There's not a current Duke student alive who knows life without Mike Krzyzewski as the fearless leader of Duke men's basketball. Hell, there aren't people twice their age who know that life either. But even if it seemed like he would coach forever, Blue Devils across the globe are preparing for the unthinkable—Duke without Coach K.
As Krzyzewski stepped to the podium in Cameron Indoor Stadium Thursday morning, with his iconic ‘Coach K Court’ logo displayed ceremoniously in front of him, it embarked what will be a 10-month period of reflection of how much the Hall of Famer has meant to the Duke community and its men's basketball program—even with Krzyzewski as motivated and focused as ever on reaching the pinnacle of the sport for a sixth time.
It’s near impossible to concisely reflect on Krzyzewski’s 40+ year career in Durham, even with the three time Olympic gold medalist reflecting on his career and retirement decision for over an hour at his press conference. But while he spoke under the countless banners he’s helped raise, the Chicago native emphasized that none of his successes would be possible without one recurring theme.
“Most of us get a certain number of opportunities, some of us get more than others,” Krzyzewski said. “The best opportunities are the opportunities that are backed up with belief.”
Krzyzewski's journey to his final bow began back in Chicago as a junior at Weber High School. Strong mentors in his life from his parents to leaders at school placed the stepping stones for the now 74-year-old's desire to go into coaching.
“I had a coach and then I had a teacher, Coach [Al] Ostrowski and Father [Francis] Rog,” Krzyzewski said on his time in high school. “They had such an impact on me that I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to be a coach. I wanted to be a teacher.”
And while an impressive military background, wisdom from coaching under another college hoops icon Bobby Knight and a start as Army's head coach at just 28 years old, Krzyzewski quickly found himself as a young, relatively unknown coach hired in March of 1980 to bring Duke to the promised land. At the time, the program had the reputation of having been so close to breaking through on the sport's biggest stage but just could not get over the hump.
As the story goes—it was anything but a revitalization at first. Failing to reach the NCAA tournament and compiling a losing ACC record in each of his first three seasons in Durham, impatience grew as the Iron Dukes demanded a coaching change. Blue Devil athletic director Tom Butters responded promptly with a five-year extension for Krzyzewski, and barring the 1994-95 season he couldn’t complete after surgery on his back, he wouldn't miss another Big Dance as head coach until 2021.
“The guy who had the most belief in me was Tom Butters,” Krzyzewski said emotionally about his former athletic director. “He gave me this opportunity, and after three years, most people wanted that opportunity to go to someone else. But not the guy who believed in me. My opportunities were followed with belief. And we started all of this.”
Krzyzewski extended his gratitude to players, family and friends, but continuously saved a special thanks for those who stuck by his side in what he referred to as "one of his darkest hours." Keith Brodie received his praise as “the best person I’ve ever known," when the former university president provided constant support for the 15-time ACC champion during his struggles with back surgery in the mid-90s.
And when Krzyzewski took the time to acknowledge his decorated career as the Olympic men's basketball coach, he was sure to remind everyone that after losing the his first game as the American head coach, it was former USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo who was right there to pick his spirits back up and begin one of the most dominant runs in the history of the sport's international play.
While a coaching career of almost 1,200 wins, the most all-time in college basketball, can easily overshadow any struggles, Krzyzewski made a point to not emphasize the struggles he overcame during his four decade run, but rather the people who believed he could.
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"[Krzyzewski] has been resolutely and zealously committed to Duke University, to our students, and his players, to the principles of integrity, fairness, and inclusion and above all to excellence," Duke president Vincent Price said.
Duke has become the gold-standard for college athletics since Krzyzewski's arrival to Durham, and uncertainty remains with this program being the only traditional college basketball Blue Blood to win all of its titles under the same coach. However, the former Army captain stressed how long he's prepared for this time to come, and the transition to another era figures to be a smooth one under Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Chris Carrawell, even if it won't quite feel the same without Krzyzewski's signature sideline demeanor.
"I've listened to them all the time, so we're just going to keep doing that and then try to maintain the level of excellence and the pursuit of excellence that our program has done not just for the four decades I've been here, but we've had a great tradition here that started especially with Coach [Vic] Bubas," Krzyzewski said.
Luckily for Duke, both Price and Krzyzewski announced that next April won't mark the end of his journey on Duke's campus, as he'll continue to serve as an ambassador to the University and the athletic department. The Blue Devil head coach ensured that he "will always be connected with the game," meaning the Duke men's basketball program can continue to grow under his watchful eye, just with a younger extension of his coaching tree renewing things with a fresh fire.
So as Krzyzewski promises that the Blue Devils will aim for one final title and “go after it as hard as we possibly can,” and Duke fans prepare for an uncertain life without him, Krzyzewski’s words of wisdom should be the backbone of the transition to a new era—everyone just has to believe.