So now it’s over. Mike Krzyzewski, who experienced his first loss at Duke to Dean Smith in the old Big Four tournament, suffered his final loss to Hubert Davis in the Final Four Saturday.
In between those two games, he did astonishing things. He came to Duke as an unproven 33-year-old who had to teach people how to spell his name and who soon came under immense pressure for not winning enough.
The infamous loss to Virginia in 1983’s ACC Tournament - a 43 point loss if you can believe it - was a major turning point.
You probably know the story. Someone - we think Johnny Moore - said here’s to forgetting tonight. And Coach K said here’s to never forgetting.
And he never did.
We get our first sense of the man’s remarkable will in that story but far from the last. He took Duke to places we never dreamed of.
Oh, we had been to Final Fours and national championship games. Duke had been four times before he arrived. In 1963, the Blue Devils got there for the first time, losing to Loyola of Chicago.
In 1964, Duke went to the title game, only to lose to John Wooden's UCLA. In 1966, the Blue Devils were favored but Bob Verga was quite ill and Duke lost to Kentucky, thus allowing the Wildcats to lose to Texas Western and become the poster team of segregated basketball. But with a healthy Verga and Mike Lewis to bang inside with Dave Lattin?
Duke might have beaten the Miners. History might have been quite different. We’ll never know.
In 1978 Duke made an extraordinary run to the title game with a very young team only to run into Kentucky and Goose Givens, who went off for 41.
So it wasn’t like Mike Krzyzewski was taking over at UNC-Wilmington. Duke had been very good.
Did anyone dare think that Duke could achieve the level of excellence it did in the K era? Who could have dreamed it?
Well, besides Krzyzewski. You may remember that in his first press conference he said that Duke had been excellent and that he’d like to continue that. He also said that he thought Duke could be a Top Ten program annually which seemed unimaginable at the time.
Well he basically did that - and more.
He was blessed to come to Duke at almost the exact time ESPN started. Duke rose as ESPN did, a bit shaky at first then like a rocket.
Krzyzewski, who started at Duke with a $40,000 salary if memory serves, immediately understood the importance of branding.
He took Duke from Duke basketball to Duke Basketball and made it a standard of excellence. In the process, he elevated the perception of the entire university.
Keep in mind that we haven’t really talked about his accomplishments on the court which are staggering.
His career totals wrap up at 1,202 wins with 1,129 of those at Duke. He was 101-30 in the NCAA tournament with 13 Final Fours and five titles, thirteen regular season ACC championships and 15 ACC Tournament titles.
And as head coach of the US National team, Krzyzewsk finished 75-1 with three Olympic gold medals and a completely revised program that won another under Gregg Popovich after Coach K stepped down.
As tremendous as those accomplishments are, the man is also the patriarch of a remarkable family and has built enduring relationships with his former players.
And he has also done amazing things for his adopted hometown of Durham. The Emily K Center is the most obvious example but hardly the only thing the Krzyzewskis have done for Durham.
He’s never hesitated to coach anyone, even the fans, and he’s never treated anyone like they are unimportant. He sees everyone, even the most humble, as worthy of respect. How many of us can say that?
Coach K has lost none of his feral will to compete. His desire to learn and improve is unabated. But for the first time, age is creeping up. He’s a bit stooped and he has a limp. Like Christian Laettner said, he could probably be effective at 90. We hate to see him go. But it’s probably time.
Duke obviously can never thank him enough. But once the jeering stops from the Duke haters of the world, maybe they’ll remember the 75-1. Maybe they’ll remember his advocacy for the game, his kindness to young coaches and players on other teams, his desire to serve the greater interests of the sport.
The truth is, it’s not just Duke fans who owe him. Basketball owes him. He’s a titan of the game and set standards that will be nearly impossible to match. People will always root against excellence that they can’t achieve. It’s human nature. Let them. None of it can be undone.
At the end of most seasons, the K family retreats to the coast and enjoys some R&R. This year will be different obviously - they can stay as long as they want. No recruiting trips. No video to watch.
Soon, perhaps this week, the K family will be at the beach house while new coach Jon Scheyer starts the recruiting cycle. Things will be quiet, quieter than they have ever been, other than the grandkids.
It’ll take a while to get used to it. But we suspect he’ll adjust just fine.
It may take the rest of us a bit longer. But at least we got to go along for the ride. And what a glorious ride it has been.