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Feather On Life After K

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By Al Featherston

The good news for Duke fans is that Coach Mike Krzyzewski is fresh and healthy as he enters his 31st season at the Blue Devil helm.

"I think I'm in really good shape," he said earlier this summer. "I'm good. I'm energized. I'm ready to go."

The end of his brilliant tenure is not in sight. He's not leaving Duke for another coaching job - he put that possibility aside when he decided not to join the Lakers in 2004. And we can see now that despite fears that coaching USA Basketball in the summer would wear him out, it's done just the opposite - it's reinvigorated the Hall of Fame coach.

"As long as I take my breaks and stay fresh, I think that's a good thing," he said of his extra work load. "You would want the guy defending you [in a courtroom] to get better in law. You would want the guy or the woman treating you in health to keep up to date. I think that as long as you are in any profession, you should get better because it's constantly changing. So I look forward to that. I'm a basketball coach all the time. That's what I do. I don't play golf. I chase my dog or he chases me. I whack down some trees and bushes and play with my grandkids and drink a little bit of wine and like to socialize a little bit, but I'm a basketball coach every day of my life. Why not?"

Why not indeed?

Still … while Coach K appears to have found the fountain of youth, the reality is that he is 63 years old. He'll turn 64 during this season. How much longer can Blue Devil fans count on him to prowl the sidelines?

Let's look at his closest peers in the profession.

UCLA's John Wooden retired at age 65. UNC's Dean Smith and Oklahoma State's Hank Iba retired at 66 (although Iba coached his second Olympic team at age 68). Krzyzewski's mentor, Bob Knight, retired at age 68. Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, DePaul's Ray Meyer and Kansas' Phog Allen all retired at age 71.

That would seem to suggest that Krzyzewski's retirement would be somewhere between two and eight years off. Of course, that's no guarantee - Penn State football coach Joe Paterno remains on the job at age 83.

That would be sweet - 20 more years of Coach K!


What happens to Duke basketball when K does step down?

Blue Devil fans should understand that there will never be another Coach K. If his successor is treated like UCLA fans treated Gene Bartow (52-9 with a Final Four in two seasons after Wooden) and UNC fans treated Bill Guthridge (80-28 with two Final Fours in three seasons after Smith), then Duke basketball will be in for some rough days.

But I also believe that in the long run, Duke basketball will remain a strong national contender.

I know there are rival fans (many of them wearing light blue) who are predicting that after K, Duke basketball will revert to what it was before he elevated the program to superpower status in the late 1980s.

They are wrong.

My perception is that there are six historic superpowers in college basketball today - and all were elevated to greatness by a single great coach, who established a level of expectations that his successors were forced to meet.

Take Kentucky - the first superpower and still overall the greatest program in college basketball history.

When Rupp, a successful high school coach in Illinois, was hired in Lexington in 1930, Kentucky basketball was barely a blip on the national scene. The Wildcats weren't one of the five best programs in the giant Southern Conference (which included the modern SEC and ACC) and the Southern Conference itself was nothing compared to the great basketball powers in the East and Midwest.

Rupp changed that.

He transformed Kentucky basketball into something special. In his four decades at the Wildcat helm he did more than win four national championships. He made Kentucky basketball a brand name. He turned it into the university's identity.

Adolph Rupp made Kentucky basketball a superpower. Once he achieved that level of success, it became a self-sustaining program. The fans would accept nothing less. The money was there for the best facilities. The recruits wanted to play there. There was always exposure.

Now, there hasn't been another Rupp at Kentucky. His successors have met varying levels of success. But Kentucky has won national titles with three other coaches and remains one of the game's superpowers long after his departure.

The same thing happened at North Carolina under Dean Smith.

The Tar Heel program enjoyed some success before Smith inherited a probation plagued program in the summer of 1961. UNC was probably the strongest program in the Southern Conference in the 1920s, back when the Southern Conference didn't mean anything outside the region. The Tar Heels won a national title under Frank McGuire in 1957, but keep in mind that magical season was the school's only conference championship in a 22-year span between 1945 and 1967. Except for McGuire's brief run in the late 1950s, the best programs in the state were at N.C. State from 1947 to 1956, then at Wake Forest and Duke in the early 1960s.

On a national level, no one would have suggested that UNC was one of college basketball's top 10 programs in 1961, when when the 29-year-old unknown assistant coach inherited the job.

Smith changed that with more than three decades of sustained excellence. He won just two national titles, but he played in 11 Final Fours and was almost always one of the ACC's two best teams. He got the school to replace ancient Woollen Gym with the more modern Carmichael Auditorium, then replaced that inadequate facility with the mammoth Smith Center.

And just as Rupp made Kentucky basketball special, Smith turned North Carolina into a superpower.

His legacy lives today. The school might stumble in replacing him, but as the brief Matt Doherty nightmare proves, there is no patience with failure. And even Doherty - with all of his well documented problems - was still able to recruit the core of players that would win a national title under Roy Williams.

Kids still want to play at the superpowers. They know that's where they get the most exposure and where they find the best facilities and the most passionate fans.

Rupp made Kentucky that kind of program. Smith did the same at UNC. John Wooden at UCLA, Phog Allen at Kansas and Branch McCracken at Indiana all established dynasties that have continued long after their departures.

It's my belief that Mike Krzyzewski has worked the same magic at Duke.

Before K, Duke was much like UNC before Dean. It was a nice regional program with a modicum of national success. UNC had a national title pre-Dean, but Duke pre-K actually had more Final Fours and more top 10 finishes than UNC did before Dean.

Still, no one would have listed Duke as one of the nation's top 10 programs in 1981.

K has changed that with his three decades of success. He's made Duke a brand name in college basketball - on a par with the other five superpowers: Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, Indiana and North Carolina.

That won't disappear when he retires - whether that's in 2012 or 2022.

The next coach, whoever that might be, will be able to sell the Duke brand name. He'll sell terrific facilities, the most-admired arena in college basketball and constant exposure on ESPN. He'll have a network of former stars to godfather the new kids (one of Doherty's big mistakes was cutting out the access of Dean's alums). He'll have a passionate fan base that will demand success.

That's not to say that Duke won't have its ups and downs in the future - all the other superpowers have made mistakes and stumbled from time to time. Duke will too.

But Matt Doherty didn't erase the legacy of Dean Smith. Jim Harrick's violations and Steve Lavin's mediocrity didn't ruin John Wooden's legacy. Indiana is struggling today, but you can bet that the Hoosiers will be back soon - either Tom Cream will do it or they'll find somebody who will (maybe Brad Stevens?).

Duke WILL remain a superpower after K.

That's the best part of his legacy.

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