As Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski emerged as among the nation’s best men’s college basketball coaches in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he began speaking to corporations about leadership and other topics. Those paid talks, and Krzyzewski’s drive to maintain Duke’s spot near the top of the sport, led him to form relationships with several business executives, pick their brains about what made them successful and invite them to campus.
As such, in 2004, Duke’s basketball program and athletics department partnered with the university’s Fuqua School of Business and Kenan Institute for Ethics to launch the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE). Today, COLE is thriving and serves as a way for business school students to learn about leadership and ethics and hear from business and military leaders and Krzyzewski himself, who is retiring at the end of the season following the NCAA tournament. Duke, the No. 2 seed in the West region, plays its opening round game on Friday night against No. 15 seed Cal State Fullerton.
“We looked over at what (Krzyzewski) was doing and said, ‘Wait a minute, why can’t we extrapolate the leadership lessons from sports into the business world and also continue to engage him and bring the business world to him?,’” said Sanyin Siang, a Duke alum and COLE’s founding executive director. “The Center started from that ethos.”
She added: “The mission was, It’s not just about us helping to produce great alumni who can crush it when it comes to marketing and finance or strategy. But ultimately what we’re doing is developing leaders that society needs, the leaders of the future.”
Each year, about 45 second-year students in Duke’s two-year, full-time MBA program are selected as COLE Leadership Fellows, where they serve as mentors for the 450 or so first-year students. They teach six, one-hour leadership seminars and help the new students assimilate to their surroundings. Krzyzewski also occasionally meets with the Fellows and gives speeches.
“Mike is hugely interested in the COLE Fellows,” said Tom Allin, a 1971 Duke graduate and former restaurant industry executive and Chief Veterans Experience Officer in the Obama administration who now is a faculty advisor for the Fellows. “He’s clearly highly energized by them. This is something that’s very important to him.”
COLE also conducts research, has executive education programs and hosts conferences and retreats for business and military leaders. The curriculum at COLE always includes discussions on doing things in a positive, appropriate manner and not just as a means of pursue the most profitable path, according to Sim Sitkin, a longtime Duke professor and COLE’s faculty director.
“The idea is it’s not only about being an effective, influential leader,” Sitkin said. “It’s also about being an ethical leader. You’re trying to influence individuals in your organization and those who work with your organization to pursue ethical ends and to do it in an ethical way. You can be an effective leader who is pursuing unethical kinds of principles, and that’s not what Coach K is about.”
Mike Cragg, who worked in Duke’s athletics department from 1987 to 2018, remembers the implementation of COLE being an opportunity for Krzyzewski to make a name for himself outside of basketball and give back to the school that hired him at age 33. Cragg, the current athletics director at St. John’s University, worked in Duke’s sports information office for his first 13 years at the school, the last 10 alongside Krzyzewski as the main point of contact for the men’s basketball team.
In 2000, Cragg was promoted to a new role as the head of the Duke Basketball Legacy Fund, which has raised more than $115 million to support the school’s basketball program. Through the fund, Duke has been able to have endowments for each of its coaching positions and players and build a first-class practice facility, locker rooms and other buildings and amenities.
The idea for COLE began when Cragg and then-business school Dean Doug Breeden discussed how they could work together and use Krzyzewski’s interest in leadership and connections to better serve the Duke community as a whole. Cragg recalls Alan Schwartz, a Duke alum, Krzyzewski friend and then-co-President of Bear Stearns, hosting a fundraiser that raised millions of dollars to get COLE off the ground.
Schwartz, who is now the executive chairman of Guggenheim Partners, is not the only Wall Street executive Krzyzewski has befriended through the years. His friends also include John Mack, a Duke alum and former chief executive at Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley
Krzyzewski, who graduated in 1969 from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., is close with many military leaders, as well. One of his best friends is Martin Dempsey, a retired Army general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dempsey, a West Point alum who also has a masters degree in English from Duke, served from 2017 to 2020 as chairman of USA Basketball.
Krzyzewski was a longtime USA Basketball head coach and led the U.S. to gold medals at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics. He also has the most victories of any men’s coach in Division 1 history. And his five national titles rank him second all-time on the men’s basketball list behind former UCLA coach John Wooden, who won 10 titles.
“At some point in (Krzyzewski’s) coaching career, as you would expect, it’s a very hypercompetitive world so your peers in coaching, as your success rises, become less and less,” Cragg said. “He started gravitating towards peers in business and government and military.”
Cragg added: “He’s actually not curious about how others are successful in basketball. He’s very curious about how others are successful in whatever they do – restaurants, business, Wall Street, wine. There’s not a thing he doesn’t want to learn from. He can always learn from success.”
Cragg noted a day doesn’t go by in which he doesn’t think of something Krzyzewski did or taught him during their 31 years together. The two remain close and talk and text on a regular basis. Cragg attended Duke’s home game last month against Florida State as well as last Saturday night’s ACC title game when Duke lost, 82-67, to Virginia Tech in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Now, Krzyzewski is facing the last few days or weeks of an incredible career. It could end as soon as Friday or as late as April 4, the night of the national title game in New Orleans.
Krzyzewski has not indicated what he will do after he retires, but he and his wife will remain at their home near Duke’s campus and near their three daughters and 10 grandchildren. Cragg expects Krzyzewski to still be involved with students and COLE in some capacity, though.
“Duke is such a creative, energetic environment,” Cragg said. “He loves that. That’s certainly the trademark of Duke basketball. I think Fuqua and COLE definitely reflected those same values.”
“He always felt very at home, and I’m sure he still does, around young people, creative, high energy, ambitious, wanting to be the best of the best. He loved that and he loves being able to impart some wisdom.”