Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
It wasn’t supposed to end like this! Sure, expecting any retiring coach to go out with a championship swan song might be a little aggressive. But this wasn’t just any coach - this was Mike Krzyzewski! Coach K! He’s maybe the most widely recognized and beloved college basketball coach ever. His 13 Final Four appearances eclipse even the venerable John Wooden. But, by about 10:00 PM on April 2, it felt like everything Krzyzewski had accomplished in his career went down the proverbial drain after losing to Duke’s hated rivals, the North Carolina Tar Heels, in the Final Four. For the first time ever in the history of this storied rivalry, Duke and North Carolina faced off in the midst of the NCAA Tournament, and now UNC has earned eternal bragging rights. Coach K, however, doesn’t have to hang his head.
Despite falling short of their ultimate goal of a National Championship in Coach K’s last season as the head coach of the Blue Devils, Duke still had an outstanding season. And for Coach K, outstanding seasons are the norm, not the exception.
Since being hired as Duke’s head coach back in 1980, Krzyzewski turned the school into a basketball powerhouse, routinely finishing with strong regular season records, conference championships, and, on occasion, even national championships. His 1,129 career wins at the college level leads all coaches at any level. Division 1 or Division 2, the Men’s game or the Women’s, Coach K is at the top.
In addition to pacing college basketball in the win column, Coach K also racked up 13 regular season ACC Conference Championships, 15 ACC Tournament Championships, and five National Championships to go with the record 13 Final Fours. Coach K also was named the Naismith College Coach of the Year three times, a record he shares with current Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
The five National Titles Krzyzewski won in his career stands solidly in second all-time to Wooden, despite coaching in an era defined by constant change. When Coach K began his career at Duke, college players routinely spent three to four seasons before attempting to make the jump to the pro game. Today? College coaches are lucky if they can get their best players to stay for two. The rise in analytics in basketball has led to a shift where layups and three-pointers have become shot-diet staples, and mid-range jump shots have gone full-Betamax. The post-game has all but disappeared and likewise the lumbering big men who loved to hang out beneath the basket. Yet, no matter how the rules change, no matter the style of play, and no matter the style of player, Coach K just keeps on winning.
Except, as I mentioned earlier, this past Saturday. Boy, what a game to lose. It’s bad enough that the team you hate more than any other gets to end your coaching career, but to have it done twice? That’s bad.
Back on March 5, almost a month ago to the day, the Tar Heels shocked the NCAA Basketball world by downing the Blue Devils 94 - 81 in Cameron Indoor, spoiling Coach K’s last regular season game of his career. Now, UNC up and did it again, only this time in an even more heartbreaking fashion.
Armando Bacot, UNC’s 6’10’’ forward, has suddenly become Moses Malone-reincarnated, dominating on the glass, averaging 14.5 rebounds per game over his last eight games to go with 16.1 points per game over the same span. The junior has hauled in 21 and 22 rebounds in his last two games, versus Duke and Saint Peter’s, respectively. Sophomore guard Caleb Love, who helped UNC erase a second-half deficit against Duke by spearheading a 13 - 0 run, has been lights-out throughout this tournament run, consistently hitting huge shots, even with defenders draped all over him. First-year head coach Hubert Davis has stepped in for the retired college basketball legend Roy Williams and reinvigorated a team that is quite similar to the one the bowed out in the first round of the tournament in 2021.
That said, the loss doesn’t take anything away from the remarkable career of Mike Krzyzewski. The wins, the conference championships, the Final Fours, the National Titles…these things speak for themselves. At the very least, Coach K is the second greatest coach in the history of college basketball, and by some measures, the greatest.
While it’s hard to look at John Wooden’s 10 National Titles and shrug, it’s important to remember that Wooden’s success came at a time when the talent level of college basketball was nowhere near what it is today. Of course, it’s impossible to separate the state of the game today from Wooden’s contributions to the sport, but we should at least consider how much more challenging it is for someone to win today than when Wooden was dominating the sport with UCLA.
For instance, while Wooden’s 10 titles in 12 years are mind-boggling, Coach K’s five is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you consider that K also finished as the runner-up four times as well. Throw Coach K’s record 13 Final Fours to Wooden’s 12, and the sustained excellence of Duke’s run compares favorably to UCLA’s supernova dynasty in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
If you put a gun to my head, though, and forced me to pick one, I’m still going to go with Wooden, the man who basically put college basketball on the map. When you’ve coached NBA greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Gail Goodrich at the collegiate level, you know you’re doing something right.
Look at some of the players Coach K helped develop, though. Names like Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, J.J. Reddick, and Bobby Hurley just scream, “College Basketball!” Even one-and-done superstars like Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Jahlil Okafor and Marvin Bagley III left their mark on the sport. None of this would have been possible without the man himself, Coach K.
To understand the depth of respect and authority Coach K demands, even from players who moved on to the NBA level, look no further than his exceptional work as USA Basketball’s head coach. After disappointing bronze-medal finishes in the 2004 Summer Olympics and the 2006 FIBA World Championships, the US National Team brought Coach K onboard to right the ship. Sure enough, Coach K and the “Redeem Team” brought home the gold in 2008 and would do so again in 2012 and 2016. This same man has never coached one second in the NBA; yet he was able to come in and get players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dywane Wade to play together and reach for a common goal. If there are any other coaches who are capable of maintaining control over teams filled with young and inexperienced college players and also teams filled with veteran and deeply serious professional players, each with their own goals and egos, we have not been introduced.
Even though Coach K’s 2022 season and his career didn’t end the way he, or Duke, would have liked, he has nothing to be ashamed of. Besides Wooden (maybe), no one has done more to grow the sport of college basketball. Coach K is synonymous with winning. That, not two losses to UNC, will be his legacy.