Coach K's lasting legacy: How the Duke icon changed the game

·Columnist
·5 min read

Mike Krzyzewski arrived at Duke University in 1980 with little fanfare and a nearly unpronounceable name.

He’ll retire after next season known as a single letter.

Krzyzewski, who will turn 75 during his final season, will retire next spring after 42 seasons (and five national titles) in Durham, plus five years prior to that at West Point. He’ll go down not just as college basketball’s all-time winningest coach, but an icon across numerous generations of the sport whose impact is felt far beyond his own campus.

He was known as the dream coach for players interested in staying all four years and earning a prized degree only to morph into the king of the one and done. Between the Cameron Crazies and Krzyzewskiville (the camping community they lived in) he helped create the organized student sections that often define the sport. His duels with Dean Smith turned North Carolina-Duke from a regional rivalry into a national sporting holiday.

He rode the ESPN-fueled popularity of the game into not just becoming the face of the sport, but statesman status. He led the United States to three Olympic golds, and became confidant to modern NBA stars such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who skipped college yet sought out his guidance.

All this from a Chicago-born son of Polish immigrants who graduated from Vietnam-era West Point, where he'd played for Bob Knight.

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski yells to his team during a college basketball game against Clemson on Jan. 14, 2020. (John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Duke's Mike Krzyzewski yells to his team during a college basketball game against Clemson on Jan. 14, 2020. (John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Knight was dubbed “The General,” but Krzyzewski actually resembled it — strategic, calculating, smart, disciplined, innovative. He could be tough — mean even — but there was an analytical bent behind it, an ability to dominate every individual and group encounter he was involved in.

This winter will be a curtain call for arguably the greatest to do it, and even in those road gyms up and down Tobacco Road where they loved to hate him and his too often, too-perfect Blue Devils through the decades, he should walk out to thundering applause. Coach K was everything you could want out of a college coach — inspiring cheers and tears and taunts and a whole heck of a lot of fun.

The game wouldn’t be the game without him, and you simply can’t say that about many of these guys.

He made the Duke brand big, which made the games big, which made the sport big. It didn’t matter if he was rolling into the smallest college town or Madison Square Garden, when Duke was in the house, it was worth paying attention. This was a bonafide star.

The 1992 Duke-Michigan NCAA title game earned a 22.5 rating, third highest of any championship game (with just 100,000 fewer viewers than the legendary 1979 Magic Johnson-Larry Bird clash).

In 2018-19, Duke games were still drawing nearly 1 million more viewers on ESPN than games not involving Duke. Barack Obama attended a game in person.

Amazingly, he almost never made it. He reached just one NIT in five seasons at West Point and was coming off a 9-14 campaign when Duke almost inexplicably gave him a shot. The program was roaring — a Final Four and an Elite Eight in two of the past three years. By the end of his third season though, he’d posted records of 10-17 and 11-18.

Meanwhile, rivals North Carolina and North Carolina State had just won national titles.

If now was then … he’d have been fired. Or never hired in the first place.

He survived though and proceeded to convince Johnny Dawkins to become a Blue Devil. Then Tommy Amaker and Danny Ferry and Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill and Elton Brand and Shane Battier and Jay Williams and Carlos Boozer and JJ Redick and Shelden Williams and Jabari Parker and Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley and R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson and about 100 other great players.

Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils reacts during the second half of their game against North Carolina on March 07, 2020. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils reacts during the second half of their game against North Carolina on March 07, 2020. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

When college basketball was dominated by getting and developing talent through four years on campus, all while serving as a father figure, few did it better.

When it became about serving as an NBA stopover and trying to piece together a winner on the fly, he excelled at that.

He used every bit of marketing to his benefit — from television to commercials to foreign trips to photo ops to the Olympics.

It’s why this season he’ll be seeking the Final Four in his fifth decade. Whatever the challenge, there he was. His sport is in the midst of another metamorphosis — Name, Image and Likeness, a robust transfer portal — but as much as the frustrations of change are real, there is little doubt K would have navigated it. He always did.

His consistency made him easy to take for granted, easy to root against, easy to undervalue. It shouldn’t have. Considering the length of his career, his 1,170 victories (and counting) may never be touched in the men's game. His 12 Final Fours, 28 NBA lottery picks and 35 NCAA tournament bids aren’t too bad either.

The program will be handed over to assistant Jon Scheyer, a star player on Duke's 2010 national championship team. There will be a year before we get to that.

The upcoming year will see Krzyzewski try to rally from last season's disappointing 13-9 run, the first team to fail to reach the NCAA tournament since 1995. He’ll do it by welcoming three top-20 recruits.

Even at the end, even all these years later, even in his mid-70s with seemingly nothing in common with the modern player, Krzyzewski should have himself a contender — just the way it should be.

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