Mike Krzyzewski says he doesn’t want the story of his retirement to be a distraction for Duke’s basketball players. The legendary head coach jumps in to reiterate this every single time those players are asked questions about it—which happened in each press conference after a Duke game at the ACC men’s basketball tournament in Brooklyn earlier this month. “It’s their season,” he said after the Blue Devils’ win over Miami in the semifinal. “They only get it once, I’ve had it numerous times.”
If Duke’s players are able to successfully avoid thinking about Krzyzewski’s departure and the frenzy it has caused, they can do something that virtually everybody else in the college basketball universe cannot. The media will not stop talking about Coach K. Almost every team Duke played against this season put together some sort of pregame tribute for Krzyzewski. (North Carolina, notably, did not—the rivalry is as it should be.)
And then there was Coach K’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. On March 5, ESPN programmed its entire day of college basketball coverage around the last planned showdown between Krzyzewski’s Duke and North Carolina, which was the most-watched college hoops broadcast on the network in three seasons. The game was one of the most expensive tickets in basketball history, with fans paying a minimum of $4,000 to get into the arena on game day—some Super Bowl tickets were less expensive. And after Duke’s 94-81 loss, the program held a lengthy ceremony for the coach, who already has the court named in his honor. The Blue Devils team watched it unfold from courtside seats—hopefully it wasn’t a distraction.
While covering the ACC men’s basketball tournament at the Barclays Center, I got an up-close look at what people had paid so many thousands of dollars to see: Krzyzewski coaching in action. I have to admit, it was underwhelming. I made a personal power ranking of the ACC coaches who were the most entertaining to watch, and Coach K didn’t crack my top 10. (My surprise champion: Clemson’s Brad Brownell.) Krzyzewski doesn’t gesticulate wildly or scream at the referees; he generally expresses his emotions through the intensity of his scowl.
Of course, Coach K’s greatness isn’t defined by how entertaining he is to watch. It’s defined by the moments nobody can pay to see: his legendary all-night film sessions, his infamous motivational tactics, his ability to make players understand that he loves them even if he’ll be a jerk to them at times—all things captured in Wright Thompson’s massive profile of the retiring coach for ESPN.
And Krzyzewski’s success is undeniable. He has 1,200 Division I coaching wins, 101 more than anyone else in history, with five national titles and 12 Final Four appearances. If he makes a 13th Final Four, he’ll break a tie with John Wooden—one last record on his way out the door. He’s been able to achieve these records thanks to his longevity, with 42 seasons at Duke.
Unlike some other coaches of his era, Coach K is now thriving in a sport that barely resembles the one in which he started. It used to be the norm for top college basketball players to spend four years in college—especially at Duke. Now, Duke dominates on the back of one-and-done stars recruited by Krzyzewski. Coach K hasn’t just kept up; he’s been at the forefront as the game has changed.
The changes within college basketball have helped address some of the NCAA’s countless structural inequities and given players more options. They can now transfer from one school to another rather easily; they can now make money off their name, image, and likeness rights without losing their NCAA eligibility as a result. There are now avenues to the NBA other than playing in college, such as playing in the G League or going overseas. It’s no longer considered shameful for players to prioritize their own needs over the needs of college basketball programs.
The story of Coach K’s retirement has been inescapable, in part because he’s a member of a dying breed: the superstar college basketball coach.
Coach K is not just the head coach of the Duke men’s basketball team. He is the Duke men’s basketball team. When Krzyzewski was hired in 1980, Duke had the third-most successful program in North Carolina—UNC and NC State had both previously won national titles, while Duke never had. Now, Duke is the premier program in the sport. The school has named so much stuff after Coach K—the court at Cameron, the main athletic facility, the “human performance laboratory,” a “center of leadership and ethics,” at least one professorship, and Krzyzewskiville outside the stadium—that it had to dedicate a bench to him after his final home game. A bench. It was either that or changing the school’s name to Krzyzewski U.
Coach K emphasizes family regularly. He says current and former players are part of “the Brotherhood.” His daughter is an assistant athletic director at Duke; her son, Michael Savarino, is a guard for the team. After Duke beat Syracuse in Brooklyn, Krzyzewski reminisced about his decades-long friendship with Orange head coach Jim Boeheim, whose sons Jimmy and Buddy are the stars of Syracuse’s basketball team and close friends with Krzyzewski’s grandsons, including Savarino. For this matchup, Boeheim decided to deploy an unusual triangle-and-two zone against his longtime friend in the hopes of pulling out one last win. Boeheim said he’d last used that specific zone in 1987 and scratched his head trying to remember exactly what game that was in.
It was an extremely college basketball moment: two superstar coaches who have had the same jobs for so long that they can’t remember all the details talking about their decades of friendship and competition. This has long been a landscape in which coaches with the right combination of staying power and on-court success have not only transcended their profession, but become utterly synonymous with their programs: John Wooden, Bobby Knight, Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, John Thompson Jr., Boeheim, Roy Williams, Geno Auriemma, Pat Summitt. And no coach has become more synonymous with a program than Coach K has at Duke.
In pro sports, the players are the stars. In the NFL, the quarterbacks are the focal points; in the NBA, the best players dictate where they play—and sometimes get their coaches fired. College football comes the closest to college basketball in regard to superstar coaches, as Bear Bryant and Bobby Bowden were football equivalents of Woodens and Krzyzewskis. But those days are over: It feels like any coach besides Nick Saban can now be fired (like recent national champion Ed Orgeron) or leave his job (like Lincoln Riley or Brian Kelly) if a better option becomes available.
