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Creating Champions

Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer and Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (also known as Coach K) talk about setting personal priorities, creating a collaborative team culture and determining fair compensation for college players.


College sports is rapidly evolving—the power conferences are shifting under our feet like tectonic plates, becoming bigger, richer and more competitive than ever. The goals and expectations of elite athletes and their families are shifting, too, as lucrative opportunities to leave school present themselves now after only one or two seasons. The very definition of amateurism seems to be straining under the weight of the billions of dollars these athletes bring to the NCAA and to their schools, with both entities looking for fairer ways to compensate “employees” who are often teenagers. And in the midst of all this, two very familiar names have ascended yet again to the top of their respective industries: Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer and Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who won their third and fifth championships respectively last season. They participated in a conversation with Delta Sky to discuss navigating new roads to the top.

SKY: Your careers eerily mirror each other. Very few people have had the success that you two have achieved—but you both also ran into health problems in your 40s and took medical leaves of absence. In both cases, this happened after your first two national championships, and you both returned to win more. How did these experiences change how you coach?
COACH K: That changed me dramatically. We had gone to seven semifinals in nine years, and that level of success makes seasons longer. You play longer than everybody else and it shortens your off-season. You’re not really prepared for that level of success, so I got knocked back. I had a back problem, but I thought I was Superman and came back too quickly. So I reevaluated everything, got counseling and did my program differently from that point on.

What were some of the major changes?

COACH K: I didn’t micromanage as much. And I made sure that I got accustomed to having people say no for me when no was the right answer instead of being pressured to say yes.

Coach Meyer, does that ring true for you, too?

COACH MEYER: Well, ironically Coach K was gracious enough to reach out to me when I was in Tampa. I’ll never forget that day. To be able to have a guy like that reach out to me and then [retired NFL coach] Dick Vermeil—two guys who are obviously at the height of their profession. It’s not uncommon. Mine was all directly related to health. We won two championships and we created this monster. That’s [former University of Texas coach] Mack Brown’s terminology—you create this beast and then you have to feed it. And I could not shut things off. I’m a workout guy and I lost all that, and a friend of mine passed away [Northwestern football coach Randy Walker] and I was having these chest pains for three years without getting the proper diagnosis. I just started asking why, and when you don’t come up with the right answers, that’s when you know you’ve got a problem, and then you just start evaluating: Am I really doing the right thing, the best thing for myself and my family just to try to win another game? A lot like Coach K, I was a micromanager. The piece of advice, Coach K, that you gave me—and that to this day I remind our staff of—is: If it doesn’t help your family or your coaches or your players or recruiting, you don’t have to do it.

How have your athletes changed?

COACH K: You know, cultures change. I’ve been a head coach for 40 years and you have to adapt to the current culture that these youngsters are in. I’m 50 years older than the kids I coach. Now, what you don’t change are the values you try to teach, whether they be trust, courage, loyalty, honesty, all those things. You look for kids who will identify with those values, but you try to communicate those values in how you teach them, according to the culture that they’re accustomed to. And they need to adapt to your culture, too, and so adapting is huge.

What’s most different about the culture? Is it the fact that so many athletes are devoted to only one sport?

COACH K: Not all the kids are devoted to one sport. If they are devoted to one sport, they aren’t just devoted to one thing—in other words, [there is also] their academics, their social life, music or whatever it is. Don’t be a silo of just athletic ability. The great players that I’ve coached are good people. They’re smart, they get along with others, they get it. So if you’re just doing your sport, you’re not gonna get it.

Coach Meyer, I know you make it a priority to recruit multiple-sport athletes.

COACH MEYER: On an even more personal level, my girls were both college volleyball players and they took on a year-round sport. I was not in favor of it, but it worked out. They had great careers and they moved on. My son plays baseball and football and he played grade school basketball. I’m a big proponent of that. I do see burnout at times. By the time they get to high school, year-round players can be a little burnt, so you watch that carefully. But in recruiting, we want to recruit the best player possible. If he’s a one-sport guy, I don’t look at that too much, but a great way to evaluate a guy in January is to go watch him play basketball, watch him compete. When I was first sold on [Philadelphia Eagles quarterback] Tim Tebow, it was the end of his junior year in high school. I had just gotten hired in Florida and I went and watched him play a baseball game. He was playing right field and he was the most competitive individual I’ve ever seen. It was done by the third inning.

