DURHAM, N.C. – The man who taught us all long ago there is no such thing as a “defending champion,” that falling short the following season does not mean anyone’s coming to tear down your banner, now is attempting to eradicate the word “last” from his program.
The execution on this one will be trickier, because even Mike Krzyzewski trips on it occasionally. He dropped the word, using it in the forbidden context, at least once on a routine Monday afternoon. And, in the few weeks Duke has been practicing, he has caught himself at least a couple of times wandering past the emotional barrier he has constructed around the 2021–22 college season.
One more time. That’s the K-friendly way to discuss what will transpire for the coach and his program over the next five – or, if things follow the fairytale script allowing him to depart a champion, like John Wooden and John Elway and so few others – six months. He announced in June his decision to coach the current season and then leave the Blue Devils to a successor, which he preferred to be Jon Scheyer, who turned out to be the school’s choice, as well.
Their approach to this succession process is not unique, but it is uncommon. It has allowed Krzyzewski the opportunity to enter this season with a focus unlike any in his previous 46 seasons as a head coach. He need not travel for recruiting, not for scouting nor home visits. He is able to work on building relationships and building his team, and that is most welcome after the COVID season of 2020-21 he refused to let become the closing chapter of his Hall of Fame career.
Now he looks on the floor at the practice facility that bears his name and sees the ingredients of a promising team that could make this a joyous season, principally 6-10 freshman forward Paolo Banchero, whose size and skill might be described as a combination of Danny Ferry and Grant Hill if that didn’t feel a bit too extravagant.
“I don’t want to go through memory lane here, or whatever. The reason I love coaching, and the reason we’ve had a continuity of excellence, is because we’ve focused on the moment, and I’ve done that with every team,” Krzyzewski told Sporting News. “And so I’m going to do it with this team. I’ve told them: Don’t talk about ‘sixth’, ‘last’, ‘doing it for Coach K.’ Let’s just do it together. Let’s see what the hell happens.”
Krzyzewski will reach his 75th birthday in February. He has won two FIBA World Championships, three Olympic gold medals, five NCAA championships, 12 NCAA regionals and 1,170 games as a Division I head coach. It may seem exhausting to carry around such a weighty resume, but Krzyzewski insists he feels “youthful” and “passionate.” He understands there only are so many years to a lifetime, though, and there are other ways to spend them beyond the passionate pursuit of youthful basketball prospects.
He considers himself beyond fortunate to have enjoyed this degree of professional success, to have had the opportunity to coach so many great players and teams over such a long period of time. “How lucky … now, again, you’ve got to be good,” he said. Krzyzewski first dreamed of becoming a coach at 16, played for Bob Knight at Army and then entered the business and took over that program four years after Knight left. Here he is, nearly 60 years later, on the verge of completing a career no one could have imagined.
“To do something you love doesn’t mean you love everything you do to do what you love,” Krzyzewski told SN. “For me, the time – how much time do you have? There’s got to be something more that I’d like to do with my time. As much as I love going to Peach Jam and all the recruiting, the amount of recruiting and the intensity that you do to get the level of player that we get is enormous. And, again, it’s not like I hated it. But you’ve go to make some decisions.
“That’s part of it. The other thing is, Mickie, we’ve been married 52 years. We have 10 grandchildren; they’re all here. They’ve made a lot of sacrifices. And again, my daughters and my family would be all for me, whatever I would do. But Mickie and I have talked about it for a couple years.”
If the year 2020 had developed differently, we might have had this conversation a year ago. Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils owned a 25-6 record on March 11 and finished the ACC regular season a game out of first place. There’s no way to know what course he would have followed if that season had ended with a loss somewhere in the NCAA Tournament or maybe a slightly improbable Final Four appearance.
Once the pandemic became an issue, though, Krzyzewski knew he was not going to leave. Navigating COVID last winter while trying to run a Division I basketball program was no kind of fun, but leaving it for someone less experienced to manage might have set back Duke basketball – and the person left in charge – for years. That never was an option.
“As soon as COVID hit, I said there’s no way. We have to shepherd – I didn’t know where it would end or whatever – but I said we have to shepherd the program,” he said. “I didn’t know that shepherding would lead the sheep through the Valley of Death and up the Himalayas. For everybody, it was tough.”
Leaving after last season was over was not a possibility, and not just because the Devils finished 13-11, missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995 and chose to end their season following a member of the program testing positive for COVID during the ACC Tournament.
Krzyzewski explained that three of the most important pillars of the program were undermined by COVID restrictions: preparation, relationships and communication.
