At the end of March, Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski led his team to a Final Four appearance after going on an improbable run in the NCAA tournament. Coach K has now brought Duke back to its rightful place among college hoops royalty and helped secure another banner year for their program.
The “ncaa basketball news” is the latest in a long line of college basketball rituals. The “coach K leads Duke back to the Final Four for one more college basketball ritual.”
SAN FRANCISCO – He claims he can’t recall records or scores, but he can’t forget a conclusion. The ones that are tragic, the ones that are joyful, and everything in between. But this one, the ultimate one, has been a conclusion from the start.
It’s taken on a sacramental quality. Every game starts with Duke’s players, then the assistant coaches, and ultimately Mike Krzyzewski. He now comes out of the locker room with a small limp, as if he has forgotten something and doesn’t have time to seek for it. He’s a 75-year-old monarch at the end of a royal procession, about a half-minute behind his youthful successor, aide Jon Scheyer.
Krzyzewski has walked this path 1,569 times as a head coach, including 1,437 times in his 42 years at Duke. He’s been walking out of every locker room for the last two weeks, knowing it may be his last. Every game, every practice has the potential to be monumental or insignificant, and by beating Arkansas on Saturday night, Krzyzewski’s farewell was extended for another week. A practice will be the last one and a stroll will be the final one in New Orleans, where the Blue Devils will play in the Final Four for the 13th and final time in Krzyzewski’s tenure. The gap in 48 hours between Saturday and Monday is tremendous.
He insists he doesn’t want it to be about him, but that’s impossible to believe. The upcoming week in college basketball, like most of the previous nine months, will be dominated by him. With their 78-69 victory against the Razorbacks in the West Regional final, his teammates assured it, and when the questioning shifted to the obvious — the players going out to win one for Coach K — he interjected with a piercing tone.
“We’ve already won two championships,” stated Krzyzewski. “They’ve completed all of the requirements. Let’s have a look at them. They’ve already won a regular-season title and are currently competing in a regional. That’s what they did. They took care of everything for us. Enough with doing things for the old guy. We won’t do anything until we’re all in on it. We are all co-owners of this moment.”
This happened only a day after a reporter said he’d never seen Coach K act so loosely in his life as he did in the first two weeks of the tournament. “I’m not a loose man, but…” he added, and everyone laughed at the mere thought that he could stretch even the most liberal definition of loose beyond a self-deprecating remark. This is how it has always seemed from the outside: the delight is much exceeded by the anxiety.
He is the last of the old school, and he sells a brand of items that has diminished in popularity over the years. Regimented, demanding, and even harsh. When he leaves, he’ll take a lot with him, some of it valuable, some of it not. He has unwillingly accepted the game’s adjustments, taking full advantage of an ever-changing system while moaning the whole time.
His celebrations are also subdued. Krzyzewski allowed himself two passionate hand claps as he strolled across the field after Trevor Keels sank a last-second 3 to give Duke a 12-point halftime lead against Arkansas. Within the stringent diet of stoicism, this excitement — he looked like a guy slapping dust from his hands — is about as much of a celebration as is allowed.
He’ll be remembered for his 1,202 career victories and five — maybe six — national championships, but the picture that will stick with people the most is of a guy standing on the sideline, his face a rictus of pain as he puts his hands over his lips and shouts for his team to relax.
Duke’s journey through the tournament has been a long exercise in bridging the gap between the past and the present. As the closing minutes of his team’s game against Texas Tech, Krzyzewski led the charge for his squad to slap the floor on defense in a nod to Quin Snyder and the sainted Wojo. It received a standing ovation from those who are interested in such things. It seems that summoning all spirits was successful. Or, at the very least, there’s no indication that it didn’t.
Coach K’s 13th Final Four will mark the end of a lengthy, apparently fruitful farewell. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images photo
Several Duke student managers dashed onto the court at Chase Center at 2:42 p.m. on Wednesday, the day before Duke upset the Red Raiders to go to the Elite Eight, to set up the gear for what might have been Coach K’s last practice as Duke’s head coach.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but after 42 years, 12 Final Fours and five national championships, decades of All-Americans and first-round NBA draft picks, and a near-infinite number of hours in the gym, this weekend would provide him with five or six more opportunities to assess the geometry of the game and his players’ strengths and attempt to devise a plan to get them all one step closer to where they all want to be.
He came onto the court at 2:45, practice folder in hand, whistle on a loop around his neck, since practice starts at 2:45. He walked with a little limp, his face clenching as soon as his feet reached the hardwood, which had been relaxed only minutes before at a press conference. The lips was squeezed and the jaw was set. His forehead furrowed and his eyes darkened, giving the appearance of a guy on the lookout for something significant.
The control is what they all miss the most. This is the period when only the privileged see, and only he controls, the unseen events that determine what will finally be revealed. This is when the game is all that matters.
Mike Krzyzewski’s career was coming to an end in San Francisco, but the curtain was not yet drawn on his illustrious career. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images photo
His teammates raced through a frenetic shooting exercise, with shots coming in from the corners and wings, while Krzyzewski stood underneath the basket, maybe for the millionth time, watching the scenario unfold. The players yelled and laughed, praising one other’s accomplishments, but Krzyzewski remained still, his countenance unaltered, sometimes interrupting the levity with instruction. When someone waited too long to collect, he yelled, “Shot ready!” “The shot is ready.”
