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Messages from the Duke faithful to Coach K

Coach K shakes hands with Steve Mitchell, who sat directly behind the Duke bench for every home game from the 1980-81 season until his death in 2017.
Coach K shakes hands with Steve Mitchell, who sat directly behind the Duke bench for every home game from the 1980-81 season until his death in 2017.

Adahli Massey, a 51-year-old from Auburn, Ala., recalls seeing Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski in the last pew of a church in the mid-90s. Unlike the grandiose words most commonly used to describe Krzyzewski throughout his farewell tour this year—”greatest,” “winningest,” etc.—Massey describes Krzyzewski as “very humble, devoted.” 

The legendary figure of “Coach K” may seem larger than life to most, but through his 42 years in Durham, fans have also come to know him in a different way through interactions and impressions both small and large. To understand just how many people he’s touched in his tenure at Duke, I asked the Duke Basketball Facebook group for stories and thoughts they had about Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils. 

From personalized letters to little league quips to private reflections, here is what Duke fans all over the country had to say, edited for length and clarity. 

‘Great big heart’

Many fans wanted to express their gratitude for Krzyzewski and the program’s kindness over the years. 

Hildy Savell, whose two younger sons went to Duke, first fell in love with the Blue Devils while visiting campus in 2011 with her elder son Evan, who graduated in 2016. The two snuck into Cameron Indoor Stadium through a side door and saw Krzyzewski speaking, and “[Evan’s] mouth was hitting the floor,” the 59-year-old Long Island, N.Y. native said in a phone call.

“Maybe it’s because of my love for [Evan],” Savell reflected, searching for why she felt so instantly connected to the team, and why she kept watching on her own. “Maybe it made me feel closer to the boys.” 

In 2016, right after her youngest son Ryan started at Duke, Savell was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she was struck by how the team supported Debbie Jones, the mother of Duke players Tyus and Tre Jones, through her own battle with breast cancer. As a surprise in his senior year, Ryan worked with a manager friend of his to organize a meeting between Savell and Debbie Jones after a game. 

“I just thought to hold the love in that family is really so wonderful…. She was lovely. We discussed more than boys, discussed our health and she had just had a good scan, and it was just more like a mother meeting. And it was great. It was like one of the most meaningful things that happened to me there.”

For Savell, the Blue Devils and Krzyzewski are so special because of their “kinship” and “spirit,” and 70-year-old Riegelwood, N.C., resident Donna Graham Hammond echoed that sentiment in a message submission. 

Hammond’s granddaughter Sophia was diagnosed with cancer in Nov. 2019 and was in the UNC Health System. Sophia and her father often watched Duke football, so when the North Carolina football team came to visit her, Sophia, “wouldn’t say much but she whispered to her mama, ‘Is that Duke?’,” Hammond writes. 

Hammond reached out to Krzyzewski with the story, and a little later, a package from him with autographed pictures and a note of encouragement arrived, “an invaluable keepsake for this Duke family.” 

Now that Sophia is cancer-free, Hammond writes, “Coach K is the best coach with a great big heart. Thank you Coach K and LGD!” 

Meanwhile, 67-year-old Karen Russum from Chestertown, Md., who has been an avid Duke fan “since Wojo was there,” said that she met Krzyzewski in Las Vegas, where they chatted about their grandchildren and how wonderful it is to be grandparents. 

A while later, Russum was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and her friend reached out to Krzyzewski as a surprise to cheer Russum up. 

“I went through the mail and there was this envelope from Duke…I opened it up and just busted out crying…[Krzyzewski] sent me a poster and he wrote, ‘We're all behind you and stay strong and go Duke,’ and it was just inspiration,” Russum said. 

‘Midwest values’

Other fans wanted to reminisce on personal connections.

Former basketball coach George Scholz, who turns 70 in April, always admired Krzyzewski. He described former West Point head coach Bobby Knight’s “Let’s Play Defense” pamphlet as being his bible when Scholz first started coaching. But then, as Krzyzewski rose through the ranks, Scholz said he “learned and studied” how Krzyzewski ran his program. 

“Any article I read about Coach K or what he did, how he coached—that went up on our [locker room] bulletin board if it was appropriate, and it was highlighted,” Scholz said. 

More than Krzyzewski the coach, though, Scholz, along with his wife Lynne, admires Krzyzewski the man. Having met Krzyzewski a few times over the years, Scholz said, “I felt like Coach K just absolutely was a Chicago guy, Midwest values. A great person and a great family man…There was never a note or letter or favor that I contacted Coach K [about] that he didn't get back to me with a personal note written by himself.” 

