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Column: Thanks to a willingness to change, Coach K built an iconic legacy

Krzyzewski adapted frequently en route to five national titles.
Krzyzewski adapted frequently en route to five national titles.

People ask all the time: is change a good thing?

The shock of Mike Krzyzewski announcing that the 2021-22 season would be his last underlies the more nuanced agenda—comprehending a legacy that, at face value, is incomprehensible.

For starters, the totality of Coach K’s resumé is unimpeachable. He has 1,170 wins, the most in college basketball history. Five National Championships, the most of any college basketball coach since 1980. Three Olympic gold medals as the head coach of USA Basketball, honors that as a West Point grad, might hit home the most for Krzyzewski. You get the picture. 

But behind all those accolades, beneath the moments and the memories, there was always one thing about Krzyzewski that stood out the most—change.

Just think about when it all began. Two years after athletic director Tom Butters took a chance on an upstart coach from Army, Krzyzewski brought in that vaunted 1982 recruiting class, ready to get the party started. Up to that point, Coach K had lost out in some high-profile battles on the trail, with the strategy of casting as wide a net as possible unable to pull in the guys he needed to recalibrate the program in the right direction. 

So it was back to the drawing board. Krzyzewski adopted a newer, fresher approach, one that focused on relationships with a select group of talented prospects. And boy, did that pay off. Weldon Williams, Jay Bilas, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Johnny Dawkins—the first superstar of the Krzyzewski era—were living proof, and despite a rough freshman year, Duke was a juggernaut by 1986, compiling a 37-3 record and falling just short of capturing the National Championship against Louisville.

Nine years and two titles later, and we see that once again, Krzyzewski was reinventing himself. Back surgery had knocked him out of 19 of 31 contests in 1994-95, with the stress of managing a dynasty boiling over and nearly forcing the then-48-year-old to resign. Krzyzewski, realizing that the path that had led him to nearly quitting the profession was unsustainable, drastically changed the dynamics of his program. 

Assistant coaching spots were soon occupied by former players, a facet of the Blue Devil coaching staff ever since. Krzyzewski delegated more, he relied on a revamped support system more and he simply made his job fun again. A quick turnaround followed, and the Blue Devils were back to being the it program, clinching four straight No. 1 seeds from 1999-2002 and Krzyzewski’s third ring in 2001. 

Nine years after that third championship—beginning to sense sort of a theme here—the winds of change were once again sweeping through Cameron Indoor Stadium. College basketball recruiting, once an old-school affair featuring letters and living room visits, was now its own industry, defined by Instagram highlight reels and prominent sneaker companies. Plus, more and more blue-chip prospects were leaving school after a single season thanks to ever-changing NBA bylaws. The sport was undergoing its most tectonic shift yet. 

If you thought Krzyzewski was just going to rest on his laurels during this hectic one-and-done era, think again. Coach K, true to his nature, embraced change one more time. First it was Kyrie Irving, then Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker. No Final Four trips in the four seasons since a gritty 2010 squad survived a Gordon Hayward near-miracle meant more tweaks were on the horizon, though, with Krzyzewski pushing all of his chips into the middle of the freshman roulette. 

It paid off in a hurry. Duke’s 2015 bunch, led by the trifecta of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, knocked off a hyper-experienced Wisconsin to add one for the thumb. Since then, the Blue Devils have featured lottery picks galore, from Jayson Tatum to Marvin Bagley III to Zion Williamson. Duke may not have added to Krzyzewski’s title total in the years since, but when those teams put it all together—who can forget the four wins in four nights back in 2017, or when Williamson and Barrett took a sledgehammer to Kentucky to open their season with a bang heard round the country?—it sure was a joy to watch. 

From 1986 until now, with few exceptions, Duke has been a championship contender. Not every team looked the same. Some were guard oriented. Others relied on throwing it down to the post and having a big fella go to work. Some played strictly man-to-man, with Blue Devil guards in their opponent’s faces for an agonizing half minute. Others, particularly in recent seasons, trotted out in a 2-3 zone to contain sharpshooters. The playing styles have been endless, and the unpredictability of Krzyzewski’s next move always kept you on your toes.

Who knows what will happen in his final season. Maybe Duke will add that coveted sixth title and Krzyzewski rides off into the sunset. Whatever happens, it’s safe to say that Krzyzewski, in line with his first 41 years leading the Blue Devils, will make his 42nd and final season one that features a little bit of adapting. 

So, I guess change can be a good thing. Just ask Coach K. 


Max Rego

Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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