Only one college football coach has been at the same school for at least 20 consecutive seasons: Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. Meanwhile, 11 Division I men’s college hoops coaches have been at schools for that long, from Boeheim and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo to mid-major rocks such as Davidson’s Bob McKillop and Saint Mary’s Randy Bennett. College football tends to make a big deal out of its players and who wins the Heisman Trophy; even college basketball diehards might have a hard time remembering which stars have won the Wooden Award.
Krzyzewski has coached stars at Duke, from Grant Hill and Christian Laettner in the 1990s to Shane Battier and Luol Deng in the 2000s to Jayson Tatum and Brandon Ingram today. But what historically defined his teams was the presence of, well, Dukies. These weren’t necessarily future pros, but players who bought into Coach K’s ideal vision for annoyingly victorious basketball and spent four years executing it to perfection.
Let’s remember some guys we hated: Bobby Hurley. Greg Paulus. Jon Scheyer. Kyle Singler. Mason Plumlee. Miles Plumlee. Marshall Plumlee. Madison Plumlee. Maxwell Plumlee. (OK, I made up those last two Plumlees.) JJ Redick. Grayson Allen.
Phew, I need a break. I’m getting mad just typing all of these names in a row! During their respective four years on campus, each of these players learned how to sneer the same sneer that Coach K sneers. Watching Duke often felt like watching younger versions of Coach K taking charges.
The concept of the universally detested Dukie probably left school when Allen did. Since he graduated in 2018, Duke has had only one senior play more than 50 percent of the team’s total minutes: Jordan Goldwire, who logged 28.5 minutes per game in 2020-21 and was not a source of national frustration. Duke has started six players this season: three freshmen, two sophomores, and a junior.
Today’s Duke teams look very different from those 20 or even 10 years ago. When Duke players started going to the NBA before graduating, the school’s fans felt that it was a rebuke of everything the program stood for. Elton Brand got snooty emails from Duke alumni who were furious about his decision to leave the school after just two years. They believed Duke was a prestigious academic institution that just so happened to have a good basketball team—not a factory for future pros.
But that reputation has changed quickly. To stay competitive and recruit the best talent in the sport, Coach K had to make clear that players could see the floor as true freshmen and leave for the pros whenever they were ready. This is how the Blue Devils landed Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers, Jabari Parker, R.J. Barrett—and, of course, Zion Williamson.
Zion showed up the year after Allen left, a neat way to mark the end of one era of Duke basketball and the beginning of another. Zion was famous not because of what he did at Duke, but because of the hype he’d built during his high school and AAU career, as his games drew up to a million viewers on live streams. Zion wasn’t the first one-and-done player at Duke, but he was the first to be a bigger star than Coach K. Remember when I said that Coach K’s final game at Cameron was the most-watched game on ESPN in years? Well, it was the network’s most-watched since Zion, who had three higher-rated pre-NCAA tournament games. The 2019 men’s tourney had its highest ratings in decades. This was considered to be a knock-on of the Zion effect.
It is far more interesting to watch Zion play basketball than it is to watch Coach K coach. (Unfortunately, “watching Zion” is not something we get to do often at any level anymore.) The same goes for Paolo Banchero, Duke’s star freshman whose talent is surpassed only by his feel for the game. Four Duke players rank among the top 30 in Kevin O’Connor’s 2022 NBA draft Big Board: In addition to Banchero, there’s knockdown shooter AJ Griffin, stout big man Mark Williams, and dependable playmaker Wendell Moore Jr. While none of these players has the same level of fame as Zion, the shift in roster construction is clear. Duke’s modern-day stars are less defined by their Dukeness than their own individual talents. If Greg Paulus had gone to Kansas—or, for that matter, gone straight from high school to playing QB at Syracuse—he wouldn’t have been Greg Paulus. But if Paolo Banchero had gone to any other school in the country, he’d still be Paolo Banchero.
Coach K has managed to stay relevant as the game around him has changed. He’s managed to keep recruiting at a high level. And the players who played just a handful of games for him are considered just as essential to “the Brotherhood” as the various Plumlee variants. Most importantly, after adapting to this new world, Coach K has kept winning: Duke’s 2014-15 national title team was powered by one-and-doners Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, and Jahlil Okafor.
But players now know that they don’t need to go to Duke to reach the NBA. They’re just as likely to be the no. 1 pick if they go to Oklahoma State, LSU, or Georgia. Hell, they can skip college entirely to play in the G League or Australia and still be a top-three pick. (Fun thought experiment: Imagine LaMelo Ball playing for Coach K.) Top prospects have as good a chance of developing somewhere else as they do at Duke—and their marketability could be higher if they choose a different path.
Coach K is not the last active superstar college basketball coach. Boeheim, Izzo, Auriemma, and John Calipari still exist. There are still coaches who win a lot of games at programs reliant on four-year players and continuity, like Baylor’s Scott Drew and Gonzaga’s Mark Few, both of whom have been at their schools for more than 15 years and earned no. 1 seeds in this year’s men’s tournament. But neither of those guys has anywhere near the cachet as Coach K. No one has ever called Drew “Coach D,” and fans watch Gonzaga this season mainly to see Chet Holmgren. There doesn’t seem to be a future generation of Coach K’s on the horizon. The structure of the sport has changed—and the reason it resonates with fans with it.
Coach K says he doesn’t want his retirement to be a distraction to his players. We can debate whether this is true; he certainly didn’t avoid the distraction by announcing his retirement in advance. But he’s right when he says that this is their season, not his. With the old breed of coaches leaving the game, it’s not just the players’ season—it’s finally their sport too.