There was no time when those values were on greater display than the 37-year span that Krzyzewski saved a seat for Steve Mitchell, who had Down syndrome, directly behind him at his invitation. 

Mitchell, who died in 2017 at the age of 63, began sitting behind Krzyzewski in 1980 and the two would shake hands before every home game. 

Krzyzewski said in an email to The News & Observer after Mitchell’s passing that, “Steve became a good friend…It always felt good shaking his hand before games because I admired him and was proud of him.”

In a phone interview, Candace Black, Mitchell’s sister, said, “The fact that Coach K allowed Steve to do that for 37 years meant a lot to Steve and in turn meant a lot to our family, because when Steve was born in ‘54, the doctor said he wouldn’t live past 30 and he lived to be 63…Coach K meant a lot to Steve and in turn meant a lot to us, and the fact that he is retiring—he's gonna be missed by so many people.” 

‘Duke fan since little league baseball’

Still others wanted to share small moments of Krzyzewski that stick out as special even after so many years rooting for the Blue Devils. 

Kim Reed, one of the founders of Krzyzewskiville, explained that after her and her friends from the Mirecourt dorm camped out multiple days in advance to get center court spots for the North Carolina game, a thousand other students followed suit. Reed and her friends jokingly made a sign for Krzyzewski’s now-eponymous village, and a Duke tradition was born. 

“[Krzyzewski] didn't come out specifically to see us, I think because he thought we were just like insane and he'd never seen this before. But he did walk by with Alaa Abdelnaby, a recruit, and we all said hello and waved at him, and he kind of waved back at us with a funny look…I don't think he thought anything of it. He just thought, there's a bunch of weird kids,” the 1986 graduate said. 

Matthew Memrick, a 43-year-old from Charlotte, grew up down the street from Krzyzewski’s house, and he frequently played basketball with the neighborhood kids in Krzyzewski’s driveway. 

“I also played baseball in the North Durham Little League where one of my first coaches was Joe Alleva,” Memrick wrote in a submission. “Anyway, I made the all-star team one year and K came out (maybe 1988). He did the announcing and he was out calling kids names out as they came up to bat. He called my name out and joked that people could easily get it wrong. I thought that was funny because everyone got his name wrong…[I] have been a Duke fan since little league baseball.”

Meanwhile, 69-year-old Doren Madey Pinnell, who received a B.S., M.Ed., and Ph.D from Duke, humorously recalled being somewhat of a superfan along with her late husband, renowned dermatologist Dr. Sheldon Pinnell.

“We had our first and only son, Tyson, together in 1983…. Back then you could stay in the hospital for more than a day after you had a baby. On the fifth day, Sheldon picked me up out of the hospital, and we went to a Duke men's basketball game…. At one point, my late husband had more than 30 seats inside Cameron Indoor Stadium. And when they computerized the system, they said, ‘Who the hell is Pinnell?’ And they made us give back all but our four personal seats,”  she said.

Doren also remembered how Krzyzewski regularly sent Tyson signed posters, such as one that congratulated the then-seventh grader on being the highest scorer on his undefeated Durham Academy basketball team. 

“Loyalty. Honor. Passion.”

Finally, some Duke faithful simply wanted to reflect. 

Matt Uhlman, a 2010 Duke Medical School graduate from Yakima, Wash.,  praised Krzyzewski’s composure. “He was on his way to being the winningest coach of all time, had won at every level, but always remained humble and acknowledged that he was ultimately playing a game. The way he has led his teams and helped them keep things in perspective has always been very inspiring.” 

In addition, David London of Boulder, Colo., and a Class of 1989 alum, reflected on “how happy [Krzyzewski] has made [him] over the course of [him] life.” 

He writes, “To this day my best friends are a group of about a dozen of my Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity brothers. I have no doubt that the continuity and sustained excellence of the basketball team under Coach K is one of the primary reasons we are still such good friends over 30 years later. I still have a text thread going with two of these guys for every game!!” 

Charlie White, a 49-year-old out of Asheboro, N.C., put it simply: “To me, Coach Krzyzewski means excellence. Loyalty. Honor. Passion. While certainly not a perfect man, he is the sort of leader any parent would be comfortable trusting with their son. He understands that above all else, a coach is an educator who is responsible for not only teaching his players about the game, but also preparing them to be men. Finally, to me he is the coach who made the Duke program the gold standard. He is The GOAT.” 

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

Sasha Richie | Sports Managing Editor

Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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