End of an Era: What's Next for Coach K
Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski is 73 years old, and both he and Duke face the prospect of his tenure with the Blue Devils ending at some point in the next few years. In a three-part series, we will look at how Duke and Coach K are preparing for this transition, as well as the other changes going on in the sport at the same time.
In Part 1, last week, we looked at the end to the one-and-done rule that has been associated with Duke for the last decade.
This week, in Part 2, we discuss how much longer Krzyzewski will be at Duke and what his next challenge might be when his coaching days are over.
We conclude next week, when Part 3 looks at who will fill the large shoes Krzyzewski will leave behind on the Duke sideline.
On Jan. 28, Pitt coach Jeff Capel returned to Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time as a visitor. Capel played four years for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in the 1990s, then served on Coach K’s staff from 2011 until 2018.
The Cameron Crazies greeted him the same way they greet many former players and recruits on their official visits to Duke—by inviting Capel to sit with them.
Krzyzewski misheard the “Jeff Capel, sit with us,” chant, however, and thought the students were mocking Capel. He shouted at them to “shut up,” then charged over to the student section at halftime, pounding his chest and shouting, “He’s one of us.”
Krzyzewski later apologized to the students for his confusion, both publicly and in a meeting with them.
Had the 44-year-old Capel been the one to misinterpret the chant, it likely would have been written off as misplaced intensity from the emotional game between mentor and student. But Krzyzewski was 72, and—fair or not, justified or not—confusion is treated differently at that age.
On Nov. 8, after an early-season win over Colorado State, a reporter from Chicago, Coach K’s hometown, asked Krzyzewski about recruiting there.
“I just enjoy recruiting anywhere there’s a good player, great kid who wants to come to Duke,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve had a few of those in Chicago, one that’s there right now in DJ and we’re happy that they finally stopped the teacher’s strike so he could go to Whitney Young and qualify to come here, although he’s qualified.”
One problem: Five-star guard DJ Steward didn’t sign with Duke until the start of the fall signing period, five days later, and discussing an unsigned high school prospect is a Level III NCAA violation.
The mistake, which resulted in a hand-slap from the NCA, was odd but not unheard of. UNC coach Roy Williams did it five years earlier, mentioning then-high schooler Brandon Ingram by name when asked about recruiting against Krzyzewski. But 65—Williams’s age at the time—is on the outside edge of the “eyebrow-raising” window for coaches who misspeak. Seventy-three, Krzyzewski’s age now, is smack dab in the middle of it. Plenty of coaches have called Wake Forest guard Brandon Childress by the name of his ACC legend father, Randolph, as Krzyzewski did repeatedly in late February, and plenty of coaches would probably have trouble remembering which flashy Georgia Tech point guard—Kenny Anderson or Stephon Marbury—led an upset of his team 20-plus years ago, as Krzyzewski did in March.
None of these incidents are to imply that there’s anything wrong with Coach K’s mind, which is still praised by assistants, players and opponents as one of the sharpest in the sport. They just show how short a rope a coach gets as he ages. Duke is perennially ranked in the top 10 and almost always in the top five. For the past 10 years, Krzyzewski has been on an epic recruiting run that has seen the Blue Devils at or near the top of each signing day’s recruiting rankings. However, 73 means that it won’t take too many misses on top recruits, or too many upset losses on the court, for the whispers to begin to gain volume. “Is he slipping? Is it time?”
The fact of the matter is that it will be "time" relatively soon. Coach K will turn 74 next February. It’s believed that just four men—Jim Boeheim, John Chaney, Lute Olson and Jim Phelan—have coached a college game at that age.
But as for the plan for when and how long, whether he’s asked by the media or potential recruits, Krzyzewski says he doesn’t know.
“I’m never asked that, to be quite frank with you. Or hardly ever,” he said of recruits posing the ‘how long’ question, “I think they see how I coach and that I’m not just sitting on my butt, that I’m still working on it. But if they did, I’d tell them that I don’t know, because that would be the honest answer.”
Still, even Krzyzewski knows that eventually, he won’t be at the helm of the Blue Devils anymore.
“(That’s) what I’ll be doing in a little bit—not coaching,” he told Philadelphia sports radio station WIP in an appearance earlier this month, “because I’m 73. At some time, that’s got to end.”
