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Coach K Built a Basketball Empire

Mike Krzyzewski is stepping down after more than four decades as the head coach of Duke. Love it or hate it, his program was one of the most successful organizations in sports history.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Mike Krzyzewski, the men’s basketball head coach at Duke University, will retire after the 2021-22 season, capping a Hall of Fame coaching career of 47 seasons, the last 42 of them in Durham. That’s a weird sentence to grapple with; hearing that Krzyzewski is stepping down from the Duke bench is akin to hearing that the Big Mac is off the McDonald’s menu, or Mickey Mouse is leaving Disney. But also, when’s the last time you read the phrase “Mike Krzyzewski, the men’s basketball head coach at Duke University” in its entirety?

Heuristically, we get to “Duke” and picture the diminutive, dark-haired coach, jacket unbuttoned and nose wrinkled in pique, prowling the sideline. “Mike K …” is enough to conjure up the entire Cameron Indoor Arena scene, with its horde of shrieking blue-painted undergraduates. “Coach K” isn’t just a convenient moniker for a man with a long last name, it’s synecdoche for Christian Laettner at the Spectrum foul line, LeBron and Kobe recapturing Olympic gold, and the per-capita wealthiest tent village on the East Coast.

Like him or not (and this being Duke, most people are going to pick the latter option), Krzyzewski is one of the most successful coaches who’s ever lived: an all-time Division I record 1,170 wins, 97 of which came in the NCAA tournament, also a record. That goes with five national titles, 12 Final Four appearances, 12 regular-season ACC titles, and five Olympic gold medals, three as a head coach. In achievement and longevity, Krzyzewski transcends his contemporaries and should be regarded as a figure of world-historical sporting import. He’s in a class with Roy Williams and John Calipari, yes, but also Pat Summitt and John Wooden, and the likes of Bill Belichick and Sir Alex Ferguson. These are epoch-spanning, history-bending figures, viewed in their own corners of sporting history as fathers of empire, like George Washington or Charlemagne.

And what an empire. In 1980, Krzyzewski took over a program with recent success, but so little institutional staying power that its previous coach had bailed for South Carolina, of all places. In another timeline, Duke is Wake Forest with a slightly better baseball team; now it’s a genuine blue blood powerhouse program—perhaps the blue blood powerhouse program. At the very least, it’s a perennial recruiting magnet that makes up half of the sport’s most celebrated rivalry and routinely produces NBA stalwarts. Krzyzewski built this in his first decade, then spent the next 30 years running up the score.

Over four decades in Durham, Krzyzewski made Duke into a team as successful and as polarizing as the Yankees or Cowboys. Basketball is the most proletarian of the North American team sports, drawing its greatest stars and cultural identity from outside the traditional societal power base. Today, that manifests itself in the game’s overwhelmingly Black playing corps, but even in the sport’s early days it drew heavily from poor urban Jewish and Catholic communities as well.

Duke, by contrast, smothered that blue-collar culture with upper-middle-class smarm. The noisy undergrads were expected to grow up to be investment bankers and lobbyists and corporate lawyers, titans of industry who found Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV or the Fab Five or Calipari’s Memphis teams some combination of uncouth and threatening. Duke built a national brand on the contrast between Laettner and Chris Webber, or JJ Redick and Carmelo Anthony, while the Cameron Crazies called rival stars illiterate.

Krzyzewski played and coached under the most celebrated bully in college basketball history, Bobby Knight. And he built Duke into a bully that suited its era. Knight, an imposing, choleric giant who preached aggressive man-to-man defense in a deafening baritone, wanted to kick your ass. Krzyzewski—smaller, with an awkward smile and soft, high-pitched voice—built a team that would beat you, then passive-aggressively ask you to come to the office on Saturday, then repossess your house.

Duke wasn’t easy to hate because they won, or because Laettner and Grayson Allen and Jon Scheyer—who in a hilarious turn of fate is Krzyzewski’s heir presumptive as head coach—all battled through severe cases of Punchable Face Syndrome. It’s because they won and we had to hear about how Grant Hill was so charismatic and Shane Battier was so thoughtful and Trajan Langdon was majoring in math. Tarkanian and Calipari and Rick Pitino might cut corners or skimp on academics, but Coach K’s players all stayed four years and got degrees. Duke stood not just for victory, but for superiority.

Until it didn’t. Where his mentor was undone by his rage and inflexibility, Krzyzewski adapted to the times. Just in case the number—47 seasons as a head coach—doesn’t adequately capture Krzyzewski’s longevity, consider that he got his first head coaching job just two seasons after freshmen became eligible to play varsity Division I basketball. As the sport adopted the 3-point line and the shot clock, he evolved. As it grew from an extracurricular activity to an international business and media conglomerate, he adapted.

And he won. Whether by his ability to get Laettner, Hill, and Bobby Hurley to spend four years on campus, or by attracting Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, and Zion Williamson to stick around for two semesters, he won.

Krzyzewski isn’t the first coach to build an empire in his own image, and even as money and attention turn the hot seat a glowing red, other coaches are following in his footsteps at other schools. But one reason it’s so difficult to embody a program, as Krzyzewski did, is that success breeds arrogance, and arrogance breeds inflexibility. How easy would it have been for Krzyzewski, in the mid-2000s with three national championships on his CV and his face on the wall in Springfield, to continue to sneer at top recruits rather than change his approach?

Maybe, as some reports suggest, he’s walking away now because he’s reaching the limits of his willingness to adapt. Again, Knight serves as a telling contrast, the cautionary tale of what happens to those who try to hold back the tide. Or maybe he’s retiring because he’s a 74-year-old with a history of back problems and nothing left to prove.

Either way, it leaves Duke in a bizarre situation. Bereft of its avatar, this is now just another team, subject to the turbulence that comes with having to find someone to lead the program, rather than relying on a leader who is the program. Manchester United hasn’t been the same without Ferguson, nor Tennessee without Summitt. Even programs that do end up replacing their spiritual father relatively quickly—including, ironically, North Carolina—often suffer through an awkward interregnum before landing on the right coach.

And that’s the problem. Duke is replacing the man who built the program, who ruled by fiat at the school for 40 years, who inspired anyone familiar with the phrase “March Madness” to view him with reverence or revulsion or some combination of the two. Any coach, if he’s merely a coach, will be an inadequate successor.