“We have prepared really well, and I learned that from when I was a player under Coach Knight,” Krzyzewski said. “We could not prepare. We lost the summer. Forget about that we were a young team and not as talented.
“We have been great with relationships with our players, as a team and a coaching staff. No way did we come close to the level that you needed to be really good.
“And how do you teach communication at the level it needs to be when, really, for the first month of individual work in September, I wasn’t even on the court. Our weight room is right there, and I was behind the glass and would come out at different times. So the ability to touch, communicate, just be able to pat somebody on the back. Or, ‘Come over here son,’ give him a little hug or get on his ass. All that level of communication, verbal and non-verbal communication, was just … to me, it showed just how important it’s been for us.
“It was such a bad year.”
Krzyzewski responded by bringing the Duke freshmen to campus a month earlier than in past years and having them take an academic class to become familiar with the campus, the program and their coach, who was around them daily. In July, when the rest of the players arrived for summer classes, they entered an unofficial, program-designed course called “the Brotherhood curriculum” – the Brotherhood being what Duke calls the unofficial fraternity of players who’ve competed for the Blue Devils.
They were instructed by Duke basketball’s academic coordinator, its creative director for advice on social media and branding, and by a financial adviser on personal finance. And then the coaches would help teach the program’s culture.
“As a result, we’ve learned from doing it. We saw what we missed. And we needed to right the ship,” Krzyzewski said. “You were in the gym. I don’t know how many games we’re going to win or lose – I think we’ll win more than we lose, maybe be real good – but that was fun in there. There’s energy. Last year, there was no energy.
“We got away a weekend ago, and Mickie said, ‘Do you have any regrets about continuing to coach?’ Not stopping coaching, because I’ve already let the recruiting go … I’m not calling every night and texting. And I said, ‘No. I’m good. I think I’ll be better. I’m anxious to feel people in Cameron and on the road.
“My whole career is feeding off that energy. You have a passion for what you do, but the energy of the environment you do it in – your own, the players’, the crowd’s – there’s energy. And that was not there last year.”
On the evening of June 3, the day he held an afternoon press conference to discuss his decision to retire as head coach following the 2021-22 season, Krzyzewski was at home watching David Muir report “World News Tonight” to a large segment of the U.S. population.
And it turned out, to the coach’s surprise, he was World News that night.
“I was knocked back by the response,” Krzyzewski said. “I told Mickie, I said, ‘Holy crap.’ I literally was surprised.”
It only has grown more intense as the season approaches. Jon Jackson, Duke’s deputy director of athletics for men’s basketball, has had the responsibility of handling the coach’s media requests. There were calls from “60 Minutes” and HBO. Eventually, if that interest still is there when the season ends, “I owe that to people,” Krzyzewski said. “Then I’ll do whatever.”
Keeping the attention off himself during the fall has allowed more to be paid to the job Scheyer is doing recruiting the first Duke team of which he will be head coach. The Devils already have commitments from three top-10 prospects.
Krzyzewski has not been uninvolved in that success, but he did not attend any summer tournaments or showcases to evaluate prospects or make them aware of his presence. Scheyer filled the role of Duke head coach at those events. The staff discussed with him what they learned on their various trips. Ad when players and their families visited campus, he met with them and explained his retirement does not equate to an evacuation.
“In June, we had a number of visits,” Krzyzewski said. “So I had meetings with the families to reassure them: I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying in this office. I’m going to be an ambassador for the school. I’m not going to coach your son, but I’ll be there for you. I’ll be there for you if you go pro after a year. Jon and these guys are going to coach you. I’m not going to interfere, but you should know I’ll be here if you need me for guidance and anything.
“So I know all of our recruits and their families, and will know them, but in a different way.”
When prospects visited Duke in previous years, the trip usually included a breakfast at Krzyzewski’s home. Now, that occurs at Scheyer’s home.
To accommodate the visitors, Krzyzewski said, he along the way picked up some “really nice extra chairs” so everyone would have a place to sit. “They’re not folding chairs. They’re really good,” he said. Scheyer, with a scout’s eye, figured those would be very helpful when the prospects’ families came to his house. So he asked to borrow them.
“We have two kids who are committed coming in in this weekend, and another kid and his family that we’re recruiting,” Krzyzewski said. “Today in our meeting, I said, ‘So tell me what your plan is. Where do you want me?’ And I said, ‘By the way, when do I get my damn chairs back?’”
Adjacent to the Michael W. Krzyzewski Center for Athletic Excellence, where the Blue Devils practice each day, there is a rectangular courtyard fronted by a sign that reads “Krzyzewskiville.” That is where, for decades, students have camped out to be first to enter Cameron Indoor Stadium and claim the best seats for Duke’s home games.
