Coach Mike Krzyzewski has been the head coach at Duke since 1980 and has coached dozens and dozens of players who have made an NBA roster. He is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and will go down as one of the all-time great coaches in college basketball. There are many factors behind his enormous success, one of which is how well he has recruited over four decades at Duke. He has had some outstanding assistants, but they have come and gone while he remained the face of the program and the reason why prospects still come to Duke.
In college athletics, overall success is a direct correlation of a coach's ability to evaluate, recruit and secure the very best student athletes.
"Coach's philosophy really hasn't changed much since he recruited me as a player here at Duke," former standout and current assistant Jeff Capel said. "It's important to him to have a strong relationship with whoever he is recruiting, and then when they become former players he works at that relationship."
Krzyzewski has utilized time-tested criteria. In his evaluation process, he emphasizes a combination of talent, academics, character and leadership. He does not deviate from these pillars. "The first three all carry the same weight," Capel said.
Leadership is something most coaches look for but rarely find. When Krzyzewski finds a leader that owns those other traits, he makes that prospect priority No. 1 as he did with Shane Battier in 1997. That class will go down as one of the best at Duke with (Elton Brand, William Avery and Chris Burgess).
The five-man class in 1982 that consisted of Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, David Henderson and Weldon Williams established this program's greatness and is in the conversation as one of the best classes at Duke as well.
Duke doesn't have an extensive recruiting list and doesn't chase a high number of recruits around the country. Finding a prospect who fits its talent needs is only one part of the equation. The Blue Devils will wait to offer a scholarship until they identify future needs both on and off the court.
Some say it's selecting, not recruiting. Call it what you want, but they still have to beat out other blue bloods for the recruit. It's a heavy dose of constant evaluation. They are not afraid to pass on some high-profile difference-makers because of their fit. This shows their plan has a purpose.
"In coach's eyes it's impossible to build a lasting relationship with a ton of different kids, so he recruits a very small number of players so it's special," said former standout Duke player and assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski, who is the head coach at Marquette. "We help him find the right guys and then he locks in. It’s a scary proposition, because you don't have a ton of targets, so you better get the ones you go after or you could be in trouble."
That philosophy and strategy does not come without risk. They have landed some players who did not pan out the way they hoped, which happens to every team. They have also lost a couple of top recruits, such as Harrison Barnes who went to North Carolina and Patrick Patterson who went to Kentucky.
You can't be right all the time and you don't always get who you want, but overall Krzyzewski has connected with almost unparalleled success.
He and his staff build a personal relationship first and make sure it's a fit. When they do offer, it comes from Krzyzewski himself and is usually done in a face-to-face situation.
That is the way it has been at Duke since he took over the program. Even today, when the speed of information circulates quickly, they haven't altered their strategy much -- recently using the approach with point guard Dennis Smith (ESPN No. 10 prospect; No. 1 point guard in the class of 2016).
It's a formula that has produced 12 ACC regular-season titles, 13 conference tournament titles and four national championships.
Coach K during in-home visits
Wojciechowski recalled one of his first home visits with Krzyzewski:
"We were in the home of Sheldon Williams and his mother made us an amazing meal of ham, turkey and so many side dishes, plus dessert," Wojciechowski said. "At that time, I was a bachelor and only 24-years old and not having any home-cooked meals at that time. As the conversation went on at the dinner table, I never said a word and helped myself to five or six plates of food. And coach never got through his plate of food because I didn't help him at all. I was too busy eating while he did all the talking. He still brings that up to me every once in a while."
Still winning in recruiting
After watching Jones play for Howard Pulley at an AAU summer event, Capel asked Krzyzewski to watch the point guard from Minnesota when he arrived. "Tyus Jones was amazing in that game against the tough BABC squad and Coach K said to me that's our guy if he checks out," Capel said.
From that moment on he wasn't interested in recruiting any other point guards in that class. When Duke went to see Okafor play, the same outcome occurred.
"When it became apparent that they (Okafor and Jones) really wanted to play together we were excited," Capel said. "Coach only recruited those two guys in those positions, no one else. It’s a risky proposition."
But one that seems to be paying off.