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Column: What was Coach K's best decade?

Krzyzewski's longevity is one of his strongest resumé points.
Krzyzewski's longevity is one of his strongest resumé points.

Mike Krzyzewski has been the head coach of the Duke men’s basketball program for 42 years. 1,430 games and counting. A lifetime of memories. His tenure as a Blue Devil is older than the median age of Americans.

Krzyzewski’s time at Duke can really be broken down into the four main decades that he has coached through (sorry 2020-21 and 2021-22, you didn’t make the cut). The 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s each consisted of great teams and great players, all coached under one man. All four of the decades supplied Duke with unique memories and cemented the program's legacy as a true Blue Blood. With five national championships, 12 Final Four appearances, 35 NCAA tournament showings, 15 ACC tournament championships and 12 ACC regular-season titles stretched across the 40 years, each of Coach K’s decades could be a great career. 

But of course, there can only be one “Best Decade” and the others will have to take a back seat. I’ve ranked the decades in order of importance to Duke’s legacy and Coach K’s legacy. Using the program’s performance in the NCAA tournament and the ACC, AP Poll rankings and losing seasons as my criteria, I believe I have created the most accurate assessment of Coach K’s various decades. 

Disclaimer: For the purpose of this article, any season that began in a given decade will be included in that decade, even if the majority of the season and postseason were played in the next decade.  

I would also like to note that I’m thankful for Krzyzewski beginning his Duke career in 1980, making these numbers clean and my job a whole lot easier. 

No. 4: 1980-1990

NCAA tournament: 0 championships, 2 finals losses, 4 Final Four appearances, 7 total appearances

ACC: 2x tournament champions, 1x regular-season champion

AP Poll final ranking: 1x No. 1, 4x in top 10, 7x in top 25

Losing seasons: 2

Best season: (1985-86) 37-3 record, lost in NCAA championship game, AP No. 1, won ACC regular season and tournament

I don’t think there’s any real question here that the ‘80s were not Coach K’s greatest years. 

As is expected, there was an adjustment period to the Coach K era and Duke’s first few seasons were anything but pretty. After surviving nearly getting the boot (just watch "The Class that Saved Coach K"), Krzyzewski was able to start to build his legacy.

The main notches against this decade were the zero National Championships when all other decades had at least one and the two losing seasons. Duke only had three losing seasons in the 42 years of Coach K, so having two of them in the same decade is certainly an issue.

That is not to say that there weren’t some great seasons within the decade. Four Final Four and two championship game appearances in any 10-year span is quite impressive for any program. It goes without saying that despite the lack of results, the ‘80s set the tone for Krzyzewski’s career at Duke. 

No. 3: 2010-2020

NCAA tournament: 1 championship, 9 total appearances

ACC: 3x tournament champions, 0x regular-season champions

AP Poll final ranking: 1x No. 1, 8x in top 10, 10x in top 25

Losing seasons: 0

Best season: (2014-15) 35-4 record, won NCAA championship, AP No. 4

The most recent decade brought Duke its fifth national title, but not much more than that.

Overall, it was a very solid decade for the Blue Devils. NCAA tournament appearances in nine out of 10 years and three ACC tournament championships are some pretty good results for a decade of seasons. COVID-19 canceling the ACC and NCAA tournaments at the end of the 2019-20 season hurt the team's ability to bolster the decade’s resume, but with recruiting in the one-and-done era at its peak (i.e. the 2018-19 team that boasted the top three prospects), the Blue Devils underachieved a bit. 

The ACC was very strong this decade and the likes of Roy Williams and Tony Bennett gave Krzyzewski a run for his money, but zero regular-season ACC titles is a big question mark. Year after year Duke brought in top-notch talent and although it finished every year ranked in the AP Top 25, Krzyzewski’s squads failed to perform come tournament time.

The national championship they did bring home in 2015 was unexpected with Kentucky’s Monstar team as the heavy favorite. That tournament run was a true showing of Krzyzewski’s masterful coaching and ability to motivate in the toughest moments.  

No. 2: 1990-2000

NCAA tournament: 2 championships, 2 finals losses, 9 total appearances

ACC: 3x tournament champions, 7x regular-season champions

AP Poll final ranking: 3x No. 1, 7x  in top 10, 8x in top 25

Losing seasons: 1

Best season: (1991-92) 34-2 record, won NCAA championship, AP No. 1, won ACC regular season and tournament 

This ranking was the biggest internal debate for me. The ‘90s stacked up very well to the 2000s but ultimately fell just short. 

The accolades speak for themselves. Four NCAA finals appearances with two championships make for an excellent decade. Additionally, the Blue Devils dominated the ACC, winning seven regular-season titles and three tournament titles (which you would expect to be higher considering their regular season performances). 

The big withholding to this decade was the infamous missed season. In the 1994-95 year, the Blue Devils entered as the No. 8 team in the country, but after 12 games, Krzyzewski was forced out with back issues. Pete Gaudet took over and coached the Blue Devils to a 4-15 record in his time. They fell out of the rankings and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 26 years. 

Outside of that, Duke and Coach K dominated the ‘90s. The 1991-92 team was perhaps the greatest Duke team ever. Winning every title in sight while only picking up two losses. 

No. 1: 2000-2010

NCAA tournament: 2 championships, 1 Final Four loss, 10 total appearances

ACC: 7x tournament champions, 3x regular-season champions

AP Poll final ranking: 3x No. 1, 9x in top 10, 9x in top 25

Losing seasons: 0

Best season: (2000-01) 35-4 record, won NCAA championship, AP No. 1, won ACC regular season and tournament

Finally, that brings us to No. 1. The crowned decade. Coach K’s magnum opus. 

The 2000s added a third and fourth national title to the program’s collection, while making a tournament showing every year. Duke finished outside the top 10 in the AP Poll just once in a year where three straight losses prior to the NCAA tournament knocked them out of the top 25.

The Blue Devils were poised at the top of the ACC tournament seven times in the decade despite winning the regular season just three times. 

This decade truly felt like the years where Coach K was most in stride getting the most out of all the talent in his program. The 20-year stretch between this decade and the last made the name “Coach K” and labeled Duke as an all-time great program. 

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