Mike Krzyzewski is coaching the U.S. Olympic team again even though it's a thankless job

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

DALLAS – USA Basketball honcho Jerry Colangelo says he plied Mike Krzyzewski with late-night pizza and wine in a Chicago restaurant to coax him into coaching the Olympic team one more time.

"I'm a cheap date," Krzyzewski quipped.

A cheap date for a potentially costly assignment. For the second and final time, Krzyzewski is willing to accept the high-risk, low-reward job of coaching a team that must win gold or be ripped from sea to shining sea.

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Specifically, the coach who loses would be the first guy ripped.

That's the way it works in Olympic basketball: The players win and the coach loses. Ask the guys who oversaw miserable American international efforts in the 2002 FIBA World Championships (George Karl), the 2003 Pan American Games (Tom Izzo) and the 2004 Olympics (Larry Brown).

It was an even more perilous assignment if the coach came up from the college ranks to lead a bunch of pros. At least Izzo had the good sense to bomb in the relatively low-profile Pan Am Games; Krzyzewski was on the griddle in the Olympics.

Right or wrong, that guy places himself in a position to reap little glory and a lot of grief. To many people, the only thing Krzyzewski could do is screw up. He sure isn't going to get the credit for coaching them up if the Americans win the gold medal.

That's the way it was in 2008 in Beijing. That's the way it will be this summer in London.

"It'll always be in play for whoever the men's coach is," Krzyzewski said Monday at the U.S. Olympic Committee media summit here. "There's an assumption that the U.S. should just win. I think that assumption led to us not winning for a long period of time. We had to stop assuming and start working.

[Related: Sprinter Usain Bolt reportedly dumps girlfriend to focus on Olympics]

"No question, you put your career a little bit on the line coaching the international team."

Krzyzewski didn't need to put his career on the line – not once, and certainly not twice. He could have left the assignment to the NBA coaches, who had intimate knowledge of the players. He simply could have stayed the course toward 1,000 career victories – by far the most in men's college history – without walking out onto that Olympic ledge.

In the college game he is the biggest of stars, a coaching icon and oracle. In an Olympic setting he was viewed as little more than a caddie who'd better not recommend the wrong club.

But Krzyzewski sincerely believes in the stuff one must believe in to embrace that risk. He believes in team, and he believes in extrapolating that to representing something bigger than team – a university, in his primary job, or an entire nation in this Olympic pursuit. He believes in shared pursuit of a greater goal.

"Not having the opportunity to try to do that [win gold for America] is the worst loss," Krzyzewski said. "I'm excited about it. I've not looked at it as pressure the whole time. When we won in 2008, I wasn't relieved; I was in ‘la-la land.’ At that moment, you know whether you handled it right."

Krzyzewski handled it right four years ago. But whether anyone wants to acknowledge it, it will be a harder task this time around.

The first thing Colangelo and Krzyzewski announced Monday was that selecting the 12 players for the team will be delayed from June 18 until July 7. The reason? Rampant injuries across the NBA, including several players who are in the Olympic selection pool.

It was bad when Derrick Rose went down with a torn ACL. That followed LaMarcus Aldridge's hip surgery and Dwight Howard's back injury last month. Now Chris Bosh is hurt as well. That's three big men and the likely starting point guard, gone.

No wonder straight-out-of-college teenager Anthony Davis of Kentucky, the lock No. 1 overall pick in the draft, has been added to the Olympic selection pool. The Americans suddenly are in acute need of talented height.

"If I was Mike, I probably would sleep about half an hour a night," women's coach Geno Auriemma said. "Every time you turn on the TV, it seems like a great player is getting injured and is out for the Olympics.

[Related: Lewd gestures, assault part of list of most controversial Olympians]

"There's things beyond his control he's just going to have to deal with. But being coach of the men's U.S. Olympic team is pressure enough because of the standard you're used to carrying. … Mike's got a very, very, very difficult job ahead of him. But that's why he's Mike Krzyzewski. Because he can handle it."

This will be his last attempt at handling both the Olympics and Duke basketball. Krzyzewski said he will not sign up for another round of coaching Team USA, instead leaving the the team to Colangelo and whoever he champions as his next coach.

If all goes as planned in London, the next guy will be walking into a great situation. With Colangelo's imprimatur, Krzyzewski has helped stabilize a drifting and underachieving USA Basketball program. History probably won't give him much credit for that, but public acclamation never was going to be the reward for doing a thankless job.

The reward is largely internal and intangible. The risk is high. Credit Mike Krzyzewski for being willing to take it on again.

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