Coach K Teaching Character Through Sport Award recognizes awardees for commitment to character, leadership

By Eric S. Bartelt PV Managing Editor - May 10, 2023
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The Department of Physical Education hosted the 17th annual Mike Krzyzewski Teaching Character Through Sport Award May 4 at the Cadet Mess Hall. The award recognizes West Point cadet-athletes, coaches, officers in charge (OIC) and sport educators for their outstanding commitment to the development of noble character through athletic participation and leadership.

During the ceremony, six winners and six runners-up from three categories of athletics – Company Athletics (CA), Competitive Club Athletics (CCA) and Corps Squad Athletics (CSA) – were acknowledged with a certificate and the winners were also given a medal. One cadet athlete and one coach, sport educator or OIC were chosen in each category of athletics as a winner and runner-up.

The attributes of an athlete of character are an exceptional cadet who exemplifies the Army values of integrity, respect, selfless service, duty, honor, loyalty and personal courage both on and off “the fields of friendly strife.” The athlete of character is a team player who combines athletic skill with exemplary sportsmanship and fair play.

The Coach K Award cadet winners were Class of 2023 Cadets EC Presnell (CA/flag football), Mason Calbert (CCA/water polo) and Marquel Broughton (CSA/football). The runners-up were Class of 2023 Cadets Anthony Marco (CA/foundations of fitness), Sarah Hollis (CCA/team handball) and Caleb Churchill (CSA/gymnastics).

The attributes of a coach or OIC are an exceptional leader who exemplifies the Army values of integrity, respect, selfless service, duty, honor, loyalty and personal courage. A sport educator of character has an extraordinary ability to guide, mentor, motivate and inspire cadets through their character, commitment and competency.

This year’s Coach K Award winners were Capt. Joe Clegg (CA/submission grappling), Coach Amy Maxwell (CCA/triathlon) and Coach Sean Saturnio (CSA/football). The runners-up were Capt. Liam Phillips (CA/team handball), Lt. Col. Shoshannah Lane (CCA/marathon) and Coach Brandt Nigro (CSA/swimming and diving).

Col. Nicholas Gist, the head of DPE, began the ceremony by touting the coaches and cadets for their outstanding character in sport.

“These individuals do more than just win games, they live honorably, they earn the respect and trust of their teammates and make a profound positive impact on cadets as our Army’s future leaders,” Gist said. “A nomination for this award indicates that others have observed consistent commitment to character in the finalists.”

Gist subsequently introduced Mike Krzyzewski, a 1969 U.S. Military Academy graduate, as a man of many accomplishments including being the winningest men’s collegiate basketball coach in history with 1,202 wins, a winner of five national championships and 13 Final Four appearances, three Olympic gold medals and two World Cup gold medals as USA Basketball’s head coach, two more Olympic gold medals as the national team’s assistant, and named to several halls of fame, including an inductee in the West Point Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

“For several decades, Coach K has embodied our motto, ‘Duty, Honor, Country.’ He is a winner of many cohesive teams and has set the standard for excellence for a commitment to impeccable character and principled leadership,” Gist said. “He has carried a legacy through positive and enthusiastic communication, a steadfast communication to teamwork and the establishment of trusting relationships. His relentless pursuit of excellence spans more than five decades since he sat here in Washington Hall as a cadet.

“First as an Army officer, then as head coach here at Army and then for many years at Duke,” he added. “He truly embodies our West Point Leadership Development System to live honorably, lead honorably and demonstrate excellence.”

Krzyzewski came to the podium and first remarked about West Point having 36 majors and as alumni and cadets, they share two common majors – a major in leadership and a major in character – and it’s “one of the great things about West Point.”

The 2005 Association of Graduates Distinguished Graduate recipient then recognized the more than 400 cadets who presented projects on Projects Day, which took place earlier in the day, as he mentioned, “They’re off the charts.”

Then speaking to the Corps of Cadets who filled every inch of Washington Hall, Krzyzewski said, “You all came here to the academy to become leaders. This is the best school for leadership in the world and it’s not close. And, when you graduate from here, you’ll want to be a leader forever.”

The now retired 76-year-old coaching great stated that he still studies leadership intently and now speaks all over the country to various organizations. Whether they are involved in finance, analytics or business, they all want to hear about teamwork and leadership from Krzyzewski.

As the audience listened keenly, Krzyzewski talked about leadership in what he calls, “Three A’s of Leadership,” to use in the future.

