SI Vault
Alexander Wolff
December 12, 2011
The two winningest coaches in Division I college basketball history (907 for him, 1,075 for her) have more in common than just extraordinary success. For reaching far beyond their campuses and refusing to be defined by their genders, SI honors them together
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 12, 2011

Sportsman Of The Year: Mike Krzyzewski / Sportswoman Of The Year: Pat Summitt

The two winningest coaches in Division I college basketball history (907 for him, 1,075 for her) have more in common than just extraordinary success. For reaching far beyond their campuses and refusing to be defined by their genders, SI honors them together

View CoverRead All Articles

One thousand, nine hundred and eighty-two basketball games: If you were to preside over one per day, every day, you'd need more than five years and five months to coach them all. That's 79,280 minutes' worth of games, more if you add in overtime, still more if you pad out each with anthems, halftimes, timeouts and reprises of Rocky Top and Devil with the Blue Dress. Now imagine your team's winning every one of those games, many in college basketball's most remorselessly competitive conferences: the SEC in the case of the women, and the ACC in the case of the men.

That's the opening argument on behalf of Pat Summitt, with her 1,075 career victories at Tennessee, and of Mike Krzyzewski, with his 907 at Duke and Army. Each can claim more wins than any other coach, active or retired, in her and his respective Division I sports. But more than that—so much more—are the roads each has traveled over the course of careers that can be measured in Presidents Met on White House Visits with Team (four in her case, three in his). For their endurance, for their adaptability, for their genius for hatching from adversity even more success and for their willingness to take up causes beyond the comfort of their own campuses—indeed, for modeling what it means to be public diplomats as well as great coaches—we honor them as SI's 2011 Sportswoman and Sportsman of the Year.

And to think that Krzyzewski, 64, could coach another decade and that, if not for the predations of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, the diagnosis of which she received last spring, Summitt, 59, surely would too. "It's hard to go three decades and continue to recruit, to connect with the modern athlete, to just maintain that drive and passion for teaching, for coaching, for leading," former Blue Devil Grant Hill says of Krzyzewski—but change the wording slightly, to account for Summitt's having been in Knoxville for nearly four decades, and the observation applies as much to her.

Indeed, the two share so many things that they deserve to be studied, not just honored, jointly. Both grew up in working-class homes so full of obligation that the very idea of want never got a hearing. Both labored for years (12 for her, 15 for him) before winning a national title. Both have nested their programs so naturally into their universities that among the more than 200 athletes who have exhausted their eligibility at Duke or Tennessee, virtually none has failed to graduate. Both, early in their careers, had to evangelize—Krzyzewski, to take Duke out from the shadow of North Carolina eight miles away; Summitt, to flog both her own program, in a region where even men's basketball lines up behind football, and women's basketball at large. Now she has stepped out to embrace another cause, leading a public campaign to raise funds for and awareness of dementia and Alzheimer's (page 58).

To practice their craft, both reach beyond athletics to borrow from the worlds of management and psychology. A 2006 assessment of these two coaches in The Public Manager magazine defined the typical coach as working with athletes to set goals and find ways to meet them. In the cases of Krzyzewski and Summitt, by contrast, "coaching starts with understanding the individual," wrote Donald G. Zauderer, a professor emeritus of public administration at American University, in the article. "[Both] invest large amounts of time and energy in getting to know players—their values, emotional makeup, and hopes and dreams for a successful life."

Football coaches can't do this. Woody Hayes is said to have once sent into a game a second-string quarterback whose name he didn't know. "He takes time to get to know his guys," Hill says of Krzyzewski. "It's like your children. Each is different. One might be more sensitive. One might be more bullheaded. There's 18 inches between a pat on the back and a pat on the butt, but as a parent you've got to do both, so at least there's constant contact."

For Summitt, to coach this way means having team members bring in family scrapbooks to pass around. It means taking personality inventories and sharing the results among players and coaches to sensitize everyone to one another's peculiarities. And it means hosting frequent team meals at her house. Pots simmer on the stove, Labs shamble about, guests frolic in the pool, and the coach—greeting everyone in her middle-Tennessee twang, checking the grill, using her heel to kick the dryer door closed—commands the scene down to each detail, including the hand-cranking of the homemade ice cream. "Electrical," Summitt's longtime assistant Mickie DeMoss explains, "doesn't taste as good."

The result of all this industry and attentiveness almost beggars comprehension. Summitt's teams have won eight national titles. Tennessee has never suffered through a losing season and often outdraws a handful of NBA teams. Since 1976 every Lady Vol to stay four years has reached at least one Final Four. Nearly three of every four can claim some individual distinction, be it Olympian, All-America, All-SEC or All-Academic, while 74 players and staff have gone on to coach in their own right. "People get caught up in the numbers," says her son, Tyler, a sophomore on the Tennessee men's team. "I always say, If you want to know my mom best, look at her relationships. How many who grew up under her influence are successful? And when life hits, as it does to all of us at some point, who are they making that first phone call to?"

Krzyzewski sits astride the men's game because he has forged the same kinds of bonds. Some 35 of his former players converged on Madison Square Garden last month to toast him as he surpassed his own college coach, Bob Knight, on the alltime Division I men's victory list. For the past six years the ranks of his players have extended beyond Duke to a cohort of current NBA stars, with whom Krzyzewski has restored the standing of American basketball as coach of the U.S. national team. Between August 2008 and September 2010 he bookended his fourth NCAA title, the most of any active Division I male coach, with the two most prestigious gold medals in the international game, winning each with a completely different group. No coach had ever won the Olympics, the NCAAs and the world championships in a career, much less in a 26-month span. "I really feel that whatever he chose to be—a politician or a minister or a businessperson or a philanthropist or whatever—that he'd be amazing," says Hill. "Good leaders accomplish great things. He's this amazing leader who happens to coach basketball."

After occasional whispers of restlessness over the years, Krzyzewski has used his work with the U.S. team to satisfy a vocational curiosity about pro basketball. Along the way he has developed a kind of unified field theory of the bench. Coaching pros, coaching college kids—surely coaching women too—is a simple matter of connecting with people. "That's what it's ultimately about, because there are so many systems that work," Krzyzewski says. "The group that can play as one, with spirit and courage, has the best chance to win."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11