In one of the two uppermost retirements in the 126-year history of men’s college basketball, Mike Krzyzewski will relinquish his familiar throne next spring after his 42nd season at Duke, ending a tenure that saw a smallish private school with a good basketball history become a national colossus with a history counting as towering.
The news of Krzyzewski’s plan to retire, which was first reported by Stadium and confirmed to the Washington Post by multiple players, promised a 2021-22 season with a farewell tour sure to fete the Chicagoan turned Carolinian, who will turn 75 in February.
One of the marquee games for the Blue Devils during the upcoming season will be a Nov. 26 showdown against Gonzaga in Las Vegas.
The goodbye swing will differ from the departure of John Wooden, the UCLA coach who announced his retirement at 64 on the Saturday night of the 1975 Final Four, then won one last game that brought a 10th and final national championship.
Krzyzewski reached half that total amid 12 Final Four berths in an era of greater parity and harder navigation, all of it unforeseeable when he took the Duke job on March 18, 1980, as a coach who had just gone 9-17 in his fifth season at Army. On that long-gone Tuesday, in an unpretentious room with curtains that looked like relics from the 1970s, Krzyzewski’s hiring came as a surprise as he spelled out his name from the lectern and the student Duke Chronicle would blare, “Krzyzewski: This is not a typo.”
Forty-one years on, his pending retirement counts as the dislodging of basketball bedrock, especially factoring in his oversight of United States Olympic men’s basketball gold medals in 2008, 2012 and 2016. In fact, it completes the remaking of an entire chunk of basketball terrain.
Just this past April 1, Krzyzewski expressed “surprise” and then admiration upon the announcement that Roy Williams would retire after 18 seasons and three national titles at North Carolina, the other half of the tempestuous rivalry of programs 8 miles apart. “We have all benefited from his longevity in and commitment to coaching,” Krzyzewski stated of Williams.
In both jarring cases, the programs have tapped replacements from within their own folds. North Carolina replaced Williams with Hubert Davis, a 51-year-old assistant under Williams who played for North Carolina from 1988-92. Multiple outlets reported Duke will replace Krzyzewski with Jon Scheyer, a 33-year-old assistant under Krzyzewski who played for Duke from 2007-10, including on Duke’s 2010 national champions, the fourth of Krzyzewski’s five. Meanwhile, the tent area in which Duke students camp for game seats in little Cameron Indoor Stadium will figure to retain forever the name on its stately street sign: Krzyzewskiville.
Such signage would have seemed absurd to almost everyone in 1980, as would the idea that Krzyzewski, aged 33 in 1980 just like Scheyer today, would become known by a sobriquet as familiar as “Coach K.” With North Carolina coach and titan Dean Smith just 49 years old back then, Krzyzewski took up shop in quite a shadow, even given a Duke program Bill Foster had shepherded to the national-title game in 1978, and which had just finished going to its sixth Elite Eight before Foster left for a South Carolina program seemingly more sprawling in possibility.
Onlookers had speculated as to Foster’s replacement and were stunned to find their speculations amiss. Here came a frightfully young coach who had played point guard for Bob Knight at Army from 1966-69, served in the Army from 1969-74, assisted Knight at Indiana in 1974-75, and coached five seasons at West Point from 1975-80, with one fleeting NIT berth in that mix.
“For the sake of accuracy, if indeed accuracy means anything, the job was not offered to someone else,” Duke athletic director Tom Butters said that day. “He is my first choice. And he will remain my first choice.”
Things did worsen. Duke went 17-13, 10-17 and 11-17 in Krzyzewski’s first three seasons, the third closing with a 109-66 loss to Ralph Sampson’s Virginia in the 1983 ACC Tournament. But even in the hard, demanding waters of the ACC – North Carolina State won the 1983 national title – Butters extended Krzyzewski, especially with a promising quartet of freshmen already enrolled and dribbling around.
The treks those freshmen had made to reach Durham already reflected Krzyzewski’s capacity to pull prized recruits from all around the country toward Duke and its academics. Johnny Dawkins hailed from Washington (Mackin Catholic). Mark Alarie came from Phoenix. Jay Bilas traveled from Rolling Hills Estates, California. Only Dave Henderson came from inside North Carolina (Warrenton).
“I went there because of him,” Bilas, nowadays an ESPN analyst, said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “That was the only reason. I had no commitment to Duke” otherwise. “I went there because I liked him the best of all the coaches who recruited me.
“I just trusted him from the jump. He was sincere and easy to get to know. … It was just a feeling after spending a lot of time with him. I knew. And I never wavered.”
By 1986, those four and their teammates appeared in a tight national-title game, losing 72-69 to Pervis Ellison’s Louisville. By 1988, Duke began a string of five consecutive Final Four appearances, reaching the closing Monday thrice (1990-92) and the top of the net-cutting ladder twice (1991-92).
By the 21st century, Duke had reached a rarefied perch of coast-to-coast identity, which came with its share of disapproval that might have found its essence when Norman Chad wrote, “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke. Why always Duke?” The Blue Devils have coursed on through accusations of smugness and won 1,097 games under Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in the sport’s history at 1,170. Before their absence from the 2021 NCAA Tournament came as extremely aberrant, they won further national titles in 2001, 2010 and 2015, the final one under the newfangled one-and-done fashion, with stars Jahlil Okafor from Chicago, Justise Winslow from Houston and Tyus Jones from the suburbs of Minnesota’s Twin Cities all remaining at Duke for only that one season.
It all fit with a general description Bilas noted about Krzyzewski: his refusal to succumb to complaints about life’s changes.
“He doesn’t complain about the way things are,” Bilas said. … He always adapts to the way things are.”
By spring 2021, the NBA playoffs began with 13 former Duke players on the 16 rosters.
Of the news of Wednesday, Bilas said, “I’ve been realistic. I knew this day was coming,” even if he went on to say he never would have imagined back in 1982 that his 35-year-old coach would coach all the way to 74 with one year left.
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