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Column: Is Coach K bigger than Duke men's basketball?

Can Krzyzewski's empire last past his 42 years in Durham?
Can Krzyzewski's empire last past his 42 years in Durham?

On Feb. 20, Duke men’s basketball’s official Twitter account posted a tweet with the following caption: “Coach K has more Duke dubs than all other past Blue Devil coaches combined #GoatFacts.”

The photo that accompanied the tweet pointed out that Coach K had amassed 1,120 wins during his Duke career (that number is now up to 1,123) in 42 seasons, compared to 1,117 wins combined for all of the 18 other Blue Devil head coaches across 75 seasons.

Statisticians will point out the fact that a season now is nearly twice as long as it was for the first quarter of the 20th century. But the main point of the tweet rings loud and clear, even if nobody from Duke will say it explicitly: When it comes to Duke men’s basketball, Coach K isn’t just bigger than the program. He is the program.

And right now, that statement couldn’t be more true. In addition to the stat above, there’s this one: Of all the true blue bloods (Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA and Indiana), the Blue Devils are the only one to win all of their national championships under one head coach. 

In addition, Krzyzewski’s successor—Jon Scheyer, in case you haven’t heard—played for four years under him and has only coached under him, further cementing the fact that Duke in its current status is a program that will loom under the shadow of Krzyzewski whether he’s the head coach or not.

But it won’t necessarily always be that way.

From 1930 to 1972, Adolph Rupp won four NCAA tournament titles at Kentucky before the school’s mandatory retirement age forced him to step down at 70 years old. He led the Wildcats for just as long as Krzyzewski has been in Durham, and at the time of his retirement had been in Lexington longer than the program had been without him. Prior to Rupp, no head coach had been there for more than five consecutive seasons and the school had won only a single regular-season conference championship. Hence, it’s safe to say Rupp was the program.

Not only that, but Rupp’s replacement—Joe B. Hall—both played and coached under Rupp at Kentucky, solidifying the notion that his success would be shadowed under that of his predecessor. Nevertheless, Hall was still able to build his own legacy at Kentucky, making six Elite Eights and bringing home a national championship in 1978. Fast forward all these years later, and I doubt anyone’s still calling Kentucky Rupp’s program, even if the team plays in Rupp Arena.

Instead, Kentucky is Kentucky

Yes, that statement is aided by the fact that multiple other head coaches without Rupp ties found success in Lexington. But there’s no reason to believe Duke can’t also reach that status down the line.

Case two: Kansas. From 1919 until 1956, Phog Allen manned the sidelines in Lawrence, Kan., bringing home three national championships and a flurry of conference titles. While the Jayhawks are a slightly different story than Kentucky given that the literal inventor of basketball served as their inaugural head coach (ironically without much success), Allen still retired as the godfather of Kansas basketball.

Yet the Jayhawks have remained a blue blood in the decades since, and now—despite playing inside Allen Fieldhouse, a la Kentucky and Rupp—Kansas is Kansas.

Of course, there are counterarguments to those two examples. UCLA and Indiana still loom under the shadows of John Wooden and Bob Knight, respectively, with each program struggling to find consistent success since their legendary coaches’ retirements (or controversial firings). So yes, one might read this column as just another “Will Duke be the next Kansas or Indiana?”

But my point is this: Right now, Coach K is bigger than Duke men’s basketball. And for a while, it’ll likely stay that way whether Scheyer is successful as the Blue Devils’ head coach or not. However, many believe that even with prolonged success in the post-Coach K era the program will forever loom under the silhouette of Krzyzewski, and that simply isn’t true. 

If Coach K truly built Duke into a blue blood, there will be a day that Krzyzewski fades into the background. There will be a day that Duke is no longer his program. There will be a day that Duke will be Duke.

Editor's note: This article is part of The Chronicle's Coach K Commemorative edition. Please click here for more content. 

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