The winning team – 8 principles applied by a great Coach

Accidentally I was watching the Basketball Game during this Olympics.  Semifinal USA – Spain. I always watch sports with my husband, can hardly remember when I watched it alone (perhaps only figure skating I watch alone, because he doesn’t like it).

– See, that one is Kevin Durant the 2014 NBA MVP (Most Valuable Player) and also four times NBA scoring champion. He raised a lot of rumors and controversy because he left his team and went to an all-star rival team (that includes the two times and currently NBA MVP player Stephen Curry, perhaps the greatest shooter in NBA history). He did that with the hope he’ll win a title.

– Why, I ask?

– Well, Cristi answers, Kevin is a very good player, and he played for several years for a small market team that didn’t won any title… so… he wants a title. I actually heard one of the commentator’s comments criticizing his decision (a former player, Larry Bird that said: “I couldn’t imagine going to the Lakers and playing with Magic Johnson. I’d rather try to beat him.”)

–  Hmmm

–  Cami, see that guy? With the funny hair? He’s Jimmy Butler. By his looks you might think he’s a rebel, but he’s not at all like that. He faced a lot of challenges during his childhood – he was kicked out of the house by his mother, and had to live at some of his friends for a long time. He’s compassionate, he’s hard working, team player, and he worked his way to the top.

(At that point I started to ask him a lot of questions, because I’m really interested in people that make their way to the top – I want to hear and learn about their story and how the hardships shaped them). As he tells me what he knows, he stops and changes the topic:

– Do you remember when I told you about that player that was really nasty on the court? Look, that’s Draymond Green, the guy that kicked another one in the groin during a match, and then in the next match did it again, which got him suspended and because of that his team lost the NBA title? The funny thing is that outside the court I read he’s a really nice guy, for instance he donated $3.1 million to Michigan State University and help establish a new athletics facility – just during a match he’s a beast and he’ll do whatever it takes to win.  Wow… this is more an NBA game than an Olympics game. Almost all players, both USA and Spain, are playing in NBA …

This is how our conversations go during matches and this is why I LOVE watching sports with my husband. He can tell you so many behind the scenes stories, that you begin to get the context of the players, their teams, their struggles … he’s sort of Cristian Topescu (Romanians know what I’m talking about, right?)

While Cristi was talking, I saw Coach K on the bench.

– Wait, is that Coach K? I ask him.

– I don’t really know. I’m more into NBA.

– Oh yes, I know Coach K refused all NBA contracts. He’s focused only on Collage Basketball and National Basketball Team. Yes- that’s Coach K. Wanna hear his story, I ask him?

– Sure, he says!

So, I began telling him about Coach K.

I first heard of Coach K in 2012, during an MBA program – there was a case study for Coach K and Coach Knight.

So, about Coach K  I want to write today because it’s a lesson of leaderships and it also links to Agile.

The study was called: “Coach K – a Matter of the Heart and it went through his education, his way of working and coaching his relation with his players.


I’m fascinated by these coincidences:  seeing Coach K on the bench – live, while these weeks I talked about him with one of the Scrum Masters I currently coach.


So I began telling him about Coach K.

He was named “The Best Coach” in 2001 by the Time Magazine and earned nearly every award imaginable. He was also included into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001.

Coach K is one of those guys that didn’t want to go to NBA (refused multi million contracts).  He chose to only coach Duke University Team, and since 1980 he worked only there.

He came from a poor polish family, which helped him understand hard work, importance of family and the important values in life:

“My parents were people who never had anything, but they had everything. There was a lot of love, and a lot of pride in our house…. ”

Coach K’s way of coaching his players:

1) He leads with very few rules

In fact he thinks that “too many rules get in the way of leadership. They just put you in a box. People set rules to keep them from making decisions. (…) I don’t want to be a manager or a dictator. I want to be a leader  – and leadership is ongoing, adjustable, flexible and dynamic. ”

2) Discipline

“Much of my foundation as a coach, as a leader, as a person I learned from West Point. Before I entered the Academy I thought I knew everything but West Point took me at another level. I thought I was very lucky to be there and get a dose of honesty, honor and discipline. “

“Discipline is to do what you are supposed to do in the best possible manner at the time you are supposed to do it.”

3) Seeing his players and his family and nurturing the family culture

 “A big part of my decision of coming here [at Duke] was that everyone got along really well. I decided that if I was going to go far away from home … I’d like to have that family environment.”

 “People have to be given the freedom to show the heart they possess. I think a leader’s responsibility is to provide that freedom. And I believe it can be done through relationships and family. Because if a team is a real family, its members want to show their hearts.

Coach K’s wife: “When the third child was born and this was another girl, I remember saying to Mike in the delivery room – Are you disappointed? ”

Coach K:   “No, (…) I have 15 sons.”

“As a coach I have no problem telling a team ‘I love you guys!’ When I say it, there is absolutely nothing phone about it.

I try to convey the idea to all members of our team that we are not just playing basketball.

(…) I would hope that the players who played in the past would say that they loved playing at Duke; that they loved a teammate; that they loved the situation they were in.

Sharing with one another and caring for one another  – that’s what love is. That’s what family is all about.  

4) Soft and tough at the same time. Focused on team benefits: how to turn an individual player into a team player

“This isn’t all about ‘I love you’ and  ‘Let’s hold hands’. (…) Am I tough on the team? Absolutely! If they don’t show respect for the program, for the university, for one another , I’m all over them. I don’t want fear to be my primary motivator. But the team has to know that if they are screwing up, the hammer is going to come down. “

“Throughout the season, I look into my players’ eyes to gauge feeling, confidence levels, and to establish instant trust. Most of the time, they won’t quibble with me – and they certainly cannot hide their feelings from what their eyes reveal. So I ask all members of our team to look each other in the eye when speaking to one another.  It’s a principle we live by. “

I had one training rule: If you do anything in any way, whenever of wherever, that I think is detrimental to the good of the basketball team, to the school or to yourself, I’ll handle it as I see fit.

5) Spent time to know his players and guided them to improve

Coach K “spent a large percentage of time (…) getting inside a player’s head, understanding where the player is coming from, helping him to get to where we all need to be as a team”.

6) Focused not only on acquiring specific basketball abilities, but interested in building character

Duke President Richard  Brodhead said:  “he’s a real teacher. He teaches character as well as basketball.

Coach K holds annual leadership conference that attracts hundreds of executives from around the world.

7) Truly be involved and care about what you do

 Coach K talking about why he refused in 2005 the NBA LA Lakers 40 mil / year offer:

This opportunity came at a time when I was taking inventory  … when I looked at this offer and at myself, I found that I wanted to lead … and your heart has to be in whatever you lead…. Duke has always taken up my whole heart. And no matter how good some other option was, to lead my Duke team with all my heart could only happen in this place.

8) Humbleness, he also remembers his former coaches

There’s no greater teacher for me than Bob Knight.  There must be something about those old Army coaches.

So, Coach K  holds the record for the most wins in College Basketball, with more that 1000 wins.

For National Basketball Team, as a Head Coach his score at the moment is 60-1, and this year USA Basketball Team, under his coaching  – won again, this time the Olimpic Title. Is it luck?

In this article I talked about values that are applied at Zappos (one of the most successful and profitable companies), the ones that helped create the family culture there is there.

Any resemblance to what Coack K does for/with his basketball teams?



  • “Knight: My Story” – Bob Hammel, Bob Knight
  • “Leading with the Heart” – Donald T. Phillips
  • “Coach K special to his players” – Bob Haig
  • – December 13, 2004.

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