Coach K’s legendary career wasn’t supposed to end like this
“(He) had been feeling nostalgic, which I only recently learned comes from the Greek words for home and pain. That seems about right. Home and pain.” – Wright Thompson in Pappyland
Someday, Mike Krzyzewski will wake up and appreciate everything he was able to accomplish as the head coach of the Duke men’s basketball team.
Someday, Coach K will wake up and appreciate his record 13 Final Fours, his 5 national championships and his record number of victories for a Division I basketball coach.
But, first, there’s the long trip home to Durham from New Orleans. Eight-hundred and fifty-three miles. First, he must collect his things from his office, where memories of every life he’s touched over the past 42 years linger like a dense fog. First, he’ll have to deal with the pain of one last defeat.
“Team of destiny,” they said. “The favorite to win it all,” others added.
Duke went to New Orleans with every expectation of cutting down the nets one last time and sending Krzyzewski out a champion.
Instead, just like on the night of March 5, 2022, North Carolina was standing in the way. This was supposed to be a revenge game. Coach K was supposed to avenge the Blue Devils’ loss in his final game at Cameron Indoor.
But, it wasn’t meant to be. Again, the Tar Heels joyously played spoiler for their biggest rivals, handing Coach K and Duke an 81-77 loss. Caleb Love scored 22 of his 28 points in the second half. Armando Bacot grabbed an unbelievable 21 rebounds.
Now, Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils will be spectators on Monday night as North Carolina and Kansas battle for the national title.
That’s the pain Coach K will have to live with in the short-term. He’ll head home to Durham to look at his 13 Final Four plaques, his 5 title trophies, his 5 Olympic gold medals with Team USA, but he won’t be able to appreciate them just yet.
“I’m not thinking about my career right now,” he said in the aftermath of Duke’s loss. “I’m sure, at some time, I’ll deal with this in my own way.”
Instead, he wanted to talk about this year’s Blue Devils. He wanted to deal with this loss alongside his guys one last time.
The Michigan State game changed things. The Blue Devils trailed late. That’s when Jeremy Roach took over, making clutch shot after clutch shot to make sure Duke’s run didn’t end in the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend.
Freshman sensation Paolo Banchero made sure it didn’t end in the second weekend of March Madness, either. He and Roach were divine in the Texas Tech game. The Red Raiders were supposed to be the team that was a matchup nightmare for Duke. Banchero and Roach had other plans.
Banchero led the way for the Blue Devils in a convincing Elite Eight victory over Arkansas. Coach K was effusive with his praise in San Francisco, gushing about how much his team had grown up during the tournament.
Even after Saturday night’s painful loss, Krzyzewski had nothing but nice things to say about his players.
“They weren’t just good. They were really good,” he said. “They’ve been a joy.”
Banchero was one of the best players in the entire country. Roach and AJ Griffin played some of their best basketball down the stretch. Mark Williams was dominant in the paint. Trevor Keels was a bulldog off the bench. Wendell Moore Jr. was the steady veteran leader this Duke team needed.
In a normal year, this would have been a great Duke team. One to remember for years to come. But, this was no normal year.
The path was set up for Duke to win it all. The Blue Devils arrived in New Orleans as the favorites to win it all. Instead, Coach K’s final year will now be remembered for 2 crucial losses at the hands of the Tar Heels.
Meanwhile, Hubert Davis not only gets to play for a national championship as a first-year head coach at UNC – he gets to remember beating Duke twice on the biggest stages.
Coach K, on the other hand, had his storied career end on a loss. There aren’t many legends who get to go out as champions. For every Peyton Manning, there’s a Brett Favre. For every John Wooden and Tom Osborne, there’s a Bruce Arians or an Urban Meyer.
Coach K’s final team was one of his best. However, it wasn’t good enough to win it all. In an era where winning an NCAA Tournament title is harder than ever, that’s not a knock on K’s legacy. But, it does dampen the fairytale aspect of this final March Madness run.
Krzyzewski is sure to find comfort in his 3 daughters and 10 grandchildren over the coming weeks, months and years. His wife, Mickie, will be by his side for whatever is next.
But, that’s the looming question. What is next for Coach K? When the great ones hang it up, it can be difficult to transition back into a “normal” life.
At this moment, only one thing is certain.
On April 3, 2022, for the first time since March 18, 1980, Mike Krzyzewski will wake up in the morning and not be the head coach of the Duke Blue Devils.