There was growing speculation in recent weeks that maybe, just maybe, something like this might could be in the works — that a mere two months after North Carolina’s Roy Williams surprisingly and abruptly retired, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski could also be on the verge of announcing his plan to exit the sport he’s headlined for decades. So no, Wednesday’s news that the winningest coach in the history of men’s Division I basketball will retire after one more season didn’t completely come out of nowhere, but that doesn’t make the development any less jarring if only because nobody has been more synonymous with college basketball than Krzyzewski has been for, give or take, the past 30 years.
Everybody knows Coach K.
Think about that.
You don’t have to be a basketball fan, or even a sports fan, to be familiar with Krzyzewski. You know the voice, the hair, the remarkable accomplishments. In a sport where single-word monikers are fairly common — Tark, Tubby, Cal, Huggs, so on and so forth — only one man has ever owned a single letter.
K is K.
And now K is on his way out.
“My family and I view today as a celebration,” Krzyzewski said. “Our time at both West Point and Duke has been beyond amazing, and we are thankful and honored to have led two college programs at world-class institutions for more than four decades. That, coupled with 11 unforgettable years as the United States National Team coach, has resulted in a remarkable journey. Certainly, I have been blessed to coach some of the finest young men and greatest players in basketball history as a direct result of these unique opportunities. For us, there is no greater joy than being part of our players’ respective endeavors through basketball, and more importantly, their lives off the court. Our family is eternally grateful to everyone who contributed to our career for the past 46 years. So, to the countless members of our extended family, thank you very much.”
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In conversations with people around Krzyzewski in recent months, two things became increasingly clear: (1) The end was coming sooner than later, but (2) Krzyzewski was motivated to leave on a high note. And when you take those two things into account, the plan Duke officials have put into place actually makes a lot of sense because it allows the Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer to distance himself from last season’s disaster that ended with the Blue Devils missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995 while simultaneously providing him with an off ramp just weeks after turning 75 next February.
Will Duke be the favorite to win what would be Krzyzewski’s sixth national championship?
But the Blue Devils should be legitimate contenders thanks to a recruiting class headlined by five-star prospect Paolo Banchero, the possible No. 1 overall pick of the 2022 NBA Draft. So, at least theoretically, Krzyzewski will have a shot to go out on top, and if not on top, at least with something significantly better than the career-worst 10th-place finish in the ACC he just recorded.
Either way, he’ll never have to look at the transfer portal again.
I note that to point out that it’s hard to get around the fact that the sport Krzyzewski entered as an assistant at Indiana in 1974 is nearly nothing like the one he’ll be exiting in 2022. Once upon a time, you could recruit a Johnny Dawkins, Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley or Grant Hill and be reasonably sure you’d coach them for multiple years, perhaps four straight years. Now, recruiting five-star prospects more often leads to replacing them after only one season. When you combine that with the new transfer rules that require coaches to re-recruit their own teams annually, well, it’s a lot. And that’s why it should be unsurprising that a man deep into his 70s — with all of the money in the world, a legacy cemented and grandkids to love — doesn’t have much interest in living that life anymore.
So, let the farewell tour commence.
Yes, I know the whole thing will be exhausting for some — specifically the anti-Duke crowd that never misses a chance to kick a program when it’s down (even if it’s almost never down), but if you can set that to the side, the truth is that it’s rare we know in advance that we’re about to watch an icon of this stature coach or play for the final time. So in that respect, this will be fun and cool and clearly the biggest storyline of the season, especially if Duke proves to be a contender that makes it realistic to think the final game of the 2022 NCAA Tournament could double as the last game of Coach K’s incredible career.