The news from Durham Wednesday was a reminder of the reality we already knew. Time passes, and so do legends, especially lately on Tobacco Road.
First, Roy Williams. Now, Mike Krzyzewski. You wonder when the moment comes for 76-year-old Jim Boeheim, or 72-year-old Leonard Hamilton, or 67-year-old Bob Huggins, or 66-year-old Tom Izzo. You wonder about football, where Nick Saban is 69. Or women’s basketball, where Geno Auriemma is 67. The coaching landscape of college sports has started shaking, with the exit of giants. That was an earthquake on Wednesday.
Now will come the Krzyzewski Farewell Tour, where they will even cheer him in Chapel Hill. Surely, the Blue Devils can do better as a team next season. Think how lousy and unfitting 2020-21 would have been as a goodbye, with Duke barely above .500, missing its first NCAA tournament in 26 years.
The legacy is more than numbers; the 1,170 victories, the five national championships, the 12 Final Four trips in four different decades — including seven in nine years, a remarkable run in the face of college basketball parity that some have forgotten. Those dozen career Final Fours are even with John Wooden. Can there be a better validation of greatness?
The Krzyzewski aura also includes this fact: Careers like his do not happen much anymore, dynasty-building in one place. Winners go searching for other greener grass, or run out of magic, or get into trouble, or get Twittered out of town, or just lose their voice. So, to recognize the majesty of the Krzyzewski era, we should first put into context how long he has been at Duke.
When he coached his first Blue Devils game in 1980, this year’s national championship coach — Baylor’s Scott Drew — was 10 years old.
Duke has been playing basketball since 1905 and has taken the court for 3,118 games. Krzyzewski has been the coach for 44.9 percent of them. He has been on the bench for 127 of the Blue Devils’ 152 NCAA tournament games. He was still something of a young man when he won his first title in 1991. By his fifth in 2015, he was holding up his grandkids in the post-game celebration.
All five coaches he has beaten in the national championship are gone; either retired or on different career paths or dead. That’d be Williams, Steve Fisher, Lute Olson, Brad Stevens and Bo Ryan. There was a message in the contrast of two stories Wednesday. On the same day word came out about Krzyzewski’s retirement plans, Stevens was announced as the new Boston Celtics general manager, leaving his coaching spot on the bench. The two men met in Lucas Oil Stadium 11 years ago in a memorable national championship game. Stevens moved on from Butler, Krzyzewski stayed at Duke.
Krzyzewski is the rare active modern coach whose career trajectory goes back to a different age. His first season as a college head coach at Army, was 1975. Wooden had just retired. His first season at Duke in 1980, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were second-year NBA players. There was no shot clock in college basketball, no 3-pointer. The ACC had only eight teams, the NCAA tournament had only 48. There had been only one Final Four ever played in a giant dome. The USA was still trying to win the Olympics basketball gold medal with college kids.
The world was more patient back then. Krzyzewski’s record his first three seasons at Duke was 38-47. That could get a man fired now. But here he is, 41 years later. Along the way, he survived and thrived with the Blue Devils through one wrong perception after another. First, he was the guy nobody knew, with the name nobody could pronounce. Then, he couldn’t win enough. Then, he couldn’t get the big one. Duke showed up in the Final Four in 1986, ’88, ’89 and ’90, but couldn’t break through to a national championship. All that changed with Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and the gang. Then, he had health problems in the mid-1990s and maybe his window was closing. He recovered to win three more national titles. The most recent was 2015, captured in a thoroughly modern way as Duke joined the one-and-done parade.
He also helped restore USA Basketball to full power in international play, with the might of the NBA.
Now, there will be one last chance to push the numbers even higher into the coaching stratosphere, with presumably no pandemic in the way to kill the mood, or at least not as much as last season. He will eventually say goodbye, but will it be in a press room after a second-round upset, a regional, or the bright lights of his 13th Final Four? The 2022 site is the Superdome in New Orleans. Krzyzewski has coached Final Four teams in 10 different arenas, but never there. He will be 75 years old next March and a long run would certainly be appropriate. But even he has had his NCAA tournament flops. Remember Mercer?
Whenever it ends, assistant Jon Scheyer is the assigned icon-follower. It can be a thankless task. Think Gene Bartow after Wooden at UCLA, Bill Guthridge after Dean Smith at North Carolina, Joe B. Hall after Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, Mike Davis after Bob Knight at Indiana.
Here’s the thing about those four: All coached teams to the Final Four. But that didn’t seem to guarantee longevity.
Bartow was gone from the Bruins after two years, Guthridge from the Tar Heels after three, Davis from the Hoosiers after six. Scheyer once gave Krzyzewski one of his greatest gifts, scoring 15 points with six rebounds and five assists to lead the Blue Devils past Butler for the 2010 title. That won Scheyer a lot of favor in Durham. But his ledger will be reset to zero come 2022.
Replacing a legend is very hard work. Especially this one. The last time Duke needed a new basketball coach, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. There have been seven more since.