The announcement came Tuesday that legendary Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski will retire following the upcoming season, turning the reins over to assistant (and former player) Jon Scheyer. It marks the end of an era, not just for Duke basketball, but the sport as a whole, as men’s college basketball loses its greatest mastermind.
To most, Coach K represents greatness. A stern glare and unrelenting coaching style turned him into the winningest coach in the history of the sport. There’s an ever-present dislike of Duke, which radiated out of North Carolina and infected the rest of the ACC, then the country — turning the school into the sport’s great villain. A team that exists to root against, laugh at when they fail, and focus all our schadenfreude into one blue-clad entity. As for Krzyzewski himself, that’s a little more complicated.
Krzyzewski’s success is mired in respect and frustration — a trait present in all dynastic programs. Like the New England Patriots or Alabama football, Duke’s success breeds fierce polarity. Duke fans worship the ground K walks on, taking a relatively small private school from central North Carolina and turning them into a national brand on the back of his coaching greatness. With came a welcome and fleeting experience for Duke students: Feeling exclusion. Those attending Duke, primarily the children of the wealthy and privileged, are earmarked for success in their adult lives. The loathing and hatred they experience on the basketball court provides them an opportunity to feel like the world is against them for a few years, before it capitulates and they take control of whatever industry they’re entering.
That is the impact Coach K has. The culture he’s created. A microcosm of “us against the world” that takes a college sports fan and turns them into a Cameron Crazy. Krzyzewski has often talked about his responsibility not just as a basketball coach, but a molder of youth — unquestionably a holdover from his time at West Point. Make no mistake: To this end he’s achieved his goal. If there’s one lasting impact he’s had on the game beyond just winning, it’s how well he’s prepared his former players for life. A remarkable achievement in its own right.
There’s celebrating in Chapel Hill. Joy washing over a Carolina fanbase, relishing the exit of its great foe. I can’t help but feel like ennui will soon set in, at least for a little while until Tar Heel fans can grow to hate Scheyer. The Duke vs. UNC rivalry wasn’t defined by on-court prowess alone, but the ethos off it. The dichotomy of public school vs. private, perceived inequality, heroes and villains.
Perhaps Coach K’s most remarkable trait wasn’t being the villain himself, but in creating them. A preternatural ability to find not only great players, but infuriating ones — ready to be molded into his ideal image of the henchman. And he managed to do this time, and time, and time again.
The hate-worthy Christian Laettner, the court-slapping Chris Duhon, JJ Redick dropping a three and flashing a shit-eating grin, Greg Paulus slapping taking up Duhon’s mantle, or Grayson Allen embarking on his signature exploits. All constructs of a mastermind whose coaching skill was rivaled only by his ability to find the most annoying players in the history of the sport.
That is what college basketball is losing with the retirement of Mike Krzyzewski. An unrivaled knack for brilliance on the court, but also the ability to create frustration in his wake. Sports are great at creating heroes, ascending on the back of one signature performance — but villains are nurtured over time, and it will take years to rebuild that.
You might be happy now that Coach K is leaving, but wait a little while. He will be missed.