“The first A is something you hear all the time, it’s called agility, and to be an agile leader is somebody who can make reads while things are going on,” he said. “You’re not stuck in the mud with one course of action when another is created. But in order to be an agile leader, you have to have the second A, where you have to be really adaptable. You have to be adaptable, and it’s not just courses of action, the major deficiency that I’ve seen as I lecture around the country is a lack of communication.”

He mentioned as he still coached up until a year ago at age 75, that he had two players who were 18 years old. He said throughout his career, “I’ve always gotten older, and the kids, of course, have stayed the same age.”

“As you go forward as a leader, don’t think that giving orders will do, you have to get your message across and it’s up to you to be adaptable in how you communicate,” Krzyzewski said. “You have to stay current … when you do that, you also develop relationships and the communication really develops common ground. You all have to own what you’re doing.

“A leader just doesn’t talk, a leader listens and a leader asks questions such as what do you think? … solutions to whatever you’re doing as a group occur because you ask that. So, adapt yourself,” he added.

The third A that Coach K spoke about was accountability.

“This is the thing that is missing the most,” Krzyzewski said. “Everyone has to be accountable, including the leader along the way.”

This led Coach K into talking about the first U.S. Olympic Team he coached in 2008 in Beijing with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony leading the team as they were agile, communicated, were adaptable and played as a group.

However, there was a moment in an exhibition against Australia in pre-Olympic play where Bryant took too many bad shots. At that point, James came up to Coach K looking at him on having a meeting about it.

“He looks at me and I said, ‘Trust me, I’ll take care of this,’” Krzyzewski said. “I said, ‘Don’t do anything, trust me.’”

That night, Krzyzewski stayed up all night knowing he had to hold the best player in the world accountable.

“There is a little bit of fear sometimes when holding people accountable and that’s why a lot of people don’t do it,” he said speaking to the cadets directly. “You didn’t come to this place (West Point) to react to fear, you came to this place to beat fear.”

He spoke to Bryant the next day and told him that if he continued making those shots, they wouldn’t win the gold medal or any medal for that matter.

“We won’t become the team we were becoming, we will not be a team,” Krzyzewski said. “Then, I showed him the shots – they were even worse on tape. I looked at him and said, ‘You can’t take them.’”

Coach K got choked up speaking about Kobe because he said he “misses him terribly,” referencing Bryant having died in 2020.

But he continued by saying, “He looks at me and said, ‘OK,’ … we as leaders have to look strong. I’m expecting a war. Inside of my head I’m thinking, ‘Is that it?’ There’s got to be more. Now, I say to him ‘Are you sure you’re not going to take those shots?’ He said, ‘Coach, I’m not going to take them.’”

Krzyzewski said fast forward three weeks later in the gold medal game against Spain. He said he had chills thinking about it. It was a two-point game with eight minutes left in the “most pressure environment that I ever experienced in my coaching career.”

The players came to the bench during a timeout, and he was ready to say something until Bryant stopped him.

“Kobe, the guy I held accountable, said as he put his hand on my knee, ‘Coach, we are good. This is what we were built for,’ and then LeBron James says something, Dwayne Wade and Carmelo added words,” Krzyzewski said. “We left the huddle without a play, but we left the huddle with a winning attitude. They made play after play, and we won the gold medal.”

Krzyzewski wrapped up his speech correlating what happened with the Olympic Team with the reason why the cadets went to West Point.

“For you (the cadets), you did not come here to just be a leader,” he said. “You came here to lead to win. That’s the best thing this school does, and you do it by having character and you also do it by having the A’s. You have to use all three A’s and when you do, you will win the gold – so go for it.”

Recipients’ reaction to receiving the Coach K Award and the experience of the day

Presnell, Calbert, Broughton and Saturnio each had the same common response to the question of what it meant to them to be recognized as the Coach Mike Krzyzewski Teaching Character Through Sport Award recipients – “It is an honor.”

The recipients added words like, “extremely humbling,” “great,” “truly,” and “tremendous” to honor to express the excitement in receiving the award. 

“It is an extremely humbling honor to receive such a prestigious award from arguably the best to have ever done it,” said Saturnio from a coach’s perspective. “It also shows that the seeds that we have planted, watered and nurtured have been bearing fruit.”

Broughton was honored to represent the Army Football team in receiving the award.

“The academy breeds leaders of character,” Broughton said. “To be recognized as the corps squad athlete who embodies character through sports is a great privilege.”

Presnell, who was the flag football cadet in charge, stated how the award recognizes the “hard work and genuine belief in the values that athletes at West Point hold dear.”

Calbert mentioned that the honor was not his alone and that his water polo teammates were equally deserving of praise.

