There is a great disturbance in the basketball force. Mike Krzyzewski has been the college game’s alpha dog for decades, swatting away challengers. Even if he’s still a year away from actually leaving, the landscape is already shifting below our feet.
Krzyzewski and Roy Williams fought each other as rivals and together maintained the North Carolina Triangle’s preeminent position at the pinnacle of the college game. Now, within the space of a few weeks, have both announced their intention to depart what feels like simultaneously, one immediately, the other after a season-long farewell tour having anointed his own successor.
Just because this has been a long time coming doesn’t make it any less shocking.
Williams’ retirement was surprising because of the timing. K’s is surprising because of his longevity. It seemed at times, as he plowed through one health issue after another, he’d coach forever. If he didn’t walk away after a national title in 2015 and gold medal in 2016, would he ever?
But time catches up with everyone. He’s 75 now, with a loaded recruiting class coming in, his longtime AD retiring, with all the pieces in place for one last kick at the can and all of the rocking chairs he can collect.
Williams saved a proud program and was basically begged to come back and do it; Krzyzewski walked in the door in Durham a complete unknown and built a program that far exceeded anything that had come before at Duke, the preeminent program in the country for a generation, essentially from scratch. And when it nearly fell apart on him, he did it all over again.
Then he did the same thing with USA Basketball.
Along the way, Krzyzewski not only won more than anyone else but built a persona that spilled over the walls of college basketball, one of the most revered and hated public figures in the country at the same time.
His time at West Point never really left him, and he fashioned himself less a college basketball coach than the kind of leader the cadets he went to school with and coached grew into. Krzyzewski mixed and mingled with CEOs and four-star generals as an equal. That was his peer group as much as his fellow coaches were.
As a corporate titan would, he built and named after his mother an educational center for at-risk Durham, N.C., youth. Meanwhile, Krzyzewski became the most powerful and visible figure on the campus of one of the country’s great private universities, to the point where the previous president begged him to stay when he was wooed by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Along the way, he came to speak about sport, not sports: the global conception of an endeavor that went beyond games and events and into a more aspirational realm.
The title of his satellite radio show said it all: Beyond Basketball. Bigger, to be sure, than basketball.
And yet still, after all that, after doing everything in his power to build a program that would endure beyond his departure, he enters what will be his final season still with something to prove.
Duke has gone through Final Four droughts before, some more understandable or inexplicable than others, but in the increasingly changing world of college basketball, six years is an eternity. The failure to get there with a team that included not only Zion Williamson but RJ Barrett has become fodder for his foils. This incoming squad may not have a Zion but it is Duke’s best class since then, with a few veterans committed to return even in the era of the transfer portal.
He had a chance to go out on top in 2015 and again in 2016. He missed in 2019 and has one last and final chance in 2022 to put the final polish on a legacy that already outshines all others.
And then he’ll join Williams in retirement as the Triangle and the college basketball world reckons with the exit of such a powerful gravitational force and the void he leaves behind.