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COACH K’S MASTER CLASS: HOW TO REVIVE A LOST TEAM AS A GEEZER
At 75, Mike Krzyzewski is doing some of his best work in his last act, inspiring young players who were astray weeks ago — and setting up Duke for revenge against North Carolina and a fairy-tale title
He paints the word picture of a bridge and cites how often he has crossed it, dropping the imagery with such aplomb that he forgets the difficulty of the act. Mike Krzyzewski is 75. He has coached college basketball since the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of home video. His hips and knees have required reconstruction. The idea of navigating any bridge at his age, even metaphorically, seems absurd.
“I know what’s on the other side of the bridge. They don’t,’’ he said of his Duke players, the 346th-least-experienced team in the sport this year. “They can only look at it. So it makes me want it more for them.’’
Now that he has led his kids over the viaduct to New Orleans, to his 13th and last Final Four, it’s only proper to sit back and admire the incredulity of the feat. Well into the 21st century, when a coach generally is viewed as a mannequin by elite athletes who tune out the slightest hint of authoritarian rule, Krzyzewski has responded to the tears and fears of three weeks ago — remember when his farewell night at Cameron Indoor Stadium bombed out? — by quick-fixing a broken team amid the pressurized glare of his retirement tour. Suddenly, what seemed a sad and uneventful goodbye has swung into the vicinity of an all-time sports story.
And he can kickstart history in a mind-bending revenge scenario against blood rival North Carolina, which wrecked the Durham love-in and stands to be punished in a Saturday collision that will lobotomize a state. “There’s no greater day in college basketball than when those four regional champions, four champions, get in one arena and play,’’ Krzyzewski said of a blueblood quartet that also includes Kansas and Villanova. “It’s the greatest day for college basketball, and we’re honored to be a part of it.”
Please. There’s only one narrative.
Imagine if Coach K saves his greatest master class, while other men in a septuagenarian mode are plucking white hairs from noses and ears, for his final professional weekend. A coronation within a culmination? Think about this. How many coaches pushing 80 have done their best work and produced a championship? Most legends begin to regress at 70, if they’re not already gone. John Wooden, positioned against Krzyzewski in the latest G.O.A.T. debate, walked away at 64 after winning 10 national titles in his last dozen seasons at UCLA. No NFL head coach has won a Super Bowl in his 70s, and Bill Belichick won’t be winning one without Tom Brady. The oldest to win in their sports: Bobby Bowden, at 70, in college football; Gregg Popovich, at 65, in the NBA; Scotty Bowman, at 68, in the NHL; and Jack McKeon, at 72, in Major League Baseball, where a manager can fall asleep without anyone noticing. Only Nick Saban, turning 70 in an era of transfer portals and massive NIL deals, can relate to the emerging narrative of the NCAA tournament.
So the happenings here are on a plateau much higher than a quest for a sixth national title. This is about a man’s wisdom, which has allowed him to reach a Final Four in every decade since the 1980s, sinking deep into the damaged recesses of youth — the average age of his starting five is 19 — and coaxing his teetering project to the edge of a timeless achievement. Has anyone ever delivered a better coaching job at such an advanced age? It doesn’t appear so.
“Enough about doing it for the old man here. We’re not going to do it unless we all own it,” Krzyzewski protested after winning the West Regional in poetic San Francisco, where he became an Army man living in barracks at the Presidio in the early 1970s. “We all owned this moment together. That’s what we’re playing for. No matter what you do as a coach, they have to show that level of character, and in this tournament, it’s really lifted them. They’ve been beautiful. They’ve been sensational. And they were really good before. I loved them before, but now I respect them so much.
“They are really a good group of kids, and they’re becoming men. How lucky am I?’’
The plurality sounds sweet, like the proverbial bridge. But this is entirely about a venerable coach defining his ultimate place in the pantheon. If you agree with me and think he wins the Wooden argument because of radically different degrees of challenges — Coach K had to evolve and adapt to the entitlement of NBA-bound players, while Wooden didn’t deal with one-and-dones or much else in Westwood besides Bill Walton’s activism — then Krzyzewski’s impact is only reinforced by this teaching/motivational clinic for the ages. Would Wooden or anyone else have stared down a team so raw and flawed and made an immediate U-turn toward a confetti parade? All while social media laughed and sneered, with the sports world expecting a cruel crash?
