Home Sport Mike Krzyzewski’s Finish at Duke Comes on His Terms

Mike Krzyzewski’s Finish at Duke Comes on His Terms


Maybe the signs were there all along last season that Mike Krzyzewski was ready for an exit: scolding a student journalist for an innocuous question, having an N.B.A. prospect quit midseason to prepare for the draft, and openly questioning whether there should be a season while the coronavirus was rampant in the United States.

And, of course, Duke being absent from the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament for the first time in 26 years — a circumstance set up by a 13-11 start and cemented by a late-season virus outbreak within the program.

Those episodes, all taken together, made it seem plausible that for Krzyzewski, with his five national championships, record 1,170 victories over his career at Army and Duke and standing as a lion of the coaching fraternity, enough was enough.

It wasn’t quite that way, though, Krzyzewski said Thursday at Cameron Indoor Stadium during an hourlong news conference that was in equal parts pep rally, farewell tour kickoff and confirmation that, like almost everything else about Duke men’s basketball in the last 41 years, Krzyzewski’s exit would be dictated on his terms.

Krzyzewski, 74, will coach one more season because he still relishes his job — who wouldn’t given a roster primed for another crack at a national championship? Then he will vacate his seat for one of his assistant coaches, Jon Scheyer, so he can spend time doting on his grandchildren and working as an adviser and an ambassador for the university.

“I love what I do,” he said Thursday in reply to a question from Jake Piazza, the Duke Chronicle reporter he’d scolded last season. “If you work at what you love it’s not work. I’ve never looked at it like I’ve got a bad job. I’ve got a great job. And I think about it all the time.”

The last coach to retire after winning a national championship was Marquette’s Al McGuire, who quit at age 48 in 1977 and became a broadcast personality. Two years before that, John Wooden — the only coach to win more championships than Krzyzewski — retired after winning his 10th title at U.C.L.A. Wooden, then 64, told his team after its semifinal victory that the championship game would be his final game.

Just as Wooden was bidding adieu, Krzyzewski was starting his career at Army.

He’d grown up in a working-class Polish neighborhood west of downtown Chicago, and he cut his teeth in basketball playing for a demanding young coach at Army: Bobby Knight. He was so unknown when he was hired at Duke — his last team at Army in 1979-80 had a 9-17 record — that he had to spell his name for the reporters who showed up at his introductory news conference.

And by the end of the 1983 season, while Duke had languished with back-to-back losing records, getting walloped by Princeton and losing at home to Wagner, its local rivals — North Carolina and North Carolina State — had celebrated consecutive national championships.

But that season also marked the arrival of a recruiting class headlined by a pair of high school All-Americans: Johnny Dawkins, a slithering point guard from Washington D.C., and Mark Alarie, a bruising forward from Phoenix, who by their senior season would carry Duke to the national championship game, which it lost 72-69 to Louisville.

“He was good at Xs and Os, but his greatest gift was to take kids who were already gifted — academically, socially and in basketball — and make those guys hungry,” said Jim Calhoun, who coached against Krzyzewski in the ’70s when his Northeastern teams played Army, and later in a handful of memorable N.C.A.A. tournament games, including the 1999 championship game, when Connecticut battled Duke. “He created a culture of toughness and pride.”

Calhoun said the way his team lost to Duke in 1990 in the round of 8 — on an overtime buzzer beater by Christian Laettner — was symbolic.

“It works because they’d worked on it in practice, no question,” Calhoun said in a phone interview. “The difference between the two teams was so finite because both us tried to get the other team to quit, to out-will the other team.”

That culture manifested itself most famously in Krzyzewski’s crowning achievement — when Duke shocked unbeaten Nevada-Las Vegas in a 1991 national semifinal. The Blue Devils were led by two stars — Laettner and Bobby Hurley — who were embarrassed by U.N.L.V. in the title game the previous season. That defeat, by a championship game-record 30 points, marked the fourth time in five seasons that Duke reached the Final Four but went home without a title.

As exacting as Krzyzewski could be, he was not unyielding.

His teams changed how they played with the times — from ones built on a bedrock of rebounding and defense to his current ones that play at great pace and hunt 3-pointers. Last season, they turned to a zone defense.

He also changed how he recruited. Krzyzewski once bristled at schools whose players left early for the N.B.A., and refused to allow players who did not graduate to have their jersey numbers hung in the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium. In 2015, he won his last championship with three one-and-done freshmen.

Over the years, Duke also began to look less squeaky clean — embracing the role of college basketball’s heel, and also occasionally drawing scrutiny over how a player (Lance Thomas) could afford $100,000 worth of jewelry, how jobs were procured for players’ parents (Chris Duhon and Carlos Boozer) or how court testimony suggested a star player’s family (Zion Williamson) was being plied with money.

Krzyzewski said on Thursday that what changed most was he began to listen more, which helped give him balance. As he grew older — and he still had college-aged players — it became a necessity. He learns from them about music, sneakers and pop culture, he said, quipping that he wears his athletic apparel “a little tighter than my body would probably want.”

“But I don’t adapt the principles of the program,” he said, adding. “Those will never die.”

One of those principles is at the heart of the succession plan: loyalty.

Scheyer, who grew up in suburban Chicago and captained the 2010 championship team, has something in common with every other Duke assistant in the last 24 years — he has played for Krzyzewski. The most successful of Krzyzewski’s progeny is one who left long ago, Quin Snyder, who is now coaching the Utah Jazz, the N.B.A.’s top regular-season team this year.

Scheyer is taking on recruiting duties this summer because Krzyzewski said it wouldn’t be right for him to recruit players he won’t coach.

Instead, Krzyzewski will pour himself into working with players for this year’s team, who return to campus for summer school this weekend. Now that an end date has been set, Krzyzewski spoke as a man who could easily shrug off all the reasons it is time to go. He sounded on Thursday like someone who was less intent on reaching the finish line than sprinting through it.