Following Monday’s unexpected news that head coach Mike Krzyzewski will miss an indefinite amount of time after having back surgery this Friday, three of The Chronicle’s men’s basketball beat writers discuss how they think his temporary absence will impact the Blue Devils’ season.
What was your reaction when you saw the news that Krzyzewski would miss games due to back surgery?
Amrith Ramkumar: I was pretty shocked simply because Krzyzewski was fairly confident during preseason media availabilities that his knee and hernia surgeries last offseason would have him fully healthy for the 2016-17 season. It seems like something new and unexpected came up, and I was also surprised by the timing. Krzyzewski will miss road tests against top-20 opponents in Florida State and Louisville next week, so I was again just surprised by the totality of circumstances Duke has had to deal with this year from injuries to the Allen suspension and now to Krzyzewski being out.
Brian Pollack: This came totally out of left field for me—the Blue Devils have had their fair share of injuries on the court this year, but there were no indications that their 69-year-old head coach was also having physical difficulties. I was a little surprised that the announcement came several days before Friday’s scheduled surgery, meaning Krzyzewski will still be on the sidelines for Wednesday’s ACC home opener against Georgia Tech. As Amrith said, though, Duke has some big tests coming up in the next few weeks, and that’s when I think Krzyzewski’s absence will really be felt.
Hank Tucker: I agree with Amrith that the timing is what really surprised me about this news. The Blue Devils just finished their two long breaks of the year for final exams and Christmas and have played just four games since Dec. 6—if this surgery had to happen, a month ago would have been a more convenient time than the heart of the conference schedule. Krzyzewski probably thought he could tough it out until the end of the year, but it sounds like his condition became so unbearable that it had to get taken care of right away. It would have better for him to miss time a month ago than now, but it’s better for him to miss time now than in the postseason.
How smooth do you expect the transition to be from Krzyzewski to Capel and potentially back to Krzyzewski before the end of the year?
AR: Although not having Coach K for two of the Blue Devils’ tougher games definitely hurts, I actually think this transition will be quite smooth. Krzyzewski lauded Capel’s effort last year at Georgia Tech in switching defenses when Coach K was out due to illness, and I think Capel knows the players extremely well having been the team’s lead recruiter for several years. For me, the bigger issues are Duke’s level of cohesion on both ends and defensive execution—factors that head coaching and adjustments during games can only help so much.
BP: The team’s statement said that Krzyzewski’s post-surgery recovery could take up to four weeks, which means he will likely miss three road games against ranked opponents—Florida State, Louisville and Notre Dame. If the recovery takes any longer than four weeks, Krzyzewski could miss the home contest against North Carolina Feb. 9, so it’s not like the Blue Devils will have the benefit of a cupcake schedule without their head coach.
Unlike Amrith, I actually think this is a big deal for Duke. It introduces a whole new level of uncertainty for a team that is still looking to develop chemistry and establish its identity—and continuity on the sidelines is critical for those objectives. I’m sure Capel knows the team very well and is prepared to step in, but losing the experience and touch of a coach with five national championships and three Olympic gold medals is tough for any team to overcome.
HT: Krzyzewski has delegated a lot of responsibility to his assistants in recent years, and as Amrith mentioned, Capel was the primary recruiter for many of the players on Duke’s roster. He coached the Blue Devils to a win at Georgia Tech last year and he has several years of head coaching experience at Virginia Commonwealth and Oklahoma.
I certainly wouldn’t expect anything close to a repeat of the disastrous 1994-95 season, when Krzyzewski stepped aside due to back trouble and handed Pete Gaudet the reins to an 11th-ranked 9-3 team that went 4-15 the rest of the way and finished last in the ACC. The Blue Devils will be just fine with Capel at the helm for a few weeks.
Does this news change how you think Grayson Allen’s return from an indefinite suspension will be handled?
AR: Not at all. Coach K will still presumably be able to communicate with his staff and players and make decisions like this one as he typically would, and I think his handling of Allen’s suspension will be the same after his surgery.
BP: I agree, I don’t think Krzyzewski’s injury has any bearing on Allen’s suspension. From the start, it was clear that this was a program-wide decision, and not something Krzyzewski handled on a whim. I anticipate that he’ll contact Capel and the rest of the staff often, and still be very much involved in how Duke handles Allen’s return, even if he’s not on the sidelines for it.
HT: Saturday’s home game against Boston College appeared to be a reasonable time for Allen to return to the court before news broke of Krzyzewski’s absence, but I think it might even be a more likely return date now. If Allen plays in Capel’s first game, it would give the Blue Devils some semblance of continuity under his watch and keep Capel from having to make dramatic adjustments in the middle of his temporary stint as the head coach.
With Krzyzewski approaching his third surgery in the last year, how concerning do you think his health is for his long-term future at Duke?
AR: I don’t think this changes the clear reality—Krzyzewski’s time in Durham is coming to an end. He has four more years left on his contract after this one, and Kevin White, vice president and director of athletics, told Steve Wiseman of the Durham Herald-Sun last summer that he expected Krzyzewski to coach until then. The fact is that few coaches stay on into their 70s, and it is obvious that the 69-year old’s career is winding down. Based on the information presented about the procedure, it does not seem that serious, so I don’t think it changes his long-term plans much at all.
BP: Last fall, it was announced that Gregg Popovich would take over for Krzyzewski as head coach of Team USA in 2017, a sign that Krzyzewski wasn’t going to keep coaching forever. He turns 70 next month, and it’s no secret that the stress and demands of coaching take their toll—especially when you’ve been at it for as long as Krzyzewski has.
However, I’m not sure it’s fair to speculate as to when he’ll step down at Duke. Choosing to retire is a big personal step, and I’m sure there are many private factors—in addition to his health—that Krzyzewski is weighing. He has voiced no desire to retire in the near future, but until he’s gone through this upcoming surgery and rehab, there’s no way to gauge whether he still feels that way.
HT: Krzyzewski is the fourth-oldest of the 351 Division I men’s basketball head coaches, and most of his peers and foes retired well before they reached 70. North Carolina’s Dean Smith abruptly stepped down at age 66 in 1997, and Krzyzewski’s mentor Bobby Knight retired in the middle of a season at age 68 in 2008. Coaching has only become a more grueling profession in recent years, with the one-and-done era requiring bigger recruiting classes and more recruiting trips in the offseason, and it is not easy for a person of his age to travel as much as Krzyzewski has to.
If any soon-to-be 70-year-old could return from back surgery with the energy and enthusiasm a head coach needs to do his job, it would be Krzyzewski, but there is no guarantee this will happen. One day, Krzyzewski will wake up and decide the health risks outweigh his passion for teaching and coaching, and my guess is this day will come sooner rather than later.
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