Not two years later, Duke traveled to Chestnut Hill, Mass., to play its first road conference game against BC. I was driving back from a game in Athens, listening to Duke-BC via the magic of Sirius XM. Early in the proceedings, the BC radio crew was complimentary about everything involving the Blue Devils. J.J. Redick: great player. Shelden Williams: great player. Mike Krzyzewski: great coach.
By game’s end, the same BC folks were screaming about the officiating. This was the late-Wednesday ESPN game, so there were eyeballs involved. That game launched the heaviest round – over time, there were a few – of conspiracy theories regarding referees kowtowing to the great Coach K.
Seven weeks later, Duke would be upset by the LSU of Big Baby and John Brady in the Sweet 16 in the Georgia Dome. A writer seated in front of the Krzyzewski family – Mickie and her many daughters – swore he heard one of them yell, “Hey, ref! Where’s your conspiracy theory tonight?”
To say that Krzyzewski’s reign in Durham has seen his Devils get the benefit of many doubts is not a conspiracy theory. It’s the fact, Jack. Adolph Rupp got similar treatment at Kentucky. Dean Smith did in Chapel Hill. It was Krzyzewski himself who, after a loss to North Carolina in 1984, claimed the ACC had a “double standard” regarding the Tar Heels vis-à-vis everybody else. Soon he would be the double standard.
Has it been fun over these many years to poke a bit of fun at Coach K and his crew? I’d be lying if I said no. Here, though, is the bottom line: He’s the greatest college basketball coach I’ve ever seen. I can make the case he’s the greatest there ever was.
Between them, Smith and Roy Williams took five NCAA titles at Carolina. Krzyzewski won that many by himself. Only John Wooden has more, and his 10 championships were taken over 12 years. His UCLA teams had to win two games to reach the Final Four, and none of those two came against a Kansas or a Kentucky. Back in the day, NCAA regionals really were regional.
Krzyzewski has taken Duke to 12 Final Fours, each requiring four wins to get there. Wooden also reached 12, all between 1962 and 1975. K’s dozen begins in 1986; his most recent was in 2015. His championships came in 1991, 1992, 2001, 2010 and 2015. Nobody else has taken titles 24 years apart. Krzyzewski has won 94 NCAA Tournament games. Second is Williams, with 77. Wooden won 47.
It was learned Wednesday that Krzyzewski plans to retire after next season. Duke is reported to have tapped Jon Scheyer, who played under Krzyzewski and now is his assistant, will succeed him. In the latter half of K’s 41-year reign in Durham, he has hired only assistants who played for him. His program has become more insular than any other, but that’s how it works: You win five national championships, you do as you please.
(Memory lane: Scheyer made the 3-pointer that sealed Duke’s victory over Tech in the 2010 ACC final. Krzyzewski called the play. Scheyer cut off a down screen to pop open on the right wing.)
Could Krzyzewski be off-putting? Oh, yes. Did he occasionally – OK, more than occasionally – talk down to us media types? Affirmative. But he has never been anything less than fascinating, in the same way Nick Saban is fascinating. They’re the best at what they do. Every time I listened to Coach K, I learned something. That’s why I’ve made it a point to listen.
That he’s taking his leave isn’t shocking. He’s 74. There’s nothing he can win he hasn’t won – though, knowing him, he’ll probably win it all again to remind us that he’s still the master. That said, it can’t be entirely coincidental that Williams, long his rival, stepped down at Carolina two months ago. The transfer portal has rendered a difficult job nigh-impossible. There has been no better time to retire.
Krzyzewski could have exited at 55 with his place in the Hall of Fame ensured. That he kept going at such an exalted level puts him at the pinnacle. Tyus Jones, the most outstanding player of Duke’s most recent title, was born five years after Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley led the Devils to the epic upset of unbeaten UNLV. No other coach has been this good for this long. No other coach will be.