My volunteer role at the NCAA’s Midwest Regional at Lucas Oil Stadium was to serve as press conference moderator.
It’s not heavy lifting.
You climb onto a raised podium, place name cards in front of the microphones, greet the participants, make sure you always, always, always refer to the players as “student-athletes,” direct the order of questioning, and make sure you stay on time.
Over the course of my varied careers, I’ve been on both sides of a hundred of these things. It’s easy to take them for granted. They’re simply part—though a necessary part—of the tournament process.
Now I’m way too far down the road to become star struck during the course of these kinds of things. My “job”—and I could never call it that—has brought me into contact with literally hundreds of major sports figures.
But during the course of my moderating duties on March 28, there came along back to back to back the University of Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Michigan State University’s Tom Izzo and Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski.
And the thought occurred: That would be the making of a pretty good three-fourths of a coaching Mount Rushmore.
Krzyzewski has coached four national-champion and two Olympic-gold-medal teams. He’s major college basketball’s all-time-winningest coach. He’s in the hall of fame. By the time you read this, Pitino may have added a second national title and have been named to the hall of fame (he’s among the current nominees). And Izzo has won one national championship and, without question, is destined for the hall of fame.
Each is a so-called “power” coach of a “power” program from a “power” conference. As such, they are compensated well into seven figures and are, in essence, the CEOs of college basketball’s version of Fortune 500 companies. They are their university’s most-high-profile employee (quick, name the president of Duke, Louisville or MSU … didn’t think so), charged with basically one responsibility: Win.
And while the academic success of the student-athletes and NCAA rules compliance are also important, winning—especially to their rabid fan bases—is the No. 1 priority.
Yet what struck me—or, perhaps, reminded me—as I sat next to Krzyzewski, Izzo and Pitino during the regional was how, despite all their success and money and, yes, power, they still seem to get it.
They get that they are the eminent representative of their institutions. They get that it doesn’t hurt to offer thoughtful, respectful responses to questions—even dumb ones—they’ve heard dozens of times before. They get that they have an inherent duty to conduct their programs as models in the often-sullied world of big-time, big-money intercollegiate athletics.
Said Izzo of Krzyzewski, “We believe in our universities. We’ve taken ownership in our universities. We’re not just employees.”
Said Pitino of Izzo and Krzyzewski, “They’re both standard bearers for what we as coaches should follow from a blueprint standpoint of the way they carry their program with great integrity, and no rules violations, to the way they graduate their players, to the way they care for their players.”
Said Krzyzewski of Pitino, “Rick’s the kind of guy that he knows he’s good but it’s OK for someone else to be good. And then if the other guy who’s good wins, you shake his hand.”
So you get the idea. Not a mutual admiration society so much as a mutual respect society. They still wanted their team to kick the other’s behind, and coached like crazy to make it happen. Only Pitino left Indy happy.
It was a delight to be close by as they shared their perspectives, especially Krzyzewski who, following defeat, nonetheless took time to congratulate Indianapolis organizers on their event-management excellence. Class.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.