DURHAM, N.C. — Twenty-eight miles west of North Carolina’s state capitol building, past brilliant Gothic architectural buildings inside the hot box that is Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his wife, Mickie, fittingly walk onto Coach K court to the Duke pregame anthem, “Every Time We Touch,” as a light downpour blankets the 81-year-old roof.
“Even Mother Nature is sad he’s leaving,” said the security guard at the south entrance.
The somber sentiment and setting are understandable, and downright fitting for a name that has been synonymous with college basketball for roughly four decades.
On Wednesday, Duke announced that Krzyzewski, 74, will step down as head coach at the end of the 2021–22 season after 42 years at the controls, and a day later, Krzyzewski parked in front of a sea of socially distanced reporters to talk about everything from his journey as a coach to his family to how he plans to take a business-as-usual approach to the coming season.
The latter will be a tall order, even for someone who outgoing Duke athletic director Kevin White referred to as the “GOAT” (greatest of all time) on Thursday.
Sure, Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in men’s Division I history (1,170), and, yes, he’s won five national titles, but the nonstop, season-long news cycle and attention that will be his career swan song will likely present distractions that even he has yet to experience.
New Blue Devils athletic director Nina King deservedly referred to Krzyzewski as “a legend and an icon,” and much like late NBA legend Kobe Bryant during his farewell tour of a season in 2016, opposing teams and their fans are going to want to give Krzyzewski his proverbial flowers.
Still, Krzyzewski smirked at the notion that his curtain-call season would afford him any semblance of mercy from opponents.
“Don’t let them fool you,” Krzyzewski said of opponents. “Once they throw the ball up, they want to beat your butts! They want to beat us even more because it’s the last time. I get that. Don’t let it distract you.”
Easier said than done for a team that will be heavily reliant on freshmen firepower. However, it helps that those freshmen will have experienced role players to help them navigate what will be a unique season.
The Blue Devils checked in at No. 3 in Sports Illustrated’s Way-Too-Early men’s college hoops rankings, thanks in large part to a stellar recruiting class that lands at No. 2 in the SI All-American team rankings.
All-everything forward Paolo Banchero, an SI All-American first-teamer, is the star of a talented four-man haul.
Add in key returnees like Mark Williams, Jeremy Roach and Wendell Moore Jr., and Krzyzewski will have a group capable of giving him perhaps the greatest send-off in sports history—a sixth national title.
“I’m so excited about this upcoming year,” Krzyzewski said Thursday. “I’m really focused. Our freshmen come in Saturday and Sunday. I’m in a deep dive with it. I want to coach my team. I want this to be as good a basketball team as I’ve had in 46 years. I’m not gonna be anticipatory with anything.”
Still, the Krzyzewski hysteria will make the distractions inescapable.
Bryant had to contend with what seemed to be a 24-hour news cycle charting his every basket, never-ending postgame jersey swaps with opposing players, standing ovations from fans, curtain calls and more.
But as you might’ve expected from a legendary coach with a military background who has undergone his fair share of adjustments in 46 years, Krzyzewski isn’t concerned about what he can’t control.
“I’m not gonna change what I do this year, neither is my staff,” said Krzyzewski, as he nodded to his successor and associate head coach Jon Scheyer. “We’re gonna go after it. They understand.”
That said, Krzyzewski said he’d embrace the pomp and circumstance at home games, saying he wants the Cameron Crazies to be in rare form all season. Another challenging task for a group that’s widely regarded as the rowdiest, most creative fan base in college sports.
That’s why it’s fitting, and perhaps even calculated, that Krzyzewski’s last words were a rallying call to them.
“Come back in August and be ready,” he said. “Let’s see what happens; let’s see what the hell happens!”
More Coach K Coverage: