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Next Play, GOP?
What the Grand Old Party — and all of us — can learn from Coach K.

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski

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Lee Habeeb

It’s that blessed time of the year for college-basketball fans: March Madness. It’s even good fun for people who couldn’t care less about the sport but want to get in on the office betting pool. And if there’s one basketball program that exemplifies everything college hoops is about, it’s Duke University’s.

Since 1980, Duke has made the Final Four eleven times, earned the top seed twelve times, and won four national championships. Eighteen former Duke players are currently in the NBA. But the most impressive record of them all is Duke’s academic record: Since 1980, the program boasts a 92 percent graduation rate.

Love Duke or hate Duke — and many people love to hate Duke — it has established a tradition of winning like that of few organizations in America. And it has done so with the highest integrity.

Ask anyone in Durham why that is, and you’ll get the same answer: Coach K. Few people bother to say his whole name. Fewer still try to spell it, even Polish people.

But Mike Krzyzewski changed the arc of history of a school, and the arc of the lives of the young men he’s coached and mentored. He’ll probably do it as long as he can walk and breathe, because it’s what he was trained to do by one of the few institutions in America that actually care about training young adults to lead.

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In an era when young Americans were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, Coach K did the most countercultural thing that a young man could do in the 1960s — he went to West Point. He didn’t burn his draft card; he went to the front of the line. While other young men his age were going to college seeking a deferment, he went to college to serve his country.

Talk about being behind the times!

While there, he was the captain of Army’s basketball team, and he played for a young coach who would himself turn out to be one of America’s iconic coaches — Bob Knight.

The leadership apple doesn’t fall far from the leadership tree.

Coach K served his country for five years, attaining the rank of captain. His first civilian job was with Coach Knight at Indiana University, helping guide the Hoosiers’ 1974–75 powerhouse team. He then returned home to lead West Point’s program for five years, and in 1980 he landed in the heart of ACC country at Duke.

There are many reasons why Coach K is so good at what he does, but perhaps the most important is how he deals with the past. Two words summarize his philosophy: “Next Play.” 

Here’s how Coach K described to Josh Linker the importance of getting his team to live those two words:

The “next play” philosophy emphasizes the fact that the most important play of the game or life moment on which you should always focus is the next one. It is not about the turnover I committed last time down the court, it’s not even about the three-pointer I hit to tie the game, it is about what’s next.

But Coach K wasn’t finished:

To waste time lamenting a mistake or celebrating success is distracting and can leave you and your team unprepared for what you are about to face. It robs you of the ability to do your best at that moment and to give your full concentration.

That’s true in life and business. It is true in politics, too.

For nearly five months now, the GOP has been lamenting its “last play.” The never-ending speculation about “what went wrong” in 2012 is hurting the team — and the brand — in ways perhaps only competitive athletes understand.

The Left, too, is in “last play” mode, misreading the last election as some kind of mandate, as some kind of shift in the political landscape. Their big win may also end up hurting their team.

If there’s one thing we know in politics and sports, it’s that past victories don’t predict future ones. You have to go out and earn each victory, one possession at a time. One vote at a time.

Coach K’s record at Duke proves another old adage in life: Never underestimate the power of one man to change everything. While it is true that Bill Foster did a superb job before Coach K’s arrival at Duke, Vegas oddsmakers could never have predicted the Blue Devils’ ascension to basketball power. Duke had much against it. It was a small school by ACC standards, had high academic standards, and was down Tobacco Road from Dean Smith’s basketball factory at Chapel Hill.

None of that stopped Duke or Coach K.

President Obama, too, defied prognosticators, running the table on the Clinton machine in 2008. Once elected, he pushed through the most substantive overhaul of our health-care system since the Great Society.  When his party took a thumping in 2010 for that legislation, he charged ahead in 2012 with a simple campaign slogan: Forward.

So here is a call to the leadership of the GOP: Stop looking backwards. Stop the handwringing, analysis, apologies, and explanations, and lead. Stop reacting to your opponents, and lead.

And here is a call to anyone thinking about running for office under the GOP banner: What are you waiting for? The GOP needs fresh blood, and if ever there was a moment in history to be a difference maker, now is the time.

As Coach K’s and President Obama’s lives attest, outsiders and underdogs can surprise even the wisest pundits. And one man can change the future of a college or a nation. The American people are longing for leadership. Longing to be told the country can be great again. Longing for a positive vision of America’s future in a way we haven’t since the late 1970s.

And longing for someone to say to all of America, “Next play!”

— Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network. Mike Leven is president and COO of the Las Vegas Sands.



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