The convenient take on Mike Krzyzewski’s retirement is that change drove him away. At age 74, he had no desire to traverse name, image and likeness compensation, one-time transfer waivers and whatever else Congress and/or the courts might heap upon college athletics.
But such convention ignores Krzyzewski’s history at Duke, and during an hour-long news conference Thursday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, he affirmed as much.
“Look,” Krzyzewski said, “this is not about health. … It’s not about COVID or saying, ‘Boy, that year was so bad.’ … It’s certainly not about what’s going on in college basketball, where, boy, the game’s changing.
“All right, I’ve been at it for 46 years. You mean the game’s never changed? The progression of the game, we’ve always had to adapt, to the changes in culture, the changes in rules, the changes in the world. … Those aren’t the reasons.”
Yes, the impending seismic shifts in college sports are a revolution, and yes, Krzyzewski embraces old-school values that reflect his Catholic-school youth in Chicago and his college experience at Army West Point. But even as he morphed into college basketball’s elder statesman, Krzyzewski always thought young.
He encouraged administrators to rethink amateurism and enhance athletes’ rights. He railed at the NCAA bureaucracy and advocated for a more streamlined and sensible governance structure.
So why now? Why will the 2021-22 season, Krzyzewski’s 42nd at Duke and 47th as a head coach, be his last on the sideline?
Why is the winningest coach in college basketball history (1,170 victories) retiring?
The short answer: the march of time.
As they entered their 70s, Krzyzewski and his wife, Mickie, began contemplating the next chapter, and after years of casual conversation, the talk became serious this spring.
“The reason we’re doing this,” Krzyzewski said, “is because Mickie and I have decided the journey’s gonna be over in a year, and we’re gonna go after it as hard as we can, and then we’ll be a part of Duke’s continuing journey … for as long as we’re around.”
Krzyzewski will serve as an ambassador and advisor throughout the campus community, and university president Vincent Price said “there will always be a place for Mike at Duke.”
As with the notion that he’s exiting to avoid change, Krzyzewski short-circuited chatter that he’ll become college basketball’s commissioner or “czar.” Given the NCAA’s myriad failings, the sport could certainly use central leadership, but while Krzyzewski will not be bashful about offering advice, he also wants to spend far more time doting on his 10 grandchildren — Mike and Mickie have three daughters, all of whom live near Duke.
Naturally, talk of family triggered Krzyzewski’s emotions, as did an opening statement with twin themes of opportunity and belief.
Starting with his parents, Krzyzewski said, so many people not only presented him with extraordinary opportunities but also believed in him. They include his high school and college coaches, Al Ostrowski and Bob Knight, high school teacher Father Francis Rog, former Duke athletic director Tom Butters, former Duke president Keith Brodie and former USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo.
It was Colangelo who recruited Krzyzewski to coach the United States national team, a position he held from 2005-16, steering the U.S. to three Olympic gold medals and 53 consecutive victories in international competitions. But the only game that Krzyzewski mentioned Thursday, Duke or USA Basketball, was the U.S.’s loss to Greece at the 2006 world championships in Tokyo.
“The worst day of my life in coaching,” he said. “… I went up to Jerry and I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ He said, ‘We’ll get this done. I believe in you.’ In your darkest hours, it’s not just about opportunity, man, it’s about someone believing in you.”
And no one believed in him like his Duke players. Pondering them all, Krzyzewski came up with four words.
“Wow,” he said, “what a life.”
Among those players was Jon Scheyer, the captain of the 2010 Blue Devils, the fourth of Krzyzewski’s five national champions. Scheyer is entering his ninth season on Krzyzewski’s staff, his fourth as associate head coach, and will be formally introduced Friday as Duke’s next head coach.
That succession plan was essential to Krzyzewski and influenced the decision to announce his impending retirement before the season, the better to create “complete transparency and clarity” in Duke’s recruiting.
“In the service, you are constantly looking at succession,” he said. “… If you don’t have anybody who can take command, you’re in trouble. We do. To me, it was plain as day that this is what we should do.”
Nothing transpires in a vacuum, and it’s impossible to view Krzyzewski’s retirement and Scheyer’s elevation without looking a few miles down Rte. 15-501 to Chapel Hill and Duke’s fiercest rival.
Just two months ago, Roy Williams retired after 18 seasons as North Carolina’s coach. He led the Tar Heels to three national championships and five Final Fours, and Kansas to four Final Fours in 15 years.
Less than a week later, UNC promoted assistant coach and former Tar Heels guard Hubert Davis, who, like Scheyer, lacks big-whistle experience.
For all of Krzyzewski’s classic confrontations with Williams’ Carolina mentor, the late Dean Smith, it was Coach K and Roy who sustained the peerless Duke-Carolina rivalry. They clashed 40 times as ACC rivals, the Blue Devils winning 22, and four times during Williams’ Kansas tenure, Duke winning three.
That’s 44 games between these Hall of Famers, including three Duke-Kansas NCAA tournament encounters — the Blue Devils defeated the Jayhawks in the 1991 NCAA final for their first national championship.
Moreover, Krzyzewski and Williams rank 1-2 all-time in NCAA tournament victories with 97 and 79, respectively. Smith is next with 65, followed by Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim with 57.
Krzyzewski and Williams soon will be watching from afar, and Boeheim, 76, isn’t long behind. But first, Krzyzewski has a final team to coach, and Duke athletic director Kevin White said Thursday that he expects a “very deep” NCAA tournament run.
“It’s not about making a run next year,” Krzyzewski countered with a smile. “It’s about having a finish.”