“They act with the utmost character and inspire my leadership every day,” Calbert said. “One of the most difficult parts of leadership is self-reflection and knowing whether you are making a positive impact.

“This award is a confidence-raising evaluation from outside our immediate community,” he added. “It affirms the positive outcomes from all the work put into making our team better both in and out of the pool this year.”

When it comes to the award, at the heart of it is character and, for each winner, how important was it to them to be committed to a high standard of character and values in sport.

Broughton said high standards are not just formed, but they are formed from everyday behaviors that lead to habits.

“The habits you create represent your character. Standards are the steppingstones to one’s character,” Broughton said. “With that, high standards are vital to accomplish goals on and off the field.”

Saturino explained that character and the resulting actions should be carved in stone and not just written in pencil.

“The commitment to standards needs to be non-negotiable and should reflect conviction and not convenience,” Saturino said. “The byproduct of this commitment to a high standard of character is winning on the field, in the Army and in life itself.”

Presnell said that high standards of character and values on the fields of friendly strife allows cadets to “develop essential traits for being leaders in the community, our Army and our nation.”

“Practicing these values now allows for relationships to be fostered between future members of the Long Gray Line, for individuals to create an environment of mutual trust, and for leaders to empower others as valued members of a unified team – all these attributes are crucial for being a leader in the Army,” Presnell said.

Calbert talked about when young people join sports that it is not to be a champion or crush individual records, it is about more meaningful reasons.

“They join sports to develop perseverance, to learn humility and to practice teamwork among many forms of character development,” Calbert said. “Playing with a commitment to character in sports not only promotes the most growth in yourself, but it helps everyone in the arena, or pool deck, to remember why they started their journey to become an athlete.”

West Point offers the ability to build character especially through sports, and competing and coaching can bring much satisfaction to those who represent the academy.

“Competing in athletics at West Point, we represent more than ourselves,” Broughton said. “Every time we compete, we have the West Point logo on our chest, the United States flag on our right arm, and Army on our back. That is powerful! I get to represent all those who selflessly serve to support and defend our Constitution. There is no better satisfaction than that.”

From Saturnio’s perspective, what has brought him the most satisfaction as a coach is seeing the players grow from the time they step on campus until the time they toss their covers in the air on graduation day.

“Having a part in getting them closer to becoming the best versions of themselves, so they can become the transformational leaders that they were born to be – that is extremely rewarding,” Saturnio said.

Overall, the evening was special for each award recipient because they had a chance to meet Krzyzewski for a roundtable discussion with him and hear his words of advice throughout the evening. Each one of the winners came away from the evening with something memorable that they will take with them for the rest of their lives.

Presnell said that Krzyzewski gave them tips that included being humble, having a sense of humor and not taking yourself too seriously, but also to “hold each other accountable, which leads to winning.”

“This great experience was supplemented by the support from the Corps of Cadets when each winner received their award,” Presnell said. “Despite not having immediate family at West Point, the joy, excitement and positive attitude everyone has for each other makes West Point a unique family.”

Saturnio said what he came away with was being presented the award by “an icon” and hearing the cadet-athletes react to that was something that he will “always remember and cherish.”

One of the quotes he remembered best was “Leadership is the most important profession on the planet,” which was something said to them by Coach K during the roundtable.

“It matches what I personally believe,” Saturnio said. “Great leadership provides a beacon to help people navigate through the mountain tops and the valleys of life.”

The words that stuck with Calbert the most were Coach K explaining his winning attitude and how he and his teams pushed through failures.

“In only a few words, he eloquently summarized how from a winner’s point of view that failure is merely a pitstop,” Calbert said. “He said, ‘Failure is never your destination,’ elaborating that stopping early at the midpoint, meant for growth, would be tragedy.”

A memorable moment for Calbert after the ceremony was when he was walking back to his room when he saw his “immensely proud” teammates ready to give him their congratulations and say how proud they were of him.

“They had organized a location for us to take a team picture to commemorate the night and the great culture we had established over the last year,” Calbert said of his water polo teammates. “It is these small moments of team-initiated acts of character that allow me unwavering confidence that the essence of Army Water Polo will live on after myself and my class graduate.”

For Broughton, the words that rang most true to him was when Coach K said to become the best version of yourself, you must “earn your position every day.”

“That statement highlights the importance of consistency and never-ending commitment to growth,” Broughton said. “I will take his guidance and do everything I can to get 1% better each day.”

Broughton said that after spending an hour with Coach K at the roundtable, it was “evident that his character and selfless service were cornerstones to his success. It was a privilege and an honor to be in the room of a West Point graduate who helped pave the way for us in the Long Gray Line.”