wins, he’s led Team USA to three Olympic gold medals. Krzyzewski said some leadership advice he picked up in the military helped him in the pursuit of private-sector success.

“One of the best things I learned is, failure is not your destination,” the coach said in response to questions from Military Times. “In other words, along the process of achievement of victory there will be setbacks, and you cannot allow a setback to stop you from achieving success.

“And, along with that, don’t do it alone. Being on a team, try to get whatever number of people you have in your unit to play and to compete as one.”

Krzyzewski called West Point “the best leadership school in the world.” He brought the U.S. men’s Olympic hoops team to his alma mater in 2014, giving cadets a glimpse at stars like Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving while the players took a tour and watched a demonstration of the school’s indoor obstacle course.

At the time, the coach said he hoped the visit would make an impression on the Olympic squad ― “If [your team goes] to the best leadership school in the world, something’s gotta rub off.”


Asked how service members beginning their post-service career paths should market themselves, Krzyzewski praised the civilian sector for a fairly recent turnaround.

“Service members have so much to give the private sector, and I truly believe the private sector, especially in the last decade, has learned the value of using service men and women who have already done their service and now are entering the private sector because they bring a work ethic, a commitment, unselfishness, duty,” he said. “You know they’re going to be unbelievably dependable and trustworthy and identify with being part of something bigger than them. These are all the intangibles that any organization should want to look for and they get it already made because of the service of these servicemen and women.”

Coach K
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski share a moment following a National Team meeting in Las Vegas. After retiring from his post as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Dempsey took over as chairman of USA Basketball. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images via USA Basketball)

Krzyzewski stressed another intangible ― character ― when asked to offer advice to military recruiters based on his decades seeking young talent.

“I think when you’re recruiting for your team, you want somebody who’s going to be committed, first of all, who’s willing to learn, who will follow through in tough times,” he said. Recruiters should “find out as much about the character of the person as you can, and then that’s what you want to build on.

“You want to build character, but it’s nice if they bring character in. It’s kind of like when I recruit: I look for talent, I look for academics, but I really look for character.“

Source: Military Times article from March 7, 2018