Commentary: Coach K still shows the fire that launched him into John Wooden’s orbit

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski instructs his players during the second half of the Blue Devils' 94-81 loss to North Carolina.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski instructs his players during the second half of the Blue Devils’ 94-81 loss to North Carolina in Coach K’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)

Mike Krzyzewski’s last order to a Duke basketball player at Cameron Indoor Stadium was telling guard Jeremy Roach to stop fouling North Carolina with 22.8 seconds left.

“No more,” Coach K said.

The next time down, Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr. fouled again, prolonging one of the most shocking losses of his coach’s storied career.

None of it made any sense. Unranked North Carolina 94, No. 4 Duke 81. On this night. As unbelievable as the 40 minutes were that led to that score, the next 15 would be even more surreal.


Coach K and his players went back to the locker room, leaving the faithful with their sad tears. The arena remained full because of the promised postgame celebration, but the spirit that has flowed within these rafters for four decades was now gutted.

North Carolina beat Duke 94-81 in the final game of Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski at Cameron Indoor Stadium with 90 ex-Blue Devils players on hand.

Inside the Duke locker room, Coach K was showing his distaste to a young group of Blue Devils that will never live this down. Outside in Cameron, “We Are Family” was blaring from the speakers, but nobody was singing along. Hours earlier, it had been the voices of these same 9,000 souls belting out the national anthem in unison that had cut right through Krzyzewski’s hope that he would keep his emotions in check. He wanted to stay “in character,” he said, but, “just the music, you start crying.”

Now Coach K was walking back into the building, holding his wife Mickie’s hand. He formed two huddles, one with Mickie and their three daughters, the other with his 10 grandchildren.

Then he decided to do his own thing. It was not in the program for him to go take the microphone at half-court.

“We love you!” a fan yelled.

“No, no, I don’t love me right now,” he said, his voice hoarse. “I’m sorry about this afternoon.”


They did not accept his apology.

“No, no, NO, please everyone be quiet!” he pleaded, as if truly surrounded by trusted loved ones. “Let me just say, it’s unacceptable. Today was unacceptable, but the season has been very acceptable.

“The season isn’t over, alright?”

Coach K said earlier this week that sports is the best reality TV, that he was going to just let Saturday happen and see where it would lead him. Indeed, this unscripted outburst, HIS internal disgust pouring out in public on a stage that was meant to glorify him, was an undeniably real look into the man some claim is the greatest college basketball coach of all time (like the Lakers’ LeBron James, who appeared on the pregame video, saying, “The GOAT”).

In retrospect, maybe it shouldn’t have been so surprising that Coach K’s young men, playing with the weight of 42 years on their 18-to-22-year-old shoulders, couldn’t complete the task.

“We can all be beaten by human nature,” Coach K would say later. “The ones who do it really well have a very high winning percentage against human nature.”


John Wooden’s UCLA teams had a pretty good record against our worst impulses too.

There is no way to measure Coach K’s immeasurable impact on college basketball and American sporting culture as a whole without bringing up Wooden, who remains the GOAT inside many hearts and minds, especially in Southern California. A fresh point of comparison Saturday, given the events in Durham, was how they handled their respective retirements.

For a revered coach who has stayed around long enough to morph into a legend walking among mortals, there is no perfect way to leave the stage to someone else.

Wooden battled within himself throughout the spring of 1975 about when to tell his players. By the time the Final Four came around, rumors of his retirement were beginning to swirl, and the one thing he knew for sure was that he didn’t want them finding out from a newspaper.


UCLA basketball coach John Wooden celebrates with Sidney Wicks and other UCLA players.
UCLA basketball coach John Wooden celebrates with Sidney Wicks and other UCLA players after defeating Villanova for the 1971 NCAA title at the Houston Astrodome.

To begin the week, he told his two seniors, who admirably kept the secret. And, after UCLA beat Louisville 75-74 in the national semifinal on a last-second shot in overtime by Richard Washington, Wooden decided it was time to tell the rest.

“I’m bowing out,” the 64-year-old said, his words met by silence in a locker room that normally would have been raucously celebrating advancing to Monday’s final.

Wooden could have told the team at halftime when the Bruins were trailing by four points, but said, “I didn’t want to … because I wouldn’t want to use a thing like that to try to hype up a team. I don’t believe in using artificial means like that.”

But he was fine to see if the emotional jolt would motivate his team against Kentucky. Of course it did, and the Bruins beat the Wildcats 92-85 for their 10th national championship in 12 seasons, sending “The Man” as they called Wooden fittingly out on top.

By design, Wooden did not receive a season’s worth of ceremonial sendoffs, but in some small way, maybe the sport’s zealots were cheated a bit by not being able to say a more proper goodbye. He was suddenly gone, and the next generation of hungry younger coaches like North Carolina’s Dean Smith and Indiana’s Bob Knight were eager to take over.


The greatest threat to Wooden’s throne, however, remained anonymous.

