Leadership by Geoff Colvin

Duke's Coach K on what makes a champion

December 9, 2011: 9:52 AM ET

Great leaders are made, not born.

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski drilled that point home when he came to New York this week to accept Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year award. Speaking to an audience that included a few other champions--Chris Evert, Wayne Gretzky, Sugar Ray Leonard, and the University of Tennessee's Pat Summitt, who is SI's Sportswoman of the Year--Coach K told a story that explained who gave him what it takes to be great.

In the summer of 1992, when he was still in the glow of Duke winning back-to-back national championships, Krzyzewski was sitting on his porch in North Carolina with his wife, his three daughters and his mom. "Mike, why you?" his mother asked.

"What do you mean, Mom?" he replied.

"Why were you the one to win two national championships?" she said, in a way that only a mother could ask a man who was on his way to becoming the greatest coach in the history of men's college basketball.

"Mom, 'Why me' is you." Coach K explained. "I never thought I could lose because of you."

The best advice he ever got, he told his mother, was something she had said to him before he started high school. "You said to make sure that I only let good people on my bus.

"And if I ever get on someone else's bus, make sure to take it great places."

If you read business books, you may realize that another leadership evangelist named Jim Collins must have caught wind of the wisdom of Celestina Krzyzewski, a Mexican immigrant cleaning lady who bred the world-famous Coach K. To this day, after 40 years of coaching collegiate basketball, son Mike deploys Celestina's advice to breed his own champions. Coach K tells his Duke players: "I want you on my bus."

And as SI writer Alexander Wolff details in this week's cover story, Krzyzewski, who at age 64 has 907 Duke wins on his scoreboard, tells his players: "If you own the program, you know every person on the bus. Who cleans our locker room? Felipe does. Who cleans our practice facility? Stephanie does. Who cleans our offices? Celestina does."

Coach K is a natural storyteller. Celestina...Anyone who really knows the guy knows who he's talkin' about.

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Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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