Coach K isn’t passing up one last shot to win
- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
The first time I saw Mike Krzyzewski was on a fall Saturday in 1983. It wasn’t at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but rather across the street at Wallace Wade Stadium, the long-miserable home of Blue Devils football. In those days, there was plenty of misery to be found in the basketball gym too. They’d made the Final Four in 1978 and the Elite Eight in 1980, but lost their head coach, hired a guy whom no one could spell his last name, and hadn’t been back to the NCAA tournament in the three years since.
My father was officiating a football game, and I had managed to get into the press box to score a boxed lunch. It was halftime, and I was eating a barbecue sandwich at a table full of crusty old Tobacco Road writers and photographers when the Duke hoops coach walked up. Krzyzewski said hello to the group and said that he hoped to see them all over at the little gymnasium across the street when his fourth season at the helm began just a few days later. No sooner than he had walked away, the old ACC scribes rolled their collective eyes.
“That sumb—h…” one of them blurted out, cutting his eyes to me to apologize for his language, but continuing anyway. “His ass is about to get fired.”
He, of course, was not fired. Instead, his team won 24 games that winter and made their first NCAA tournament appearance on his watch. They have missed the tourney only twice during the nearly four decades since.
That day when I first saw Coach K, I was in elementary school. Ronald Reagan was in his first term. The No. 1 movie at the box office was Return of the Jedi. That same fall my family bought our first VCR at a Kmart. Ms. Pac-Man was still new. His first coaching rivals were UNC’s Dean Smith and NC State’s Jim Valvano. The NCAA tournament was a 32-team bracket. Jay Bilas had hair.
That’s how long it’s been since Mike Krzyzewski first moved to Durham, North Carolina. It’s a marathon by any measuring stick, be it the 42 years, the five national titles, the 12 Final Fours, 15 ACC Tourney titles, 12 ACC regular season championships, the 1,170 wins or the wall of Olympic gold medal-winning team photos.
So, when he hangs up his whistle at the end of the 2021-22 basketball season, none of us have any idea what Duke University, the ACC, or, for that matter, the world is going to look like without K stalking the sideline and barking out orders to try and beat Carolina, State, Wake and everyone else on the ACC calendar one more time.
It’s like trying to picture the Duke campus without the chapel.
That’s probably why the shocking news of the 74-year-old’s retirement was also quickly followed by a sigh of relief when it was revealed that he would be coaching until he was 75, logging one more season before being replaced by longtime protégé Jon Scheyer. It was just two months ago when we all watched his frenemy Roy Williams tearfully walk away from the Tar Heels after being bounced from the first round of the NCAAs for the first time in his Hall of Fame career. Williams cried and talked about the game beginning to pass him by and said, “I no longer think I am the right man for the job.”
It’s a safe bet that Krzyzewski still believes deep down that he is the right man for Duke, but it’s no secret that he’s been frustrated by the drastic changes in the college game over recent years. See: His visible and audible irritation at trying to navigate the choppy, ever-changing seas of 2020-21 pandemic season, a year his team finished 13-11 and ended with the second of those two missed NCAA tourneys since ’83 and the first since his back injury-asterisked 1995 season. Duke’s year ended unceremoniously, with a positive COVD-19 test and a quiet exit from the ACC postseason.
Did you really think he would let that be his finish line? Of course not.
Call this upcoming campaign a retirement tour, call it a victory lap, call it whatever you want. But if we have learned anything about Krzyzewski over the last half-century it’s that he will never pass up a chance to win basketball games. Duke has a chance to win a lot of them between now and April.
He just inked a top five recruiting class. Seven-footer Mark Williams chose to return to a team that will have more high-flying wings than the RDU airport, as inconsistent vet Wendell Moore Jr., will be joined by top-3 prospect Paolo Banchero, internet highlight sensation A.J. Griffin and late signee/buzz-generator Trevor Keels.
This team will likely find itself in an early locker room tug-of-war between a large group of upperclassmen and the wave of incoming freshmen, but what else is new? ‘Tis the way of the modern college basketball world (if you want to kill an hour, ask K for his views on that). But though it seems easy to forget now, in the five seasons that preceded the pandemic, Duke won a national title and reached the Sweet 16 four times, including consecutive Elite Eight appearances in 2018-19.
Oh, and the Devils will also be catching UNC transitioning into its first post-Roy season, NC State and Wake Forest scuffling (what else is new?) and really, a spaghetti pile of an ACC that feels very scalable. It all begins with an uber-hyped matchup with Kentucky on Nov. 9. In the midst of it all, rivals will recruit against Duke with a strategy of “Coach K is leaving, do you really want to play for What’s-his-name Scheyer?” But it’s also Scheyer who has done much of the heavy lifting to bring in Zion, etc. since the former Duke player returned as an assistant coach in 2013.
Will Mike Krzyzewski enjoy the inevitable procession of pregame ceremonies, rocking chair gifts and lifetime achievement plaques? He will tell us that he does not. In reality he will relish the spotlight one more time. He’ll even dig the boos. Despite always trying to convince us otherwise, he has always liked to be reminded of how great he is at what he does, whether that praise comes in the form of a Duke Blue thumbs up or Carolina Blue middle finger. He smiles at both.
But this winter, those smiles will come only if his last Duke Blue Devils team is winning games. If instead, for the third consecutive year they do not, then heaven help those rocking chairs, let alone those freshmen.
Then again, it wouldn’t be a true Mike Krzyzewski season if there weren’t plenty of snarls to go around. Even now, the last time around.
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