Sometime in 2022, maybe March, maybe April, Mike Krzyzewski will sit on the bench with a stiff military stance and pursed lips, crossing himself before the opening tip of a basketball game for the last time. At the final horn honking, the Catholic scion of Polish immigrants will go through an emotional handshake line, walk off the court, wherever they are, and leave a great gulf in college basketball.
The news that broke Wednesday was a dormant rumor for weeks, but it still elbowed into the guts of the sport: Next season will be the last for the 74-year-old coach at Duke. There will never be another like him, for many reasons. Don’t bother looking for the next one, because it doesn’t and won’t exist.
Someone may be able to navigate the increasingly transitory, fickle, and fleeting world of men’s college basketball long enough to win 1,170 games (and counting). Someone can win five national championships, reach 12 Final Fours, and win 97 NCAA tournament games (and counting). Someone can lead Team USA to three Olympic gold medals as a varsity coach by managing NBA stars. Anyone can handle a 38-47 start to their tenure at a serious basketball school without getting fired. Someone can spend 42 years at that same school, becoming synonymous with a program and a college like any coach in the history of college sports.
But will any coach ever do it? all those things again? No. It is not happening. There is a coach K, a singular leader known by a singular letter. “This will be the most difficult act to follow in American sports history,” said Jay Bilas, a key player on Krzyzewski’s first great Duke team in 1986, now the most influential analyst in the game.
It is more than a tough act; it is an incomparable work. K has put together a body of work that compares favorably to that of any coach in college basketball history by incorporating all the elements of quantity, quality, continuity, longevity, adaptability, and resourcefulness.
Krzyzewski is a big winner who somehow managed to be a cutting edge traditionalist and change agent – the guy who figured out how to connect with generations of gamers from Danny Ferry to Zion Williamson. He went from being the coach who somehow got Grant Hill to play four years in college to being the coach who traded as hard as anyone in the single market; most recently, a player turned pro after 13 matches as Diablo Azul. He has been the smartest of coaches, the toughest of coaches, sometimes the most imperious of coaches. The self-righteousness of Duke’s Ivory Tower has at times been a false facade – there are no saints in college basketball, as we know now more than ever – but K’s impact on school, conferences, and sports has been transformative.
Duke was an academic powerhouse with a good men’s basketball program that could never win the big one before him. Duke is now an academic powerhouse that has won the largest program of any men’s program in the last 30 years, while creating an aura and culture that everyone at the university has tried to copy and paste, dating back to the days when it was copied and pasted. It involved real pasta. It made Duke relevant and kept it relevant for so long that the show went from being loved to heavily hated throughout the American sports machine. If you win forever, this is how it works these days, for better or for worse.
“There has never been a coach, in my opinion, at any level, who has been inextricably linked with a school and a brand,” Bilas said. “But the only thing that struck me is that he really takes each team as its own entity. He is not trying to win a sixth national title; is trying to win the first of this team.
“It’s like climbing Everest every year. He never tires of setting up base camp, then going to the next camp, and finally reaching the top. “
Here Bilas evokes a great analogy: “He’s like the best Sherpa. Take each group to the top. It may be his thousandth trip there, but it’s his first and he treats it that way. “
Krzyzewski’s program made Cameron Indoor Stadium the loudest and liveliest sanctuary in sport. He invented the player huddled at the free throw line. He invented the slap on the floor. His players perfected the art of taking charge. Their best teams have been beautiful to watch.
He looked Dean Smith and North Carolina in the eye. He raised Tobacco Road basketball and the Atlantic Coast Conference and their rivalries to an all time high. He pushed the conference to expand taking into account the obstacles. He pushed for college basketball to operate from a position of strength, not like soccer’s diminished little brother. (It’s also true: his voice wasn’t loud enough when it came time to ask the sport to clean up his performance after the 2017 FBI investigation.)
Overall, Krzyzewski ranks second in men’s college basketball coaching history, and it can be strongly argued that he’s the best of all time.
John Wooden won twice as many national titles at UCLA, but he did so at a time when the NCAA tournament pool was half the size and completely dictated by geography. In Wooden’s final season alone, 1975, he had to win more than two games to reach a Final Four, and that was also the only year he had to face a non-Western team before the Final Four. UCLA’s opponents before the Final Four en route to their 10 national titles: Long Beach State and San Francisco three times each; Santa Clara, the state of New Mexico, BYU, and the state of Arizona twice each; Seattle, Pacific, Wyoming, Utah State, Webster State, Montana, and Michigan once.
The competition was weaker and the sport was simpler in Wooden’s day. As Bilas pointed out, Wooden and Bear Bryant had all of their victories before ESPN’s arrival. Krzyzewski has done his own thing since sports became late-night TV shows and hourly internet fodder, with each development reported with urgency and utmost intensity.
Lew Alcindor may have split a sneaker like Williamson did a couple of years ago, but the whole world wasn’t ready to turn it into a referendum on the morality of college athletics even before the game was over. Bryant was surely involved in some high-level recruiting battles in the 1970s, but a dozen websites weren’t keeping score. An esteemed coach could even have reprimanded an opposing player in a post-game handshake line without it becoming talk show meat. There is simply more daily tumult than ever surrounding athletes and coaches.
Working in the modern era has also had its advantages: Most-favored-nation status with ESPN has been a wonderful thing; The NBA’s Olympic ties have been a boon for recruiting; and Krzyzewski has made vastly more money than Wooden. No one needs to cry a river (or even a drop) for Coach K.
But don’t underestimate the uniqueness of your college basketball journey. It opened a strip in the sport that will not be replicated. When he hangs it up in 2022, the game turns and wanes.
More Coach K coverage:
• Meet Jon Scheyer, likely successor to Coach K
• ‘He’s Duke’: Jay Bilas reacts to Coach K’s retirement plans
• Roy Williams discusses the news of Coach K’s retirement
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.