The business of sport changes, as well. Coach K, one of the things you used to expect is that all of your players would graduate, and now you’ve won a national championship with players who will go immediately to the National Basketball Association draft after their freshman season.

COACH K: You’ll find that in many of the really good universities, not every kid graduates anymore. There are people who start companies after their sophomore year. So it’s not just sports that have changed, its our society. Success for younger people at a high level is more prevalent than it was before. The established road to success was four years in college and a degree. It’s still a great road, but there are other roads. And as long as they’re doing their academic work and being good kids while they’re here—and that expectation of success has never changed—there have been roads that have been added and we’ll try to lead them down those roads.

Coach Meyer, have your expectations changed for your athletes?

COACH MEYER: Not at all. What has changed is that I want to make sure all the resources are out there for them to make an educated, quality decision, and that’s where I spend all my time. I hope every player we have has that decision to make, because that means we’re really good. But I also see guys make mistakes, because I see them listen to, you know, I call them “third uncles.” Those people who have no business giving insight or opinion but they do anyway. So the good thing is that if it’s a good person from a good family, they’re gonna call a general manager, and we’re gonna call a couple coaches I know and we’re going to help this young man make a right decision.

You mentioned the third uncles. There’s a cottage industry of camps and consultants and shoe salesmen that has sprung up around both of your sports. As you two have become so successful at the top level, do you feel at all complicit in the industry that has grown up around your sports?

COACH MEYER: I don’t see a lot of that. We did for a minute with 7 on 7 [Amateur Athletic Union leagues]. And people were awful critical of the 7 on 7 coaches. I’m all in it for the people that want to help, and when we get in a situation with something like that, then we move in another direction immediately. I don’t deal with that very much—I did for a little bit in my early years in Florida, but the third uncle people, we’re just not really about it now.
COACH K: For me, I just think that there are more opportunities for kids once they do become professional. You know, in our sport, it’s really a lot, but that’s not a bother while they’re playing for us. I like the fact that there are more opportunities with marketing, shoe companies, stuff like that. I think we both have to understand that for our athletes, if they become pros, it’s a quick life. You know, they are high income-producing years, but they’re not going to go into their 40s. It’s gonna be for 10, 12, hopefully 15 years, but to make the most of those opportunities, you have to be around good people and to invest well and to understand that you don’t have to take care of all those third uncles.

The ideal of amateurism is evolving rapidly. Do you think college players deserve to be compensated in a more direct way than just a scholarship and room and board?

COACH K: They are being compensated with more than that now. In the last couple of years—especially since the five power conferences have taken a much more prominent role in the decision-making—you are able to provide a lot more than that for NCAA players. It’s moved in the right direction with things like cost of attendance [a new NCAA provision where athletes can receive either a $2,000 or $4,000 stipend in addition to their scholarship]. And what is the definition of amateurism? You know, if you use the 1950s definition, it’s outdated and it’s been outdated for a while.
COACH MEYER: Coach K and I have different dilemmas here. I think the cost of attendance rule is something that is intriguing. But there should be a flat rate. You know what’s happening, as you say, with the typical recruiting nonsense going on. One school is going to give $5,500 and one school is going to give $2,000. There needs to be a standardized rate. Amateurism is what a lot of people love about college sports, and I do not believe in shoe contracts for players, but they need to take care of themselves. I am in favor of cost of attendance—it should be a significant one, they should just standardize it.

Parents have changed as well. Have your recruiting pitches changed as parents have changed?