It’s 2022. Players own the power and leverage. Yet notice how 6-foot-10 Paolo Banchero, about to bank-ero megamillions as the possible No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, buys into every word barked by a 5-foot-10 geezer. Notice how Duke’s fortunes changed when he returned point guard Jeremy Roach to the starting lineup. Notice how 7-footer Mark Williams responded with a paint takeover of Arkansas after Krzyzewski flipped to a rarely used zone defense, just as he’d successfully ordered it in a tense victory over Texas Tech before ceding to his players’ wishes to resume man-to-man. By now, you know he dropped to a knee and demanded they partake in the fabled Duke tradition: slap the floor collectively with 2:54 left, holding only a one-point lead over the Red Raiders in the regional semifinal thriller. This after telling them they were “playing scared.’’
“Listen! Touch the floor, right now,’’ Krzyzewski implored them.
They didn’t trail again. If Duke goes on to win it all, the speech and scene should be a permanent exhibit inside the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where Coach K has been inducted twice. The second time, part of a “Dream Team’’ collective ceremony, is a reminder of how he commanded the respect of NBA superstars when he coached Olympic teams. For almost a half-century, Krzyzewski has been the pope of American basketball. You don’t mess with the godfather, especially when he’s trying to depart on top.
“Slapping the floor? What the hell? Why not?’’ he said. “Our guys really wanted that, because it’s kind of like (crossing) over the bridge to the brotherhood. They can now say they did that.”
When he professes love for his players, he means it. His public farewell tour — which he says was necessary so future recruits knew his successor would be assistant coach Jon Scheyer, 34 — created a hype burden that only will intensify this week. “Look, that gets old. It wears on you a little bit,” Krzyzewski said. “I feel for my guys. They’ve had pressure put on them that we’re not putting on them. I tell them all the time, we’re playing for us — for you — but then it just works out. It’s not a sinister plan against us or anything, but it happens that way.”
“All season we’ve been dealing with it,” Banchero said. “It’s Coach’s last something every game.”
The pressure didn’t stop Banchero from trying to salute his coach during a post-game interview. “This the G.O.A.T. right here,’’ he said.
“No. No. No. Shut up,’’ Krzyzewski shot back, with a smirk.
But make no mistake, a “sinister” element is out there, as always. Here’s a plea to the Coach K haters who will exist until his dying day: Please don’t make this about you, your loathing of Duke, your side-by-side superimposed photos comparing his facial features to a rat’s. This Final Four has no time for your neuroses. If possible, understand the enormity of the moment, the way Krzyzewski — love him, hate him, sick of him like an old furnace still spewing hot air — could be separating himself from anyone else who ever has coached a sports team on Planet Earth. Critics have reveled in his lack of a national championship since his last Final Four appearance in 2015, a period of underachievement that included a 2019 whiff with Zion Williamson and two other top-10 NBA picks. Did he really have to shout down a student reporter last season, when the Blue Devils — horrors! — missed a pandemic-marred NCAA tournament?
So the tension after the Carolina loss at Cameron couldn’t be overstated. That failure required the very best of what was left in Krzyzewski’s tank. “I had a good meeting with myself,” he said, assuming ownership of a result he deemed unacceptable. “I said that I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to help in some way, and part of it was my approach with them. If you don’t put truth on the table and take responsibility, then you won’t make the best of the situation that you are in.”
The assumption, after a remarkably rousing rescue mission, is that Duke will complete the fairy tale — even after North Carolina continued to impress in halting the strut of the Saint Peter’s Peacocks. “Would be surprised if they’re not playing to win a national championship,’’ Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said after the 78-69 loss. But if you think Coach K is finished with his clinic, don’t make him laugh.
“You never look back. It’s not about the battle you won. It’s about the battle you are going to fight. Then when it’s over, there’s another battle,’’ he said. “No rearview mirror in your car. That’s your order. That’s your mission.’’
If he sounds like the Army man who learned under Bob Knight, heeding The Ogre’s best lessons and disregarding his worst, it also spotlights the miracle of Michael William Krzyzewski. He still can effectively use his voice, his commands, to reach players who easily could shut down a grandfather. The new coaching prototype is Villanova’s Jay Wright, the antithesis of Coach K, choosing composure over fire in the crunch. They might meet next Monday night in the championship game, with Wright eyeing his third title since 2016, which officially would elevate his program as the gold standard. Or the opponent would be Bill Self, custodian of a filthy Kansas program that awaits penalties for longstanding NCAA infractions cases and shouldn’t be anywhere near this stage.
Somehow, no matter the obstacle, this wouldn’t be the wisest time to doubt an old man and his bridge.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.