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Tipsheet: Coach K opts to wind down his brilliant, yet polarizing career

Tipsheet: Coach K opts to wind down his brilliant, yet polarizing career

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Let’s face it, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is an easy guy to root against of you don't ride on the Blue Devil bandwagon.

And you will have just one more season to do that as he closes out his career in 2021-22. His retirement announcement stirred a predictably mixed reaction from fans across the country.

Back when the Blue Devils first burst onto the national college basketball stage, they were scrappy underdogs who toppled powerhouse teams with a bunch of smart kids.

But over time Coach K and Duke became the ultimate overdogs. Krzyzewski’s whiny voice, angry face, tiresome credit card commercials, and unrelenting success wore on supporters of rival programs.

Preppy Christian Laettner embodied Duke’s smug sense of entitlement. So did the Cameron Crazies, the cadre of rich kids hurling insults at visiting players.

And in is latter years, Krzyzewski dropped all pretense of recruiting purity by winning the bidding for elite one-one-done recruits.

He proved he could prevail at that game, too, while outlasting most of his contemporaries and building enormous personal wealth.

“He made everybody bring their A-game for years and years and years,” noted retired North Carolina coach Roy Williams. “He's just been phenomenal in everything he's done."

Yeah, well, you have to give him that. Krzyzewski is the greatest college basketball coach of all time, the Bill Belichick of his profession.

After muddling through a miserable pandemic season, he will have head toward retirement with still another loaded Duke team. That farewell tour will offer great theater.

Here is what folks wrote about Coach K’s looming exit from the sport:

Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports: “This winter will be a curtain call for arguably the greatest to do it, and even in those road gyms up and down Tobacco Road where they loved to hate him and his too often, too-perfect Blue Devils through the decades, he should walk out to thundering applause. Coach K was everything you could want out of a college coach — inspiring cheers and tears and taunts and a whole heck of a lot of fun. The game wouldn’t be the game without him, and you simply can’t say that about many of these guys. He made the Duke brand big, which made the games big, which made the sport big. It didn’t matter if he was rolling into the smallest college town or Madison Square Garden, when Duke was in the house, it was worth paying attention. This was a bonafide star.”

Michael Baumann, The Ringer: “Like him or not (and this being Duke, most people are going to pick the latter option), Krzyzewski is one of the most successful coaches who’s ever lived: an all-time Division I record 1,170 wins, 97 of which came in the NCAA tournament, also a record. That goes with five national titles, 12 Final Four appearances, 12 regular-season ACC titles, and five Olympic gold medals, three as a head coach. In achievement and longevity, Krzyzewski transcends his contemporaries and should be regarded as a figure of world-historical sporting import. He’s in a class with Roy Williams and John Calipari, yes, but also Pat Summitt and John Wooden, and the likes of Bill Belichick and Sir Alex Ferguson. These are epoch-spanning, history-bending figures, viewed in their own corners of sporting history as fathers of empire, like George Washington or Charlemagne.”

Dan Wolken, USA Today: “If you came of age as a basketball fan in the 1990s, it was impossible to be neutral about Mike Krzyzewski. The program he built at Duke had become so big, so successful, so polarizing — and, yes, so annoying — that every time they took the court, it was cast as a battle of good vs. evil depending on which side you were on.  The complaints and conspiracy theories about the Blue Devils ran wild whether it was Krzyzewski intimidating the refs into giving them a friendly whistle or broadcasters like Dick Vitale supposedly rooting for them on the air. The Cameron Crazies were obnoxious, the flopping on defense was out of control and slapping the floor was an annoying gimmick. Everything about Duke seemed like it dripped privilege and arrogance, all the way down to wriggling out of any responsibility for potential scandals like Corey Maggette playing while ineligible in 1999 or the still-mysterious case of Lance Thomas buying $100,000 worth of jewelry mostly on credit in the middle of the 2009-10 national championship season. The more you hated Duke, the more it ate at you that year after year, decade after decade, nothing changed. No matter what else was happening in college basketball, which coaches were coming and going, which programs were rising and falling, Duke was always there. For three solid decades, it was the Blue Devils and everyone else.” 

John Feinstein, Washington Post: “He will turn 75 in February, and he knows it’s time. There’s certainly nothing left to prove. I know this past season wore him out mentally and physically. If not for the pandemic, he might have retired this past March. Now he will go out after a complete season with fans in the stands and — he hopes — one last good team. Of all the words spilled on Krzyzewski, the best line I ever heard was from Bilas, who was a graduate assistant while going to law school after being the starting center on Krzyzewski’s first Final Four team in 1986. Bilas said, ‘When you sit in the room with him for hours and hours as an assistant and you listen to what he’s saying, you eventually figure something out: None of this is an accident. He is the smartest guy in the room.’”

Gary Parrish, CBSSports.com: “In conversations with people around Krzyzewski in recent months, two things became increasingly clear: (1) The end was coming sooner than later, but (2) Krzyzewski was motivated to leave on a high note. And when you take those two things into account, the plan Duke officials have put into place actually makes a lot of sense because it allows the Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer to distance himself from last season's disaster that ended with the Blue Devils missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995 while simultaneously providing him with an off ramp just weeks after turning 75 next February.”

Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: “It's a safe bet that Krzyzewski still believes deep down that he is the right man for Duke, but it's no secret that he's been frustrated by the drastic changes in the college game over recent years. See: His visible and audible irritation at trying to navigate the choppy, ever-changing seas of the 2020-21 pandemic season, a year his team finished 13-11 and ended with the second of those two missed NCAA tourneys since '83 and the first since his back-injury-asterisked 1994-95 season. Duke's year ended unceremoniously, with a positive COVD-19 test and a quiet exit from the ACC postseason. Did you really think he would let that be his finish line? Of course not. Call this upcoming campaign a retirement tour, call it a victory lap, call it whatever you want. But if we have learned anything about Krzyzewski over the last half-century it's that he will never pass up a chance to win basketball games. Duke has a chance to win a lot of them between now and April. He just inked a top-five recruiting class. Seven-footer Mark Williams chose to return to a team that will have more high-flying wings than the RDU airport, as inconsistent vet Wendell Moore Jr. will be joined by top-3 prospect Paolo Banchero, internet highlight sensation A.J. Griffin and late signee/buzz-generator Trevor Keels.”

MEGAPHONE

"The only thing wrong with Mike Krzyzewski is that he doesn't play golf. Michael doesn't need Roy Williams giving him advice. He's a great family man. He's going to enjoy his family a great deal. He'll still be important in college athletics. He'll still be important to college basketball."

Former North Carolina coach Roy Williams, on Coach K.

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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