COACH MEYER: I don’t think the parents have changed that much. I think the thing that has really changed in our mind and in the world of recruiting is the social media and sensationalization of recruiting—the kid who is in high school and is being told he is going to be a great NFL player. Those types of things. That’s what’s changed. If parents have changed, it’s probably just reacting to those silly conversations, and you’re talking to 16- and 17-year-olds. There is nothing greater than to recruit a great kid from a great family who has the right priorities, and there is probably nothing quite as horrible as the other situation that you walk into.
I agree, especially with the social media. We try to recruit kids who have a good guardian, a good parent or good parents, they come from a good family, they’ve accepted responsibility in being a part of the team already. A big thing in our sport is AAU, and now when we go and visit youngsters, the high school coach is not involved as much. The kids playing basketball in high school will play maybe 30 games a year. From April until September, they might play 80 to 90 AAU games. So our sport has changed dramatically in that regard. The parents take an even more active role than before, and many times you don’t even deal with the high school coach. We contact them and it used to be that they would sit in on a meeting that you would have at the home, and that hardly ever happens [now].

How has social media affected your players? How do you teach them to deal with it? How have you gotten more comfortable with it yourselves?

COACH MEYER: It’s just something we do monitor. You know, I’ve been asked, do you just eliminate it? I’ve decided not to because every time you have a rule, you have to enforce it. Plus I want to learn more about our guys. I have a guy and one of his job descriptions is social media, monitoring our players and also everyone we recruit. I don’t necessarily like it, but it’s a world we are in. We are embracing it and doing the best we can.
I agree. We allow all our guys to do it and we tell them to be responsible, and then we follow them, and if for some reason they do something that we think is not right, we will let them know and they will have to learn. That’s how they communicate. So you can’t just say, “Don’t communicate anymore.” You have to trust and give them guidance just as you would to your own kids as they are growing up.
COACH MEYER: Cardale Jones, he was at the ESPYs with a very beautiful girl. She’s a fighter—[Ronda] Rousey. I met her, she’s stunning. And as I was coming back, someone said, “Can you believe Cardale Jones tweeted her and asked her out?” And I thought, “Great.” That’s normal. I had some people say, “You’ve got to get Cardale Jones offline.” And I said, “Why? Did he say something wrong?” I asked my guy who checks the stuff and he said, “No, it was great.” People just need to calm down a little bit. If they are disrespectful, that’s one thing, but we don’t get too concerned about normal behavior.

Now they get feedback from millions of people, not just from their coaches and family and loved ones. How do you deal with social media in the other direction, when that maelstrom can engulf a kid?

COACH K: For us, that’s just the way of the world. We tell our guys all the time to listen to one voice. If they are listening to a lot of voices, it’s not going to work. Whenever we play away from Duke, the fans say things that you cannot believe, and it’s always packed and that’s just the way it is. If you’re going to win, you’re going to get it. You learn to laugh about it, really. That’s how we try to handle it. Like, don’t let it be a big thing.
COACH MEYER: When I think of Duke basketball, I think of a culture. You don’t deal with systematic behaviors because that’s all part of a culture. They are taught and trained to run a 12-month program. And that’s where we’re at right now at Ohio State. I’m very proud of where we are at. You know, we don’t go and attack behaviors because it’s endless. You handle yourself the right way, you’re part of something that’s greater than you and if someone is calling you something . . . you don’t have to be here. You can go to a very average place where you’re going to have a half-full stadium. . . . That’s what’s going on here now—the selfless approach. How else is Cardale Jones ready to play against Wisconsin? It is a culture created by his position, coach and our team—there is a greater purpose. And I wish I could bottle it, because right now it’s extremely strong.
COACH K: You won when your third-string quarterback was magnificent. We won the national championship and the last guy on our team—we only had eight guys—was Grayson Allen who won the national championship game for us. And the common denominator is culture. You have a great culture and we have a great culture where everyone is important and no one is jealous, and I think that is the similarity of the two national championship teams in football and basketball.
COACH MEYER: I know you don’t do this much, and I don’t either, but if your travels ever bring you here, if you told that to our players . . . to hear that from you would be—that’d be a stamp.

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