Those of you who visit this space regularly know that, for some time now, I’ve made my living covering college football exclusively.
But I do love college basketball. Particularly when the calendar turns to March.
I’ve covered 23 Final Fours and have long felt that the Saturday semifinals of the NCAA Tournament are one of the greatest days in all of sport.
I promise to keep this short but I could not let Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium pass without sharing some memories.
Coach K, who has 1,196 wins, 12 Final Fours, and five national championships, will cross the court named for him and sit on his bench one final time Saturday when the Blue Devils host their most-hated rivalry, the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The Cameron Crazies, who obviously weren’t even born when Coach K made his first trip across the floor in 1980, will turn that place into a den of noise that is hard to top. Over the years I’ve covered a number of senior days at Duke and they are as emotional as it gets.
But it is one thing to say goodbye to Shane Battier, Christian Laettner or Johnny Dawkins. It’s another thing to say goodbye to the greatest coach in the history of the game.
I hope the TV folks were not planning to start this game on time. It won’t. This crowd will not let Krzyzewski leave that building without the loudest and longest standing ovation in history. You can count on it.
A lot of great words have been written about the former Army captain. I will simply share some personal memories of Coach K:
**--It was March 17, 1980 and I was working for the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record. Our sports editor, the late, great Smith Barrier, walked out his office and said: “Duke just hired Army’s Coach.” His point was that we had no idea who this guy was other than the fact that he played for Bob Knight at Army.
One thing we did right away. In the newspaper business we had what was called “Second Coming type.” It was type that was so big it was never be used unless, well, we had a second coming.
But we used second coming type to spell the word:
It was pasted it on the wall for the entire department to see. There would be no excuse for misspelling his name.
**--In Coach K’s first season (1980-81) the Blue Devis finished the regular season 15-12 and made the NIT. After a couple of wins Duke played a quarterfinal game at Purdue, losing 81-69. I was standing in the concourse when the game officials ran by. Coach K was not far behind them. And what he said cannot be repeated here because my mother reads this. But I knew this guy had an edge about him.
**--The 1991 Final Four in Indianapolis was one of the best semifinal Saturdays ever. Everybody remembers that Duke beat undefeated and No. 1-ranked UNLV 79-77 in the second game at the RCA Dome. But I only saw the second half of that game because in the first game Dean Smith, North Carolina’s legendary coach, was ejected by official Pete Pavia, as the Tar Heels lost to Kansas and Roy Williams. It was a huge story.
I finally got back to my seat at press row and started hammering out the story. While I’m trying to write Duke and UNLV are playing a game for the ages. I turned to my Atlanta Journal-Constitution colleague Mark Bradley and said “Mark, looks like I’m missing a helluva game here. I hope you’ll tell me about it someday.”
But I finished my North Carolina-Kansas story in time to take in the final 7-8 minutes. It was one of the bigger upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
To no one’s surprise Duke beat Kansas for the national championship the following Monday.
**--Duke repeated as national champions in 1992 but the lasting memory from that season was Grant Hill’s baseball pass to Christian Laettner and his shot at the buzzer which gave Duke a 104-103 overtime win against Kentucky for the NCAA East regional championship in Philadelphia.
These two memories have stuck with me:
Everybody in the Spectrum and sitting along press row got it as soon as the game was over. There was no need for debate or reflection. We had seen the best—game—ever.
Then there was Krzyzewski walking over to speak to Cawood Ledford, Kentucky’s hall of fame radio voice. Ledford had already announced that he would retire after the NCAA Tournament was over for the Wildcats. Coach K congratulated the Kentucky players and Ledford on a great caeer,
It was a class act.
Duke went on to beat Michigan and the Fab Five for the national championship in Minneapolis.
**--There was senior day at Duke for Steve Wojciechowski on Feb. 28, 1998. After an emotional pre-game, Duke fell behind 17 points with only 12 minutes left. But the Blue Devils stormed back and won 77-75. As the final seconds ticked off the clock it was clear that the students, who were sitting right behind us on press row, were going to storm the floor. So I put a leg over the table and, when the final horn sounded, ran as hard as I could and I was able to see Wojciechowski, who had one point and 11 assists, run into the arms of Coach K. The win gave Duke the ACC regular season championship.
It was the most emotion I’ve ever seen in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Pretty sure Saturday night’s Curtain Call for Coach K will top it.