Since he first put a whistle around his neck at West Point when he was 28, the former Army officer’s practice has been precise and regimented, with acute angles and useful movement. Coaches can only control so much, which is why so many of them micromanage all of the controllables, knowing that once the game begins, reining it in would be difficult.
Control what you can is frequently a kind of partial surrender, a means of describing how you come to terms with what lies beyond your domain. However, there are occasions when designing things to control is necessary to compensate for the times when control is impossible. Micromanaging the controllables is a means of avoiding what occurs when the game begins and nothing can be controlled, which may explain why he carries two sets of rosary beads in his pockets during games.
Krzyzewski has requested that his last ride be about his players (together with Wendell Moore Jr.). Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports Kelley L Cox/USA
On Wednesday afternoon, three Duke players, Paolo Banchero, Wendell Moore Jr., and Mark Williams, addressed for the squad at the podium. Of course, the debate inevitably circled back to Coach K’s retirement: what it means to him, to them, to the rest of the world, and how much motivation it offers.
This time they were permitted to respond. (Coach K was absent.) They exchanged blank stares, the heavy-lidded expression of adolescents asked to speak in class. Two glanced at one another, their eyes pleading with one other to pick up the subject they’d been avoiding for a long time but knew isn’t going away. Finally, it was Banchero’s turn, and he stated everything perfectly, adding, “We’ve been dealing with it all season. Every game, it’s been Coach’s last anything.” But then he added something that had been missed in the midst of the coronation and discussion: they wanted to win it for themselves as well.
“Obviously, that’s not all we’re driven by,” he said. “We realize it may be our last game as a bunch when we come out.”
Young guys like this created Krzyzewski’s money — and his legacy. They were strong, brilliant, and on their way to something more. They’ve sat in some variant of this configuration, their coach to their right, in front of hundreds of reporters focused on recording his ability to mold their abilities to his vision, from Grant Hill to Elton Brand to Kyrie Irving to Zion Williamson to AJ Griffin.
Given the circumstances, this group has probably heard it the most.
“It wears you down a little bit,” Krzyzewski remarked, “because everyone is snapping pictures of you and monitoring everything you do.” “That’s getting old. That gets boring after a while, but I feel bad for my boys. They’ve been placed under pressure that we’re not placing on them.”
Their reaction demonstrates that they have the same ability to compartmentalize as their instructor. Krzyzewski’s wife, Mickie, sat in the back of the room at the postgame press conference after their team defeated Texas Tech, while his daughter, Debbie Savarino, stood next to her. They nodded in agreement with almost everything he said, knowing that this victory had given their husband and father — as well as them — additional time. Krzyzewski closed his speech by praising his youthful team’s progress, making the sign of the cross, and saying, “Such a pleasure.”
‘Everyone is photographing you and observing you at all times,’ Krzyzewski added. ‘Look, it’s getting old.’ Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports Kelley L Cox/USA
IT’S BEEN HIS SPECIAL TELL FOR AS LONG AS ANYONE CAN RECALL: He leans forward on his bench chair, reaches down, and anxiously tugs his socks up through his trouser legs. He generally does this while doing something else, such as calling down the line for a replacement or barking expletives that have earned him the title of America’s top beginner lip-reading professor.
After Stanley Umude flipped in a layup to give Arkansas a 4-2 lead, the first sock pull of the West Regional final happened precisely two minutes into the game. The socks, on the other hand, received a pass for the most part; the conclusion was only sometimes in dispute. (Close games are a real pain in the neck.) Krzyzewski was still calling plays and commanding the rules of engagement as the time ticked down. In the last minute, he stood on the sideline and thrust his arms out in a spasm of joy, indicating that this was more than a January game versus Wake Forest. Moore, obviously a fan favorite, was taken out of the game and hugged before he could reach the bench. His 1,202nd career victory was a foregone conclusion, as was his record-tying 13th Final Four appearance.
He conceded that this one is different, and maybe better, but he wouldn’t go that far, and no one dared to ask. But how could it possibly be much worse? A national championship with this squad, which has two freshmen, two sophomores, and a junior, would demonstrate to the rest of the world that he can win in any era. As much as he bemoans the changes in the game, the one-and-dones and transfers, walking away with a net around his neck as the old man who could adjust and adapt would mean something. After the game, his voice had a tiny roughness to it, and it cracked slightly as he completed a remark by stating, “Let’s head to New Orleans.”
He’d walked down the handshake line to congratulate and console the Arkansas players; he’d dutifully but reluctantly held up the trophy for winning the region, making sure Moore was present; and he’d ascended the ladder to cut the final strand of net, goofily pretending to dunk before completing the task.
Then he went away, kissed his wife, and they headed into the tunnel hand in hand. He was exhausted and worn out, yet he also appeared to be as joyful as he could be. He had the appearance of a guy who could only handle another week of this. And you could tell something else was going on behind that worn, drained exterior: a guy who is going to miss it the second it’s over.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Coach K coaching Final Four?
A: Yes, Coach K is coaching the Final Four for this year.
How many times has Coach K been to the Final Four?
A: The answer is 1. He has never been to the Final Four in his career, though he did make it to one final game before losing.
How much does Coach K make coaching at Duke?
A: This is a difficult question to answer. First, you need to know what Coach Ks job entails before we can even begin to calculate how much they make. The Duke website says that their coach makes $2 million dollars per year and has an annual salary of $1.9 million dollars (for the 2017-2018 season).
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