While Krzyzewski still has plenty of energy, he has missed a handful of games in recent years due to health concerns—although none in the last two seasons. He had an illness that kept him from a road game in 2016, then missed seven games the following season after a back procedure. In 2018, he missed a game with a virus. Krzyzewski also admitted that he suffered some type of “health issue” prior to Duke’s surprising home loss to Stephen F. Austin in November.
“I think whenever you’re working in a workplace, in an environment that you love, no matter what the stress of the job is, it’s going to be a lot better,” he said on an ACC coaches teleconference this season. “I love Duke. I love the type of youngsters that Duke attracts. Anyone that’s been on a college campus understands that each year is new. In the fall, it’s like a rebirth. There’s a lot of young life on every college campus.”
There have been some signs that the joy and love may be waning somewhat, however. Prior to the season, he said that the biggest change in basketball is year-round recruiting. “As a result of that, spring and summer go by real fast,” he said.
When asked about his love of coaching in college during the WIP appearance, Krzyzewski responded with, “It’s changing. There are a lot of things I don’t like about college basketball right now.”
Current events have also helped to raise the stress level for Krzyzewski in recent weeks. Filings in the Zion Williamson lawsuit hinted that the former player or his family may have accepted money to go to Duke. Williamson was cleared in an investigation by Duke, and nothing has surfaced that would contradict that conclusion. Still, it was a shot to the reputation of Coach K and the Duke program, as were threats by the legal team of Williamson’s former agent that they may attempt to depose Krzyzewski.
Then there’s the matter of the global pandemic. There was a story earlier this month on CBSSports.com quoting an associate dean at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine as saying that “I don't think it will be safe,” for a 70-something coach to be on the sideline for the upcoming basketball season, due to the coronavirus’s increased risk for older people.
Who’s in charge?
Whether it’s this fall, as a result of the COVID-19 threat, or in two to three years, eventually, someone else will be stepping into the substantial shoes that Krzyzewski will leave behind at Duke. We’ll get into who that might be in the third installment of this series next week.
First, we’ll look at Krzyzewski’s ride into the sunset. What will be next for Coach K when he’s no longer the head coach of Duke? He doesn’t golf, nor does he seem to particularly enjoy TV work.
The ideal position for the winningest coach in college basketball likely doesn’t yet exist.
Krzyzewski has long spoken of college basketball’s need for consistent leadership.
“Our sport is led by committee,” he said on WIP. “Can you tell me who is in charge of basketball? You can’t. It’s called pinpoint responsibility. The NBA has a commissioner. The NFL does. The Players Association has a head. When you’re dealing with basketball, it’s about uniting all the entities that touch the game, and when you do, you have them develop relationships. Relationships are founded by personal contact. If we don’t have a pinpoint person to do that, then we miss out on the many things that develop as a result of establishing trustful relationships with people you’re working with. We don’t have that.”
As college basketball looks for a way to resume play following the pandemic, and as it looks to the future challenges posed by the NCAA’s move to grant name, image and likeness rights to players, as well as the challenge from the NBA’s G League for top high school prospects, the need for one voice that speaks for the sport has never been greater.
“The game itself is changing,” Krzyzewski said. “In a moment of change, I’d like to be a part of crossing this bridge. I think our game is at a bridge. Let’s put it that way, and how do we cross it? Do we cross it trying to do the things we did before or do we cross it with better leadership, a better relationship with the NBA, just better?”
It’s as close as Krzyzewski has come to volunteering to serve as college basketball’s first commissioner. He said something similar during the season, while discussing the NIL rights and G-League issues.
“I don’t have a solution,” Krzyzewski said at the time. “I’d love, when there’s time, to help try to be a part of solving it. The game, obviously has been—not good to me—I’ve been the luckiest guy in the world. I love the game. There is a spot in this world for Duke against North Carolina, Michigan against Ohio State. Whoever would be in charge needs to make sure that we always do tradition. That’s the beauty, and that’s the niche we have. … We should look at the NBA and G League and high school as our partners.”
“When one of these kids is 15, and we recognize that they’re good, they have a journey of about 20 years—that’s about their life in playing,” he added. “Whoever benefits from that journey should get together so that each part of the journey is coordinated the right way, from high school to college to the pros.”
“In other words,” he concluded, “take care of the game.”
For someone nearing the end of his own journey in coaching, it sounds like a worthy next challenge to take on.