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Jim Sumner On Coach K’s Retirement Press Conference

A touching and warm event for an extraordinary man

Duke Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski Announces Retirement
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - JUNE 03: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils speaks during a press conference at Cameron Indoor Stadium on June 03, 2021 in Durham, North Carolina. Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in Division I men’s basketball history who led the Blue Devils to five national titles, announced he plans to retire after the 2021-2022 season.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

“This process is the best succession plan that we can have. Don’t try to compare it to any other succession plan. This is ours and we’ve got the people in place to get it done.”

That was Mike Krzyzewski talking to the media today, barely 24 hours after the news starting leaking that the 2021-’22 season would be his last as Duke’s head basketball coach.

But it almost has to be unique. The median age of an American is a little over 38 years. That means that more than half of the people in this country were not born the last time Duke had different head coach. Duke has played 68 seasons since the ACC was established and Krzyzewski has been the coach of record in 41 of them. He has been the coach of record in more than half of Duke’s games in Cameron Indoor Stadium, almost 60 percent in fact. Duke has played in the NCAA Tournament 43 times and Krzyzewski has been at the helm for 35 of those.

No sports team has ever had a transition like this one.

Duke’s hour-long media event started with brief remarks by university president Vincent Price, outgoing AD Kevin White and soon-to-be AD Nina King. You almost had to feel sorry for them. What could they say, what could anyone possibly say about Mike Krzyzewski that hadn’t already been said before?

So, Krzyzewski took up the bulk of the conference, starting with a heartfelt, at times emotional look back at his 74 years. If there was a theme, it was a simple, yet powerful theme. You need someone to believe in you and take a chance on you and then you have to honor that belief by doing the best you can to live up to it. Krzyzewski thanked his parents, the United States Military Academy, Bobby Knight, Tom Butters and Keith Brodie, among others, for having that belief.

Most Duke fans have heard the Butters stories before. How the Duke athletic director picked Krzyzewski out of relative obscurity in the spring of 1980 to take the place of departing Bill Foster and how he stuck with Krzyzewski when the people with the big checkbooks wanted to move on after Krzyzewski’s first three seasons at Duke netted 38 wins and 47 losses.

“He really believed in me and he believed in me multiple times.”

But the most emotional moment may have come when Krzyzewski was discussing his 1995 issues, when he missed the second half of the season with lingering back pain and emotional turmoil following back surgery.

Brodie was Duke’s president from 1985 through 1993 but stayed close to Krzyzewski after leaving that post.

“In the mid-90s I got extremely sick, physically and emotionally, mentally and was going to get out of coaching. He [Butters] believed in me. But there was another guy who believed in me. His name was Keith Brodie. Keith Brodie, in my 41 years here, he was the best person that I’ve ever known. He believed in me in one of my darkest hours, in those months of rehab. He believed in me every day. I wouldn’t have taken advantage of it without belief, without strong belief.”

This all sounds like a retrospective, almost a eulogy at times. But Krzyzewski made it clear that he very much wants to coach that final season. He’s not just doing it to have a farewell tour.

“Don’t let it kid you. If anyone says ‘thank you, or whatever,’ they still want to beat us because it’s the last time. C’mon. As a competitor, I know that. I want to beat your butt. Just don’t let it distract you. Here at Duke, let’s make it so loud, so crazy. Let’s enjoy. There’s nothing sad about this. I’m happy, I’m excited.”

One thing Krzyzewski won’t have to worry about is misleading potential recruits and he made that clear several times. The pandemic has slowed down Duke’s recruiting efforts and the Blue Devils don’t have a single commitment from the class of 2022. But recruiting is getting ready to ramp up and Krzyzewski said that he wants full transparency.

“It would be tough to recruit for next year if I’m not coaching these kids. It’s not fair to a kid that you’re recruiting, ‘yeah, I think I’m going to coach’ and at the end of the year, say you’re not coaching. . . .That’s why recruiting for the future is difficult, because you can’t give your word. But Jon [Scheyer], Chris [Carrawell] and Nolan [Smith] can give their word and their word is golden. The next generation of teams that we will have will be based on telling them the truth, complete transparency and putting it on the line.”

Krzyzewski discussed spending more time with his large family, spending time catching up with former players, getting off the recruiting grind. But, without giving out much in the way of details, President Price did promise that Krzyzewski would continue to be an ambassador, adviser and councilor at Duke.

“There will always be a place for Coach K at Duke.”

In other words, Krzyzewski is not going to be one of Douglas McArthur’s old soldiers, just fading away. Krzyzewski wants to continue to be a voice for the values he’s embraced in a playing and coaching career that now exceeds a half-century. He just won’t be doing it from the Duke bench.

But that’s 10 months or so down the road. One more trip around the merry-go-round before the GOAT moves on the next chapter.