Sometime in 2022—maybe March, maybe April—Mike Krzyzewski will sit down on the bench with rigid military posture and pursed lips, crossing himself before the opening tip of a basketball game for the final time. At the final horn the Catholic scion of Polish immigrants will go through an emotional handshake line, walk off the court—wherever it is—and leave a gaping chasm in college basketball.
The news that broke Wednesday was a simmering rumor for weeks, yet still arrived like an elbow to the gut of the sport: The upcoming season will be the last for the 74-year-old coach at Duke. There will never be another one like him, for many reasons. Don’t bother looking for the next one, because he does not and will not exist.
Someone may be able to navigate the increasingly transient, fickle and fleeting world of men’s college basketball long enough to win 1,170 games (and counting). Someone may be able to win five national championships, reach 12 Final Fours and win 97 NCAA tournament games (and counting). Someone may be able to lead Team USA to three Olympic gold medals as a college coach directing NBA stars. Someone may be able to withstand a 38–47 start to his tenure at a serious basketball school without being fired. Someone may be able to then stay 42 years at that same school, becoming as synonymous with a program and a university as any coach in the history of college sports.
But will any coach ever do all those things again? No. It’s not happening. There is one Coach K, a singular leader known by a singular letter. “This will be the toughest act to follow in the history of American sports,” 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 just a tough act; it is an incomparable oeuvre. K has fashioned a body of work that compares favorably to that of any coach in college basketball history when folding in all elements of quantity, quality, continuity, longevity, adaptability and ingenuity.
Krzyzewski is a massive winner who somehow managed to be both a traditionalist and a cutting-edge agent of change—the guy who figured out how to connect with generations of players from Danny Ferry to Zion Williamson. He went from being the coach who somehow had Grant Hill play four years of college to the coach who traded as heavily as any in the one-and-done market—most recently having a player turn pro after 13 games as a Blue Devil. He’s been the smartest of coaches, the toughest of coaches, at times the most imperious of coaches. Duke’s Ivory Tower sanctimony has at times been a false front—there are no saints in college basketball, as we know now more than ever—but K’s impact on school, conference and sport have been transformative.
Duke was an academic powerhouse with a good men’s basketball program that could never win the big one before him. Duke now is an academic powerhouse that has won the big one more than any men’s program in the last 30 years, while creating an aura and culture that everyone in college hoops has tried to copy and paste—dating back to the days when copying and pasting involved real paste. He made Duke relevant and kept it relevant for so long that the program cycled through the American sports machinery from largely loved to largely loathed. If you win forever that’s how it works these days, for better or for worse.
“There’s never been a coach, in my judgment, on any level, who has been as inextricably linked with a school and a brand,” Bilas said. “But the one thing that stood out to me, he really does take every team as its own entity. He’s not trying to win a sixth national title; he’s trying to win this team’s first.
“It’s like he climbs Everest every year. He never gets tired of setting up the base camp, then going to the next camp, then eventually making it to the summit.”
Here Bilas conjures up a great analogy: “He’s like the ultimate sherpa. He takes each group to the summit. It may be his thousandth trip there, but it’s their first and he treats it that way.”
Krzyzewski’s program made Cameron Indoor Stadium the liveliest, loudest shrine in the sport. He invented the player huddle at the foul line. He invented the floor slap. His players perfected the art of taking charges. His best teams have been beautiful to watch.
He looked Dean Smith and North Carolina in the eye. He elevated Tobacco Road basketball and the Atlantic Coast Conference and its rivalries to their highest point. He pushed the conference to expand with hoops in mind. He pushed for college basketball to operate from a position of strength, not as a diminished little brother to football. (Also true: His voice wasn’t loud enough when it was time to call for the sport to clean up its act after the FBI investigation of 2017.)
Big picture, Krzyzewski ranks no worse than second in the history of men’s college basketball coaching—and you can make a strong argument that he is the greatest ever.
John Wooden won twice as many national titles at UCLA, but did it in a time when the NCAA tournament bracket was half the size and completely dictated by geography. Only in Wooden’s final season, 1975, did he have to win more than two games to reach a Final Four, and that also was the only year he had to face a team that wasn’t from the West before the Final Four. UCLA’s pre–Final Four opponents on the way to its 10 national titles: Long Beach State and San Francisco three times apiece; Santa Clara, New Mexico State, BYU and Arizona State 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 time. As Bilas noted, Wooden and Bear Bryant did all their winning before the advent of ESPN. Krzyzewski has done all of his since sports became nightly television shows and hourly internet fodder, with every development reported on with urgency and maximum heat.
Lew Alcindor may have split a sneaker the way Williamson did a couple of years ago, but the entire world wasn’t ready to turn it into a referendum on the morality of college athletics before the game even ended. Bryant assuredly was involved in some high-level recruiting battles in the 1970s, but a dozen websites weren’t keeping score. An esteemed coach might even have chided an opposing player in a postgame handshake line without it boiling over into talk-show fodder. There simply is more everyday tumult surrounding athletes and coaches now than ever before.
Working in the modern age certainly has had its advantages as well: Most-favored nation status with ESPN has been a wonderful thing; the NBA Olympic ties have been a recruiting boon; and Krzyzewski has made a boatload more money than Wooden ever did. Nobody needs to cry a river (or even a drop) for Coach K.
But don’t underestimate the uniqueness of his journey through college basketball. He blazed a swath through the sport that won’t be replicated. When he hangs it up in 2022, the game is both changed and diminished.
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