A Tale of Two Coaches (And Three Management Takeaways)

by Joe Sesso on June 6, 2019

If you Google the search term “Greatest College Basketball Coaches,” there are two names that will be on every list: Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski (pronounced Sha-Shev-Ski). Coach Knight and Coach K (easier to pronounce than Krzyzewski) are not only legends, they are also teacher and student. Coach K played college basketball at West Point under a young Coach Knight. But while Knight’s career stalled due to an inability to adjust to the changing times, Coach K’s has continued to thrive nearly 40 years after taking over the reins as Duke’s head coach. The reason: Coach K has been able to successfully adjust and adapt to the changing environment in college basketball. This is also a management lesson on adaptability.
coach bob knight image Coach Bob Knight
Bobby Knight was a student of basketball. As a player, he won a NCAA championship with Ohio State and was a very ambitious and successful coach at West Point. His efforts there landed him the head coaching job at Indiana in 1971, and within a few years he had built an elite program using a disciplinarian approach to his coaching style. While players didn’t enjoy being yelled at or verbally abused, they did enjoy success. Indiana won three national titles between 1976 and 1987 and during that time Coach Knight also led Team USA to gold medals in the 1979 Pan Am Games and the 1984 Olympic games. And he did it using the fire and brimstone approach that had always made him successful. His view was that as long as the ends justified the means, it was OK.
Coach K’s rise to the top was also meteoric. After leaving the army in 1974 (rank of Captain) Coach K became an assistant coach with Indiana under Knight. After one season he became the head coach at West Point, following in his mentor’s footsteps. In 1980, after five seasons, Coach K became Duke’s head coach. Coach K soon built the program into a powerhouse, reaching four Final Fours by 1990. In 1991 Coach K won his first NCAA title.
Mike Krzyzewski image Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski
The following season, Duke would repeat as National Champions, defeating Bob Knight and Indiana in the Final Four semifinal. Coach K would go on to win three more titles in 2001, 2010 and 2015. In addition, he also led Team USA (made up of professional players) to thee gold medals and two world championships. Bob Knight never made it back to the Final Four. The reason, and the stark difference between Knight and Krzyzewski is a management lesson that cannot be ignored.

As the 1990s progressed, the game and business of college basketball was changing (like other industries do). Elite players were accustomed to being treated as royalty in high school and were leaving college after only a year or two. They didn’t want to spend their brief college careers being verbally abused by their coach. Coach Knight would not change his coaching and management style and as a result lost out on the best talent. Worse was that his own players were no longer tolerating his abuse. Many would transfer to other schools to finish their college careers. It was this inability to adapt to a changing environment (and his inability to calm his temper) that led to his firing in 2000. It was a sad end to a decorated career.

This is what makes Coach K’s sustainability so amazing. How has he been able to stay at the top of his coaching game for almost 40 years? Here are three reasons why.

1. Passion: Coach K loves what he does. His passion and drive are big reasons why Duke stays on top. He absolutely loves everything about coaching. So much so that in addition to winning five NCAA championships with Duke, he also was the head coach for Team USA’s 2008, 2012 and 2016 gold medal campaigns. You can’t fake passion, and passion is contagious. People want to work with and play for someone who is passionate about what they do. Bob Knight loved to coach, but as the 90s and personal controversies surrounding him wore on, it was clear that he wasn’t as excited about other components of his job.

2. Adaptability: Bob Dylan famously said, “The times, they are a changing,” and this is true in every business and industry. The landscape of an industry may change socially, technologically and environmentally, so its critical for managers to adapt. Think about businesses that took large hits when significant changes affected their industries (e.g. newspapers, many big box stores, Blackberry, etc.). The same can be said for college basketball. The game changed from Coach Knight’s glory days of 1970s and 1980s. He wouldn’t adapt and what worked for him before eventually didn’t work anymore. This often happens with veteran managers, because they want to stick with what they know rather than try to adapt to the changing environment around them.

Coach K was able to adapt his total approach to the game, from how he ran his offense to how recruited athletes. For example, in the 1980s and early 1990s, players stayed three or four years in college. That changed in the mid 1990s and today the best players are gone after one year. Coach K has been consistently one of the best recruiters in the country, which has helped Duke remain a top program. He also knows how to adapt to his environment. When he coached the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in the Olympics, he knew that he needed to adapt his coaching style to fit their styles of play. No other college coach has been able to do that.

3. Staffing: While head coaches usually get all the credit, it’s the coaching staff that spearheads recruiting and other aspects of building a winning team. Simply put, the coach can’t win without a great staff. Coach Knight’s staff at one time was loaded with talented assistant coaches (Including Coach K), but in later years many left Indiana for other schools. He committed the cardinal management sin of calling out his subordinates in public when some left the school or when his assistant was named head coach after Knight was fired. Simply put, people don’t want to work in a toxic culture.

Coach K’s staff, on the other hand, is a breeding ground for future head coaches. Many are former players of his and he values the input they provide him. The culture he has created isn’t just about winning, it’s also about learning and having fun. People want to work in an exciting and fun atmosphere.

The best managers need to have all three of the above essentials to achieve ultimate success. You have to be passionate about your what you’re doing. You have to be able to adapt to a changing business environment, whether it be through technologies, processes or systems. And most of all, you can’t do it alone. You need your team to align with your vision and create a fun and winning culture to take your business to the next level.

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