Forget Mount Rushmore. When it comes to college basketball coaches, Mike Krzyzewski is the Washington Monument. You want to argue John Wooden’s monument should rise higher? I’ll take the other side of that, quickly.
Wooden won 10 NCAA titles, but it was all done over a never-to-be-touched 12-year period, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and then Bill Walton dominating the scene for half of them. Remember that 11 years after his first NCAA title, Wooden was retired.
Best dozen years? Wooden, never to be repeated. Best career? Krzyzewski. NCAA titles in three decades? Krzyzewski. (Plus a runner-up finish in a fourth decade.)
Krzyzewski announced Wednesday that this coming season will be his last. Even if you knew it was coming, it still seemed stunning. College hoops without Coach K? You could be 60 years old today, and if you went to college, Krzyzewski already was coaching Duke when you were in college.
All-time winningest coach in men’s Division I college basketball. Second to Wooden with five titles. (Now that Roy Williams is retired, no other active D1 coach has more than two.) Krzyzewski ties Wooden with a dozen Final Four appearances. (Adding four more Elite Eights ... those 16 Elite Eights, that’s a record that might never be broken.)
Respect for Krzyzewski carried to the highest levels of the sport, proven by his coaching three USA Olympic teams to gold medals. I covered almost every USA hoops game in Beijing. If you think it was a given that coaching Kobe and LeBron would get you a title … nope. K knew it was their team and handled himself accordingly. He had their respect. Maybe that was his equivalent of coaching Kareem and Walton.
A lingering memory: During the 2008 gold-medal game, Dwight Howard was called for an intentional foul for grabbing a Spanish player from behind by the shoulders. Howard came over to the bench, but it was teammate Tayshaun Prince who talked to him. Krzyzewski walked over and tapped Howard on the butt as Howard continued to listen to Prince. The coach, apparently seeing he wasn’t needed, turned around and sat down.
Just a figurehead? Nope, a coach who knew he had leaders up and down the bench.
I’d covered K in NCAA Tournaments, in battles against John Chaney, Fran Dunphy, and Jay Wright, and had been to Cameron Indoor Stadium for a bunch of games over the years, getting my copy critiqued by the Cameron Crazies crowding over my computer. Those Crazies are part of the legacy, too. Picture a place for college hoops, you may start right there, K-Ville a fixture in the sport, Duke students camping out just to get in the place. (You hate them? They like that, too.)
After games, Krzyzewski generally forced you into a choice: Go to his open locker room, or to his press conference. All the talking happened at once. Sometimes, the calculus was simple. Zion Williamson, or Gerald Henderson from Philly? Yep, get to the locker, then hope K was still talking.
I once asked a Duke center from Haddonfield, Brian Zoubek, if Krzyzewski brought up the famous 1992 Christian Laettner play at the Spectrum much. Zoubek, a big part of the 2010 Duke NCAA title-winner, said it was mentioned only when Duke set up late-game plays. The context, Zoubek said, usually was that “he gave it to Laettner before, and he had missed. But he kept giving it to him.”
After the news broke Wednesday, I texted a bunch of hoops folks, asked them for a little word association. “I say Coach K, you say what?”
“I know this may sound corny … but DUKE,” Temple coach Aaron McKie texted back right away. “He built the entire brand.”
I’d point out that Jim Spanarkel and Mike Gminski and Philly’s own Gene Banks had put down a few bricks just before Krzyzewski got there, but McKie is right. … As an institution, not just a basketball program Duke owes quite a bit of its present reputation and even lofty academic standing to Krzyzewski. (I was told as a young writer, by the way, that you’re not a college hoops writer if you have to look up the spelling. … ZYZ.)
Back to the word association …
“Who?” Drexel coach Zach Spiker texted back.
A little joke.
“Curator of talent,’' Spiker texted again. “Visionary ... Leader.”
“Evolved,” Penn coach Steve Donahue texted back.
Remember, Donahue had made his own trips to Cameron Indoor when he coached Boston College. That evolution presumably speaks to Krzyzewski’s moving from the era of coaching a talent such as Grant Hill for four years to knowing he would get Zion passing through for only a season. It wasn’t quite the same.
“Team builder,” St. Joseph’s coach Billy Lange texted.
Even his detractors have to acknowledge Krzyzewski was brilliant at that.
Sure, Krzyzewski has his detractors. It didn’t take too many texts to get one back that said, “Arrogant, actually.”
This hoops lifer (never a Big 5 head coach, so not him or him or him) immediately pointed out that when the Lakers offered Roy Williams the head-coaching job, Roy called back in an hour and said no. Coach K was offered the Lakers job and called a press conference to talk about the offer and how he would be considering it. Then a week later, the hoops world waiting for his smoke signal, he turned it down.
“Very good coach,” this lifer said, just that over time it felt like Krzyzewski was leveraging everything, from USA Basketball to American Express commercials, to the service of Krzyzewski.
Maybe so. You’d also argue Krzyzewski’s leverage served Duke pretty well, and his players did all right in the exchange.
“Winner,” La Salle coach Ashley Howard texted.
Maybe the arrogance comes in when you look at the transition, and see that Krzyzewski apparently wasn’t willing to open up the search for his successor to the outside world. Duke isn’t the same place that gave a barely proven Army head coach a shot four decades back and stuck with him when Year 2 and Year 3 produced losing seasons.
Now? Who knows? Maybe the Boston Celtics coach who resigned the very same day could have been enticed down to Cameron Indoor. Nope, no search for the likes of Brad Stevens. It will be Krzyzewski’s 33-year-old assistant, Jon Scheyer, about to be a head coach for the first time.
Living up to the K legacy gets to be Scheyer’s defining moment, and good luck to him. Today, salute the legacy. If you were a Terps fan or a Tar Heels fan or a Cavs fan, you hated that pinched K look, that fiery aggrievement Krzyzewski took into every exchange with a referee who dared to whistle against him.
Just admit the obvious, that Krzyzewski produced a product that stood the test of all-time. Nobody did it better for longer and he did it in one place, producing tough, smart teams. If Krzyzewski lost, he was ticked off, visibly. (”We take a very bitter loss. That’s what we take out of it,” K said after losing to a Khalif Wyatt-led Temple team in 2012.) When Duke won, he’d tell you how it happened, rarely in a hurry to leave the room.
Maybe finishing next season just after Krzyzewski turns 75 merely proves he was never in a hurry to leave. This much is true: The room is already starting to feel empty.