That spring, as Wooden took his first steps toward a normal life with his wife, Nell, the United States Military Academy quietly hired a 28-year-old retired Army captain named Mike Krzyzewski to be its basketball coach.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, second from left, stands with his former players during a pregame ceremony Saturday.
(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)


Nearly half a century later, hundreds of Duke students are walking toward the thumping heart of their campus, almost in a trance, as dark falls on Durham. It is Friday night, the eve of the end, before Coach K’s Blue Devils host North Carolina one last time.

It is tradition for Krzyzewski to welcome the students to Cameron the night before the Carolina game to listen to him speak. This time, dozens of the 96 former players who are in town are there, too, soaking up as much of their coach as they can in his final hours.


Sporting a blue Duke quarter-zip shirt and gray pants, Coach K takes the microphone and begins by covering the basics — congratulating his team for its ACC regular season title and laying out his expectations for Saturday.

“I want to ask you to make tomorrow night all about Duke,” he says. “When the other team is introduced, do not say, ‘You suck.’ ”

“BUT THEY DO!” a young man blurts out. The kids laugh.

Was that Mike Krzyzewski departing from his normally composed demeanor, jumping up and down and -- gasp!

“Don’t say it. I’m asking you not to,” Krzyzewski says. “Don’t pay attention to them. Don’t have signs that bring up stupid — I mean, they’re probably smart — things. Only Duke.”

This is the type of moment that made Coach K a beloved figure in the early 1990s as his clean-cut Blue Devils took down Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, who were already in the NCAA infractions committee’s crosshairs, and Michigan’s famed Fab Five, which would find their own NCAA reckoning down the road.

Eventually, though, Coach K’s holier-than-thou vibe — likely because fans got so tired of the Blue Devils’ consistent winning and ESPN’s love affair with all things Duke — solicited more eye rolls than appreciation, especially as Krzyzewski began to build his teams with the same “one-and-done” NBA talents as John Calipari at Kentucky.


Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski takes a bow while being recognized during a pregame ceremony Saturday.
(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)

In the last days before name, image and likeness was approved by NCAA rules, did a guy like Zion Williamson really choose to play at Duke without some kind of improper inducement behind the scenes? The critics had good reason to be dubious.

Over four decades in Durham, Coach K had certainly spanned the eras like no other coach had and, despite everything that had changed around him, held tightly to the romantic ideals that defined college basketball back when Krzyzewski’s program grabbed the nation’s imagination.

Addressing the students, he can’t help but want them to know that Duke is still different.

“College basketball has changed a lot,” he says. “Last spring, we had four players coming back, and we had four recruits coming in, and I met with all eight of those guys, and I said, ‘I’m not accepting any transfers except for two grad transfers. You can have as many as 13 guys, but I’m not taking anybody. You’re my guys.’ ”

Coach K also wants the students to know how his retirement came to be. It started with a conversation he and Mickie had in Las Vegas. Then they convened with their three daughters who make up the family’s “starting five,” as they call it. The plan was now in place, and one of the best parts of this year was getting to tell his grandson, Michael Savarino, a Duke walk-on, that he had earned a scholarship.

“He’s just balling his eyes out, and I’m starting to cry too,” Coach K says. “I knew then what I wanted this season to be. I wanted to be so close to my players that they all felt that way. I can tell you this has been one of the closest teams that I’ve coached. I love my team.”


Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski applauds while being recognized before Sunday's game against North Carolina.
Surrounded by former players, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski applauds while being recognized before Sunday’s game against North Carolina.
(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)

The students can feel his emotion, and it’s not even Saturday yet. He tells them that they have given him energy all these years, keeping him young. He tells them this is his Senior Night, and together they give him an “awww.”

“There’s a cheer where people say, ‘This is our house,’ ” Coach K says. “But for us, this is not our house. This is our home. What does that mean to all of you? It means that this is your home forever. There’s going to be a time when you’ve graduated, you’re making a lot of money, hopefully following your heart, and you’re going to come back here. Well, it’s your home.

“And that’s the difference between Cameron and every other place. It’s yours. When we play tomorrow night, cheer like it’s your home.”


Saturday, the students would have to be willing to share their space too. Over the course of this season, this ticket became such a bucket list item among Duke fans and general appreciators of sport that the average ticket price soared to more than $5,000.


One woman brought a sign that said, “I spent my kid’s inheritance to be here.” There’s a decent chance she wasn’t joking.

The sideline seats behind the team benches had the feel of a Lakers game. Jerry Seinfeld sat next to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Seinfeld was wearing earplugs, a sure sign that the Cameron Crazies were doing their job just fine (but also totally on brand for the persnickety comedian). Pro golfer Justin Thomas sat close to Warriors general manager Bob Myers. Then, of course, there was Duke’s star-studded cast of former players — Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, JJ Redick, Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Grayson Allen … the list went on and on.

Actor and comedian Jerry Seinfeld sits next to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
Actor and comedian Jerry Seinfeld, center, sits next to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, right, before Duke’s game against North Carolina.
(Chris Seward / Associated Press)

When Coach K took the court for pregame, nearly 100 of his “Formers,” as he calls them, formed a column around him from the locker room to half-court. They all wore white pullovers with a blue ‘K’ on their right breast.

“They’re all friends,” Coach K would say. “Our lives have intertwined, so you see them and you try to not get into a story about each one.”

