Learn from the best, but be yourself

Originally Published: December 21, 2003
By Jay Bilas | Special to ESPN.com

It is always compelling to watch a student face off against his former teacher. The dynamic of the former player or assistant taking on the man who trained him, the coach the younger man has always looked up to and sought advice from (and usually still does), seems to garner more attention than a heated rivalry between sworn enemies.

We watch how they greet each other, whether they look the other's way during the game, and how they relate to each other afterward. We are intrigued by the relationship, and how competition may affect it, and the conduct of the job at hand.

Past seasons have given us such matchups as Dean Smith vs. Roy Williams, Bob Knight vs. Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino vs. Tubby Smith, Bob Knight vs. Steve Alford, and Pitino vs. Billy Donovan. This month, we've already seen Pitino beat his protege. Monday night, it's Knight-Alford III, as Iowa plays Texas Tech in Dallas (ESPN, 9 ET).

While it is never truly a coach-against-coach comparison, many an uninformed observer makes it seem as though the winning coach in a particular game says something about which coach may be the better that day. But, remember, it is always about which team is better that day.

Still, most observers cannot take their eyes off the mentor and student from the time they walk onto the floor because of the tension that a competitive situation places upon their special relationships. It is hard to describe the singular dynamic that exists in a coach-player relationship. The coach is the teacher and mentor to the player, whose approval and guidance is paramount for the player's development. In many ways, that relationship never changes, and the coach will always be looked upon as the mentor, whose support will always remain important -- no matter how old or accomplished the pupil grows.

Mike Krzyzewski
Mike Krzyzewski doesn't expect his assistant coaches to clone his style on the sidelines.

I was very privileged to grow up in the game under one of the finest coaches in the game's history. In 1981, I chose to play for a little known coach named Mike Krzyzewski, who had been named the head coach at Duke two years prior. I played for Krzyzewski from 1982-1986, and was later an assistant coach on his staff for three years (1990-92). During those seven years working alongside Krzyzewski, I was able to learn from him what it took to successfully direct a high level college basketball program.

The fortunate ones in any endeavor have a mentor, a person of experience and imagination to educate the pupil how things should be done, how situations are best evaluated, and how to continue to learn while doing. The best mentors are those who teach their pupils how they do it, yet also instill the confidence to use those principles in their own unique way.

My coach learned from Bob Knight at Army, and before that, Knight learned from Fred Taylor at Ohio State. Each of these coaches goes about what they learned from their mentors in their own distinctive way.

I remember many times, in meetings or in film sessions, when Krzyzewski would tell the assistants, "When you have your own programs, don't just blindly do things like we do it here. There is more than just one way to do things, we just believe that this is the best way for us."

When preparing for an opponent, Krzyzewski often would point out how much he admired the way another coach did things, but that the particular style just didn't work for him. He said many times that there were many different ways to be successful in the game, and a lot of diverse ways to play and win, and not to be fooled into thinking that his way was the only way. Krzyzewski spoke often of belief in yourself and your system, but having the guts to be flexible and to change when change was called for.

The coaches Krzyzewski admired most were those who had core principles and beliefs, rarely wavered from them, but still were adaptable to different situations. Great coaches aren't great because of the offenses or defenses they run; they are successful because of how they implement them, and how they get their players to believe in what they are doing.

When I was in my first year of college, Duke started four freshmen, myself included, in the upper-class, lottery-pick dominated ACC. In a conference that punished youth, we took lumps against the likes of Ralph Sampson, Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins while playing pressure man-to-man defense and straight motion concepts that were difficult for a young team to grasp and perform under stress. Krzyzewski may have been tempted to play zone, or sloughing man, or to run a patterned offense that would provide more wins in the short term, but that perhaps would not pay off in the long term. He believed he was building a team, but also building a program that he believed would last if he stuck to his core principles.

Eventually, through Krzyzewski's guidance, hard work and trust in what we were trying to accomplish, we became an exceptional team -- and the Duke program became a national power.

I know that Krzyzewski does not expect that his former players and assistants will do things the exactly the way he would, or see the game the way he sees it, nor would he want that. He wants them all to believe in what they are doing, and be true to their core principles and to themselves.

In essence, he wants each of his assistants to trust themselves, and to be themselves, and to trust their own instincts about what to do and when to do it.

I know that when a mentor faces a pupil in competition, they'll both hate the idea of losing to the other. It's a huge distraction, sometimes unfair to the participants, and often unfair to the current players. Each wants to win, not because of what it may say about the teacher or student, but because both are competitors and want to win for the sake of winning, and for the sake of their players. After the disappointment of a loss, the feeling will be nothing but pride in having learned from, or taught, the other.

They may both be uncomfortable before, during and just after the game. But in the end, the matchup commemorates the special relationship between mentor and student.

Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst at ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Jay Bilas

College Basketball analyst

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