Duke University men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski made a quip at the end of his speech as there was the sound of one person clapping in the background. His ears piqued to the subtle noise and he quickly responded with a crooked smirk, “Was that a standing ovation? I am assuming (it was) … ego wise, I needed that.”
Under normal circumstances, that notion may have appeared awkward, however, the 14th annual Coach Mike Krzyzewski Teaching Character Through Sport Award ceremony did not take place under the usual conditions. This year’s ceremony, due to COVID-19, occurred virtually April 30 to celebrate the awardees and finalists of the Coach K Awards without the usual setting of a packed-house of cadets, staff and faculty in the Cadet Mess.
“It is an honor to be doing this (virtually),” Krzyzewski said from his office at Duke University of the leaders’ roundtable and formal awards ceremony. “It is very impressive, really. I’ve enjoyed the last hour answering questions and interacting with everyone … I know you all wish we were in the dining hall doing this, but this is still very impressive.”
The award, which honors the namesake and distinguished graduate of the U.S. Military Academy Class of 1969, recognizes cadet athletes, coaches and sport educators. Awardees are recognized for their commitment to the development of noble character through athletic participation and leadership while living and leading honorably and demonstrating excellence.
“The award recognizes cadets who exemplify the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage both on and off the fields of friendly strife,” said Col. Nicholas Gist, the director of the Department of Physical Education. “The award also recognizes coaches, officers-in-charge and sport educators who are exceptional leaders who exemplify these Army values by educating, training and inspiring our teams and athletes every day.”
The selection process started March 20 when the nominations were submitted for the award, Gist said. Then the screening of the nominees continued through late March into early April before two athletes and coaches in each of the three categories—Corps Squad, Competitive Club and Company Athletics—were named finalists. Afterward, finalists were notified, interviews were conducted and then winners were selected by April 8.
This year’s recipients of the Coach Mike Krzyzewski Teaching Character Through Sport Award were Class of 2020 Cadets Calli McMullen (Corps Squad/women’s track and field), Adaya Queen (Competitive Club/boxing) and Michael Peoples (Company Athletics/B-1 soccer). The coach and sport educator awardees were Jim Poling (Corps Squad/men’s tennis), Pete Hanlon (Competitive Club/women’s team handball) and Maj. Tyler Inman (Foundations of Fitness/DPE). Also recognized were the finalists in each category to include Class of 2021 Cadet Christopher Bang and Class of 2020 Cadets Ansley Davenport and Sam Sullivan, and coaches and sport educators Maj. Eric Ruff, Maj. Sarah Ferreira and Mike Viti.
Krzyzewski recognized each of the award recipients and finalists while speaking about the importance of being an athlete no matter what level you play at.
“I truly believe … one of the great things about my alma mater is that they believe every cadet is an athlete and being an athlete is part of your educational process,” Krzyzewski said. “Whether it be at the company level, club level or corps squad level, the lessons are the same.
“For this award to honor players and coaches on all three levels is indictive of not just every cadet an athlete, but every level of performance. Whether there is a big crowd in the stands or not, it’s important because of what that individual and what that team is doing,” he added. “Congratulations to all the finalists.”
The 73-year-old coach of five NCAA national championships at Duke, three Olympic Gold Medals as head coach of the USA men’s basketball team and the winningest coach in NCAA history (1,157 wins) touched on some aspects of being a good leader. One aspect he expressed was from one of his former players at Army, where he was head coach from 1975-80, the recently retired Gen. Bob Brown, who always talked about the concept of an agile leader.
“The agile leader is really important in today’s environment and a leader who is going to listen and get a feel for the environment of his or her team,” Krzyzewski said. “I think listening is always a big characteristic that a leader needs to have and right now it’s even more important. The mission of the academy is to produce servants for our country—whether they are in the military or in civilian life—for life.
“We all take that oath and we’re all brothers and sisters as a result of that oath,” he added. “Thank goodness because it has served our country very well.”
Krzyzewski finished his speech with an old-school poem from a letter his mom sent many years prior about everybody, somebody, anybody and nobody. The point of the poem, he said, is anybody can be somebody and not just assume roles and assume someone else is going to do the job or task at hand.
“If you are a great unit, it’s everybody’s job,” Krzyzewski said. “In every great unit, anybody has a chance to be somebody.”
Gist concurred with the sentiments as a moment that leaped out at him during the ceremony.
“Anybody can be somebody,” Gist said. “This is a relevant and poignant reminder that everyone can be a role model, set the standard and be a leader of character.”
Gist felt the most noteworthy part of the evening was Coach K’s presence and his demonstration of being available despite the obstacles of the evening.
