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From AmEx to Guitar Hero, Krzyzewski built his brand through endorsements

By Erik Spanberg
Mike Krzyzewski is active in a number of social causes. His Napa Valley trips for the V Foundation have raised more than $100 million.courtesy of V Foundation

If you were a college basketball fan watching March Madness in 2005, and you weren’t a Duke fan, chances are you screamed or sighed during every TV timeout. Because that’s when The Ad would, inevitably, appear.

A gauzy, 30-second montage of Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski ran nearly nonstop during that year’s tournament and for many months to come. In the spot, Coach K tells viewers, “I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball,” looking into the camera to impart hoops philosophy while photos and video clips portray playing at Duke as a mashup of Norman Rockwell values and fierce on-court battles.

The ad ends with Krzyzewski walking onto the court in an empty Cameron Indoor Stadium. He narrates the scene by saying, “My life isn’t about playing games. That’s why my card is American Express.”

Fans, media and rivals were concerned that Coach K had found a way into potential recruits’ living rooms on a near-constant basis. They cried foul, Krzyzewski professed surprise that anyone would take umbrage and AmEx got a ton of additional publicity.

Coach K upped his endorsement game in the years after he hired agent David Falk in 1997 to boost his off-court portfolio.

Falk, who helped Michael Jordan become a billionaire through endorsements with Nike, Gatorade and others, shied away from college coaches as clients because he didn’t want those relationships to interfere with his work with players — particularly since a handful of college coaches and programs turned out the best and most marketable future NBA players. Krzyzewski and Duke were already closely aligned with Nike when the coach began looking for chances to make more outside money. He did so in part to bridge an income gap after turning down an $8 million-a-year offer in 2004 to coach the Lakers.

Falk had a made an exception by taking on Georgetown coach John Thompson as a client, and he did the same when Krzyzewski, a longtime friend, sought his help.

Thompson and Falk discussed the backlash over the American Express ad at the time.

Falk told Sports Business Journal: “[Thompson] said to me, ‘I’m not jealous of Mike, I’m envious.’ And I said, ‘What’s the difference?’ And he said, ‘Jealousy is when someone has something that you want, and you don’t want them to have it. And envy is when someone does something that you admire and you’re happy for them.’ He said Mike deserved it.”

And, Falk said, the ad resonated so well that other companies became interested in signing Coach K to represent them, including General Motors, State Farm and an iconic campaign with Capital One.

Not to mention a one-off “Risky Business” lip sync re-enactment for the Guitar Hero video game in 2009. In that ad, Krzyzewski, Bobby Knight, Rick Pitino and Roy Williams begin to enjoy a living room jam session while clad in boxers and dress shirts, only to be confronted by the members of Metallica.

Just as he did with Jordan, Falk said he guided Krzyzewski’s off-court pursuits by ensuring he was always authentic; and through scarcity, limiting commitments to drive up the price.

The New York Times reported in 2006 that Krzyzewski upped his speaking fees to $100,000 each from $50,000. Falk, who now only manages Coach K’s coaching negotiations, didn’t disclose specific figures with SBJ, but he relished sharing an account of the Washington Speakers Bureau initially balking when Coach K raised his speaking fees to an amount comparable with Henry Kissinger.

“One of the things that people don’t understand about him is that he’s really funny,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who played for Krzyzewski at Duke in the mid-1980s. “He’s really quick-witted, and he is a great counter-puncher.”

The best example of combining loyalty with his ability to persuade people to consider a scholarship or a product or a cause? The V Foundation for Cancer Research, the nonprofit formed after the death in 1993 of former N.C. State basketball coach and, later, ESPN analyst Jim Valvano, a close friend and rival of Krzyzewski.

“I mean, he works,” said former V Foundation CEO Nick Valvano, who is Jim Valvano’s brother. “He is not a figurehead.”

Krzyzewski continues to lead annual trips to Napa Valley on behalf of the V Foundation, using auctions, private events, and meals to benefit cancer research. According to the foundation, Coach K’s wine celebrations have raised $110 million.

“What continues,” Valvano added, “is the continuation of friendship and family that started the foundation.”

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