Mike Krzyzewski has coached in a record 127 NCAA tournament games. I was there for the first.
“The operation was a success,” he told a small group of us afterward, “but the patient died.”
This was 1984, and Duke had just lost to Washington 80-78 at Washington State’s Beasley Coliseum. Though disheartened by the result, Krzyzewski believed in his plan and his team — the Blue Devils had shot 56.5%, only to be trumped by the Huskies’ 70.5%.
Little did anyone know how well-placed that faith was.
Five national championships and 12 Final Fours later, Krzyzewski and Duke announced Wednesday evening that the 2021-22 season, his 42nd at the school and 47th as a head coach, will be his last. Associate head coach Jon Scheyer will succeed him.
Scheyer is 33, the same age Krzyzewski was when he arrived at Duke in 1980 from Army.
“My family and I view today as a celebration,” Krzyzewski, 74, said in a statement. “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.”
No coach has reached more Final Fours than Krzyzewski — John Wooden also made 12 — and no Division I men’s college basketball coach has won more games (1,170). But like any iconic coach, his influence and legacy transcend numbers.
As a West Point graduate, Krzyzewski reveres the privilege of leadership and studies the craft endlessly, and under his guidance, Duke has advanced to the sport’s ultimate weekend in four decades, a reflection not only of longevity but also a willingness, indeed a desire, to adapt.
Krzyzewski’s program hung banners with four-year staples such as Christian Laettner and Shane Battier and one-and-done flashes such as Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones. He won with lockdown defensive teams and free-wheeling offensive teams.
“I wanted to be a teacher and a coach, but really what I always wanted to be was a leader,” Krzyzewski told me in late February 2010, weeks before Duke’s fourth national title. “… Every day is different. It’s never boring. It’s never perfect. ...
“It’s never-ending, and I find it incredibly interesting. And I think to tap into people who I’ve met, developed relationships with, who are leaders in their fields, helps me. Business, medicine, community leaders. It’s something I’ll do until I die, is study leadership. I think it’s the most exciting thing you can do in whatever place you have the opportunity to do it.”
Krzyzewski has long embraced service beyond Duke basketball and almost certainly will in retirement.
He coached the United States to three Olympic gold medals. He created the Emily Krzyzewski Center, named for his mother, to further educational and career opportunities for underprivileged students. He teamed with Duke to establish the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics.
His next leadership mission, the 2021-22 season, will be fascinating to watch.
He welcomes another acclaimed recruiting class, this one headlined by 6-foot-9 Paolo Banchero, to a program that finished its pandemic year 13-11, failed to make the NCAA tournament and exited the ACC tournament because of a COVID-19 infection. Moreover, he is grooming Scheyer, his hand-picked successor and the leading scorer on Duke’s 2010 national champions.
Scheyer has never been a head coach. Krzyzewski had five seasons of big-whistle experience when then-Duke athletics director Tom Butters hired him.
Time has revealed just how impressive those Army years were. Krzyzewski steered the Black Knights to three consecutive winning seasons. They haven’t had back-to-back winning years since.
His early Duke teams struggled famously, but the aforementioned ’84 group ignited a stretch of 11 straight NCAA appearances that included seven Final Fours in nine years and the sport’s first repeat champions (1991 and '92) since UCLA in 1972 and ’73.
The night of the Blue Devils’ second consecutive title, I joined a group in Krzyzewski’s hotel suite in Minneapolis. A television was replaying Duke’s championship rout of Michigan, and Krzyzewski mingled with guests enjoying pizza and beer.
It was about as low-key a celebration of history as you can imagine.
Even amid the acclaim, Krzyzewski’s program retained that vibe for years thereafter. The basketball office adjoined sports information — the door connecting the two was often open — and then-assistant coach Quin Snyder, now the Utah Jazz’s head coach, brought his Labrador retriever to work.
But the times eventually dictated change, and the basketball program now operates in a tower connected to Cameron Indoor Stadium, complete with high-tech security. Still, Krzyzewski’s personal touch endures.
Prior to the 2014 ACC tournament, he asked me to appear on his satellite radio show to discuss the event’s history and college basketball’s changing landscape. Less than a week later, a handwritten thank you note from him arrived in the mail.
There will be little low-key about Krzyzewski’s farewell season.
The tour will take Duke to 10 other ACC venues — N.C. State, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Miami are the exceptions and off the hook for retirement gifts. There’s also the opener in Madison Square Garden against Kentucky (how irresistible is that?), the regular-season finale versus North Carolina at Cameron (imagine the ticket prices on the secondary market), the ACC tournament in Brooklyn and, presumably, the NCAA tournament.
Whether or not he exits with a sixth national championship — I wouldn’t bet big money against him — college basketball will never be the same.