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‘I Could Not Ask for More’: Even in Defeat, Coach K’s Final Chapter Will Endure

Duke’s loss to arch-rival UNC produced a startling scene and the end of a remarkable career.

Mike Krzyzewski sat on a golf cart with his wife Mickie, surrounded by media members, in his last public moment as Duke’s head coach.

As the golf cart pulled away, Krzyzewski joked about superimposing a sunset behind him. And just before he drove out of earshot, he added two more words.

“Thank you.”

Coach K was one of the lone Blue Devils not to be teary-eyed in the aftermath of his final game as head coach, a stunning 81–77 Final Four defeat to arch-rival North Carolina in an all-time epic showdown that will be remembered in college basketball lore forever. He was uninterested in discussing his career or his legacy or even the emotions of it all coming to an end.

Coach K walks on the sideline during the Final Four

The Blue Devils fell two wins short of sending Krzyzewski out a champ.

Instead, he grinned as he spoke of how good the game he had just lost had been.

Krzyzewski has coached in more men’s Final Fours than anyone in the sport’s history, more than half of which he reached before anyone on his roster was born. Perhaps that experience granted him a greater perspective than the 18, 19 and 20-year olds who flanked him for one final postgame press conference.

“I think when you have three daughters, 10 grandchildren and you've been through quite a bit, you're used to taking care of the emotions of the people you love and that you're responsible for,” Krzyzewski said. “I'm sure at some time I'll deal with this in my own way.”

Instead of the storybook ending with blue and white confetti pouring down, Krzyzewski had to stand and wait as North Carolina celebrated on the court. He stood waiting for the Carolina players to shake hands, which they eventually did after sprinting to celebrate with family and friends.

UNC celebrated like it had won a national championship. It’s hard to blame the Tar Heels, considering the stakes of this Final Four game. This was Duke vs. North Carolina, with more than 70,000 packed into the Superdome in New Orleans, for a chance to either send college basketball’s all-time winningest coach out in fairytale fashion or end his reign atop the Blue Devils program with a loss to their most hated rival. It captivated not just the college hoops-crazed state of North Carolina, but also the nation. Regardless of what happens in Monday’s championship game, this game and this moment will be the one remembered from this tournament forever.

So when Caleb Love’s second free throw swished through to give North Carolina a decisive four-point lead with under 10 seconds to play, the emotion that trumped all others in this packed football-turned-basketball stadium was shock. Shock that Krzyzewski’s career didn’t end in storybook fashion. Shock at the shot-making exhibition put on by these two rivals. And shock that of all the teams that took down Krzyzewski’s final team, it was North Carolina, the school that handed Krzyzewski his first loss, his last home loss and, now, his last loss.

But after that rush of emotion once the buzzer sounded, Tar Heels players and coaches seemed to turn the page quickly. If this was their national championship game, they certainly didn’t show it at the dais postgame, save for an ear-to-ear grin and a shrug from coach Hubert Davis shortly after walking in. They too weren’t interested in talking about beating Duke or ending Krzyzewski’s career or what any of it means, just focused on the 40 minutes and the Kansas team that stands between them and a national championship in Davis’s first season at the helm.

“When I talk about the noise and things that aren't beneficial to help us prepare, to help us practice and help us play, I think dwelling on the two wins against Duke doesn't help us against Kansas,” Davis said.

Still, nothing can be said to diminish the historical significance of all of this. Krzyzewski’s career ending would be one thing. But it ending on this stage, against a first-year head coach at North Carolina, in the first-ever NCAA tournament edition of college basketball’s best rivalry? That’s the stuff books are written about and documentaries are pitched on. Davis went from some perceiving him as a failure 20 games into his tenure to beating perhaps the sport’s greatest coach ever twice in a month in the two most-anticipated games of the season. He may not want to get caught up in the history, but everyone else will, and they’ll remember this night for as long as people are talking about college basketball.

UNC players celebrate on the court after beating Duke

UNC has now beat its rival twice in a month.

Meanwhile, Coach K spent far more time lamenting some of the missed chances to win this game and sharing his joy for the journey with his final team than he spent memorializing his career.

“We made our announcement it would be our last year—I told my wife, Mickie, ‘Look, we’re going for it. And I’m going to put everything into it. And I got a group, they’re young, but I think they’ve got a chance.’ And I was right about that,” Krzyzewski said. “We had a few bumps in the road, but they won 32 games. And they turned it around in March where they’ve been beautiful young men to coach. I could not ask for more.”

In a different world, with a bounce here or there, Krzyzewski would be 40 minutes from capping a retirement tour for the ages. But, as Krzyzewski said postgame in a reference to a famous Teddy Roosevelt quote, simply being in the arena is all he could have asked for.

“I’ve been blessed to be in the arena. And when you’re in the arena, you’re either going to come out feeling great or you’re going to feel agony, but you always will feel great about being in the arena,” Krzyzewski said. “And I’m sure that that’s the thing when I’ll look back that I’ll miss. I won’t be in the arena anymore. But, damn, I was in the arena for a long time. And these kids made my last time in the arena an amazing one.”

More Coach K Coverage:

• Coach K, the Ultimate Team Builder
• Every Duke SI Cover During Coach K’s Tenure
 The Best of SI’s All-Time Coach K Coverage