To better manage this process, there are “line monitors” selected from among the student body. Recently, a line monitors “reunion” was arranged, and several dozen who handled that duty in the past came to campus to join the current group for an event that included a chance to visit last Friday’s Devils practice and a cocktail party afterward. Krzyzewski spoke to the group then.
“Right toward the end, in talking, I said something. I don’t even remember the exact words. I started, like, crying,” Krzyzewski said. “So I said: All right, we’ll see you all and keep up the good work.”
The following day, there was an “open practice” used as a fundraiser for the Duke Children’s Hospital, a favorite charity project for the Krzyzewskis for decades. Those willing to pay $100 were granted a seat in Cameron to watch Banchero and muscular freshman guard Trevor Keels and vets Wendell Moore, Jeremy Roach and Mark Williams continue their preparation for the opening game Nov. 9 in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden.
“I was doing different things and finally 10 minutes before — our guys were out there already — I came on the court and it’s a standing ovation,” Krzyzewski said, and he started to explain how that felt, then stopped, because it wasn’t necessary and might have provoked the same reaction, again.
“I’ve got to be careful it doesn’t hit me like that,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting either one. On the road, when they boo me, that’ll balance the scales.
“We’ll see what the hell happens. But I just wanted to coach for this … like, I’ll go home tonight and watch the tape. I love watching tape. I love practicing planning. I love developing relationships with the players, and all that. And building a team.
“I hope it never hits me until it’s over that I won’t be able to do that again. But right now, that hasn’t hit me. If it does, then I won’t be as good, I don’t think.”
When he was close to reaching the ultimate decision to coach the Devils once more, and only once, Krzyzewski and his wife spoke with a close family friend, with his three daughters and then gathered assistant coaches Scheyer, Chris Carrawell and Nolan Smith and discussed it with them. All this took place over about a week in the spring.
“By the time I talked with the coaching staff, I was pretty sure that this is what we were going to do,” he said. “I brought up, ‘Look, in order to do this, I’m in an ethical dilemma. I can’t recruit a kid if I’m not going to coach him.’ And so it creates a situation if I still want to coach, it’s Duke’s decision then, will they allow me to do that? I didn’t think they’d ask me to retire, but again, you still have to show courtesy to everybody.
“And so we need to find the answer of who – it needs to be somebody from the Brotherhood. And Chris Carrawell said, ‘Coach, the answer is right here: Jon.’ And I already knew that. And Nolan said, ‘That’s right.’ And I said, you know what: ‘That’s a hell of a thing.’ I get chills just thinking about it. I said, ‘Jon, you’re ready.’”
Krzyzewski explained he would not have said that of Scheyer a year earlier, but it’s now been nearly a decade since he joined the staff. Scheyer was an All-American point guard for Duke’s 2010 NCAA Championship team, even though he wasn’t truly a point guard. He adapted to the position because that’s what the team needed. He had to do that with only a short time to prepare in practice.
Now Scheyer gets nearly a year to adjust to the demands not just of coaching in the ACC, or coaching a program that three different coaches have led to the Final Four, but to follow the man who is the greatest men’s basketball coach in NCAA history.
It’ll help to have the greatest coach around to guide him. Even now, with a team to prepare to chase an ACC title and perhaps another Final Four and possibly more beyond that, Krzyzewski is discovering another approach to coaching that can continue into his retirement. He even, as he is teaching, learning some new ideas about how to coach this one more season.
“Jon and I, as good a relationship as we’ve had, doing this it is off the charts,” he said. “I’ve loved it. After we have a staff meeting, I’ll say, ‘Let’s the two of us spend a few minutes.’ This was like weeks ago, I had something to tell him, and I got in at 8 o’clock in the morning. And I was going to get – we have a Starbucks machine on the floor – and I open the door and Jon was right there, at the door. And we started laughing. He said, ‘I have a couple things.’ And I said, ‘I have couple things, too.’ And after we got through those couple things, we spent another 45 minutes.
“And I said: I haven’t talked to you about time. You’re going to be amazed that you don’t have enough time. And so before you commit to anything, make sure you know that’s time. With you, with a young family, you’ve got to be careful. It was really a good talk about time.”
Krzyzewski understands that clock is ticking. There will be a final buzzer, because that is how the game ends, no matter how one might endeavor to manipulate the language. It may be followed by confetti descending from the ceiling of the Superdome or tears dropping from the corner of some Devilish eyes, possibly even both. It is coming, though.
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