“He embodies 100% commitment to being a leader of character,” Gist said. “He often talks about evolving and adjusting to the new generations of athletes he coaches, but he always remains fully committed to his program’s values.”
The awardees, their thoughts on being recognized, what character means to them and their most memorable part of the night
PV: What does it mean to you to be recognized as a Coach Mike Krzyzewski Teaching Character Through Sport Award recipient?
Jim Poling: “I am quite honored to be nominated for this special award and was humbled and surprised to receive it.”
Pete Hanlon: “I’m fully committed to helping our cadets develop into the best future leaders that they can be. One of the most effective methods of doing that is through sports. So, to be honored by this award reinforces the whole reason I’ve been at West Point for the past 20 years.”
Calli McMullen: “This award is the culmination of hard work of not only myself, but also the hard work that my coaches, teammates and mentors have invested in me. This award is a humble reminder of the importance of leading through mentorship.”
Michael Peoples: “It means a great deal. I don’t consider myself much of an athlete, but I really enjoyed coaching soccer and our entire team really gave its all both years that we won the championship. It feels good to be recognized for our performance, and I really do feel like I’m receiving this award on behalf of my entire team.”
Adaya Queen: “To be honored … means that I have succeeded in inculcating some of the values and lessons imparted to me by phenomenal leaders and role models in my life. Earning the Coach K Award is a testament to the individuals who I surround myself with. I understand that this honor is in large part due to the support from my boxing family.”
PV: What is the importance of being committed to a high standard of character signify to you?
Jim Poling: “Our job at West Point is all about teaching our cadets to be leaders of character. Being a D-1 tennis player, the light shines solely on you during your match. You have to make your own calls and you have to show excellent sportsmanship. We expect our players to adhere to the highest level of sportsmanship because they are not playing for just themselves, but our team, West Point and the U.S. Army.”
Pete Hanlon: “We build our team values around being a family that fully supports each other. Teammates will always support each other in any way possible, on or off the court. Cadets are challenged to hold to that standard as part of the team.”
Calli McMullen: “My job as a cadet-athlete has been to encourage and mentor other cadet-athletes to achieve their purpose at the academy. I’ve learned that the best teams are the ones that are led and mentored by people who uphold the very standards that they expect their teams to live by.”
Michael Peoples: “Without character, victories in any context aren’t real victories. Cheating or sacrificing your honor to get to a goal makes the achievement feel hollow. Sports are a great opportunity for future leaders like us to realize that a dishonorable victory isn’t a real victory at all.”
Adaya Queen: “The importance of being committed to a high standard of character is crucial to building credible and authentic teams. Having a high standard of character ensures that your opponents are competing with a team that has integrity and sets a precedence for the behavior and expectations for future members of your team.”
PV: What was the most memorable part of the evening for you?
Jim Poling: “It was definitely meeting Coach K virtually and hearing his perspective on coaching and leading. I loved the Michael Jordan story (Coach K) told. It showed me how humble Coach K is. I liked how he analyzed the situation both from his perspective and Jordan’s. It was a great story of Michael Jordan welcoming Coach K to the big game.”
Pete Hanlon: “I was actually able to converse with Coach K and have a discussion about growing teams and loving teammates. It was encouraging to see someone that successful who attributes that success to his dedication to loving his players.”
Calli McMullen: “(It) was being in everyone’s presence. During a time, such as this, communicating and finding ways to connect with others is crucial to remind ourselves of the humanity we must still possess within ourselves. Thus, being able to speak with Coach K and being able to see all the other finalists on screen was really special.”
Michael Peoples: “Getting to ask Coach K a question and listen to him answer some very nuanced questions from others was a great experience … it was great to get his perspective on some truly important issues. Coach K’s remarks regarding the importance of West Point in his own life and career really left an impression … someone like Coach K still maintaining a connection to West Point and praising it just shows that it’s worth it (being here) in the end.”
Adaya Queen: “My biggest takeaway from Coach K’s speech is that we all have a responsibility to execute. Instead of expecting other people to make decisions and complete tasks, it is my responsibility to act to ensure that the task isn’t left undone. (Also), meeting with Coach K and listening to him detail his experiences and lessons learned over his leadership career was an awesome experience. He is very humble, authentic and humorous.”
One of the big concepts Gist said he wanted to reflect on as a part of the award is how individuals do more than win games. They model honorable living, they earn the respect and trust of their teammates and make a profound positive impact on them as athletes and leaders.
“All nominees, finalists and winners truly demonstrate what right looks like,” Gist concluded. “We are inspired by their words and actions, and we are proud to serve alongside each of them.”