The game simply fell apart for the Blue Devils late. They couldn’t do anything right on both ends of the floor. Even a lesser North Carolina team like this year’s group wasn’t going to let Duke off the hook. And yet, the fans were still waiting for them afterward inside Cameron, yearning to love them.


How could Coach K leave all of this? Well, easy. It was just the right time. He’s already been thinking about getting a new dog.


After John Wooden’s sudden exit, it was natural to wonder if there would ever be another like him.

If you’re into purely counting national championships — Coach K has five to Wooden’s 10 — then the answer remains no and will likely remain so into eternity.

But if you’re charting Krzyzewski’s overall impact on the game over 47 years, how much the country’s love or hate of one coach and his program colored the experience of college basketball, there’s at least an argument that Wooden has been eclipsed by Coach K as a towering figure.

“It’s hard to argue with 10 championships in 12 years. That was unprecedented and impossible to duplicate,” says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who played at Duke from 1982 to 1986. “But I think if you stretched it out over Wooden’s entire career, you can make the argument that Coach K had a higher level of success over a more extended period. His first time at No. 1 was my senior year in 1986, and he was No. 1 this year. He’s been No. 1 in every decade.”


It seems as if John Wooden’s unmatched UCLA run has largely been ignored in all the deserving tributes to Coach K since he announced his retirement.

For the last 75 years, one of John Wooden or Mike Krzyzewski has been manning a college basketball sideline. Could there really be another coach waiting in the wings that could captivate like them, or is Coach K the last of the lions?

Bobby Hurley, who along with Laettner was one of the faces of Duke’s back-to-back national title run, followed Coach K into coaching as many of his players have. Every day at Arizona State, Hurley is trying to build something special, something his mentor would be proud of, but it’s just hard to replicate these days.

“It certainly is a different world,” Hurley says, “just in terms of the transfer portal and now NIL. I played for my dad, who was a very hard-nosed disciplinarian type coach, then Coach K, who was very good at building connections with his players but was also very hard on you. I think you have to reach this generation a little different and be very creative in how you coach. To me, it’s more of a partnership with how I view coaching my team, getting through to them in a different way than maybe coaches were able to 20-30 years ago.”

Says Bilas, “It’s pro basketball, with the amenities they have, the facilities, the travel. They’re pro players, and now they can make money. They’re going to be paid at some point in the very near future by their institutions. Players can transfer now without penalty. Players now have rights they were denied before, and you can’t treat them the way you used to be able to treat them.”

In this long overdue time of player empowerment, the coach’s power has been minimized in every place but his pocketbook.


“The money has gone up which is awesome, but the job’s become 365, 24/7,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin says. “Coach Wooden used to write guys letters [to recruits]. He’d write a letter to guys and then he saw them again in September. Dean Smith lived in the Outer Banks in the summer and the only time he went back to Chapel Hill was to run his camps.

“Right now, my daughter is asking me about vacation and I’m looking at AAU weekends in April, high school tournaments in June and the July recruiting calendar. And you don’t know who’s going pro. You can’t plan a vacation because you just don’t know, and nobody feels sorry for us, nor should they, because of the money we make. But it all leads to people throwing up the white flag at some point.”

Longevity, then, will be the biggest issue going forward.

“Wooden made $32,500 his last year. I think Coach K made that during the course of this conversation,” says CBS Sports analyst Seth Davis, who wrote “Wooden: A Coach’s Life.”

“The conversations I have with coaches now are less interviews and more like therapy. They say ‘never say never,’ but it is hard to imagine somebody doing again what Mike Krzyzewski did.”

Clearly, Coach K could not imagine himself doing it. Last year, it was North Carolina’s Roy Williams who could not muster the energy for it any longer.

This week, Krzyzewski sounded absolutely fed up with the state of college basketball — and disappointed that he hadn’t been able to leave the game in a better place for the next generation of coaches.

“I don’t even know who you talk to about it,” he says. “It’s like a bunch of ships out there, but where do you port, where do you dock? It’s a troubling time, really. I’m probably not on top of it like I would normally be. To be quite frank, I don’t want to think about it anymore. It’s been very frustrating, kind of a failing in my time, that we were unable to have a bigger influence, me and my brothers in coaching.”



Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski speaks to the crowd following the team's 94-81 loss to North Carolina on Saturday.
(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)

After his apology ad-lib to kick off the postgame ceremony, Coach K got back on script for the rest of the night. But with a crushing loss fresh, he still wanted to make sure none of the Formers in particular left with any bigger worries about the state of their program.

“The brotherhood, it’s not going to go away,” he said. “We have a great succession plan.”

Jon Scheyer, one of the leaders from Duke’s 2010 national championship team and a current assistant coach, will be entrusted with the kingdom.

The pressure will be incalculably high, following this guy.

“We didn’t play well. And there are times when you didn’t either,” Coach K reminded them, getting some laughs.


“Hopefully today for this program right now is a great learning experience. First of all, look what you’re a part of. Are you kidding me? We need to fight for Duke, we need to fight for the brotherhood, and we need to fight with all our might the rest of this season.

“Then I’ll be ready to get the hell out of here.”