Sports

The Night Coach K’s Luck Ran Out

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils sits in a chair on the sidelines.
Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils watches his team lose for the final time. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

One perception of Mike Krzyzewski is that he is both great and kind of a phony. This theory of Coach K holds that he likes to hold up his Duke men’s basketball program as a paragon of all that is virtuous in college sports, but that underneath, he is part of the same sausage factory as everyone else. If you take this view of Krzyzewski, your eyes may have gotten stuck in the back of your head last week when he bashed the NCAA model that has benefited him more than almost anyone alive, days before he heads off into retirement.

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But regardless of your views on Krzyzewski, he said one thing this year that had to sound right to his most ardent fans and anti-K zealots. After a game in February, he said he’d been “the luckiest guy ever in coaching.” It was not just a throwaway line. He has come back to the theme of his own great fortune time and time again in public comments this year.

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In just the last few weeks, Krzyzewski had a stroke of luck that was excessive even by his standards. On March 5, Duke played blood rival North Carolina in the last game of Krzyzewski’s historic run at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the court now bears his signature. Duke brought back dozens of his former players, and the game was the hottest ticket in sports maybe ever. And then, after leading for much of the night, Duke fell apart and lost by 13, spoiling an on-court ceremony afterward during which Coach K looked absolutely miserable. He apologized to the crowd for the loss and told them to pipe down when people began to yell out in sympathy. He then had to sit around with a dour expression while various suits with zero panache said nice things about him.

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It was not going to be Krzyzewski’s last game, but that was how the end would be remembered as long as the Blue Devils did not win the national championship. It was his curtain call in the arena where he did his best work, in a prime-time showcase of the sport’s most famous rivalry. When people would ask how Coach K went out, that night would be the image.

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And yet! There Krzyzewski was on Saturday night, coaching Duke in a national semifinal (that’s skill; Duke’s a great team) against North Carolina, the same rival that had just vanquished him (that’s the luck). The sourest ending possible to Krzyzewski’s run in the country’s most celebrated rivalry suddenly was not an ending at all, because Duke and Carolina won enough games from the right slots in the NCAA tournament bracket to meet each other in the Final Four for the first time ever.

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So Coach K got one of the rarest opportunities in college sports: the chance for vengeance without having to wait for it, right as the sun was setting on 42 seasons in Durham. That Krzyzewski would have the chance to hang a banner in his last season surprised no one, but getting a chance to hit back at North Carolina so quickly was the sort of thing that could only happen for this coach.

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What followed was one of the best college basketball games ever played. There’s no need to be shy about it. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels went shot for shot, almost literally, for 40 minutes. Both teams turned in immaculate performances, and when it ended, more than just the game was over: UNC 81, Duke 77, Mike Krzyzewski’s career finished.

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Luck is a fitting concept for this game. Any of a hundred little things could’ve been a hair different and flipped the outcome. UNC was better in the last minute out of 40, thanks mostly to this icy Caleb Love 3-pointer:

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The thing I will remember most about this night is how shocking it was that when it came down to what was effectively a coin flip, the coin didn’t land on the side with Krzyzewski’s face on it.

It turns out that sports are so unkind that even the luckiest man in coaching can meet the cruelest end imaginable while not doing much wrong. Saturday night was when good fortune ran out on a guy who got more of it—or generated it, in a lot of cases—than anyone else. If the bounces are fickle for this guy, they they’ll kill us all.

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It’s not that Krzyzewski hasn’t lost big before. He “only” won a title about every eight years at Duke, and his losses were often national events. But that he would come back and triumph felt inevitable, because he always found a reprieve.

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Some of the most charmed developments in Krzyzewski’s long reign were administrative ones. The first was that Duke did not fire him before he became the unsinkable Coach K. Previously the coach at Army, Krzyzewski took over at Duke after the team’s previous boss, Bill E. Foster, left for South Carolina. Foster had gotten the program to the national title game three seasons prior, and Duke had touched No. 1 in the rankings in his last two seasons. So, Krzyzewski took over a program in solid shape (though reasonable people can disagree about how good), but then went 38-47 in his first three seasons, with the latter two much worse than his opening campaign. A significant chunk of the fanbase wanted him fired, as would be well within college sports precedent. It turned out that not firing Coach K was a pretty good call. But if Jon Scheyer, his handpicked successor, has three years like those, the school will shoot him into the sun without a second thought.

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After keeping his job, Krzyzewski made it clear that he was among the small handful of greatest basketball coaches ever. In the college ranks, he is right up there with UCLA’s John Wooden, the architect of sport’s greatest dynasty. Krzyzewski’s five national titles are not Wooden’s 10, but his four decades of almost uninterrupted excellence are absurd. Even still, Krzyzewski got the break of a lifetime in 2005, when the U.S. national team picked him to take over a program that had disappointed mightily in winning only the bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics. Krzyzewski was suddenly in business with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and friends. He had the joy of winning gold with the American dream teams three different times.

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Krzyzewski’s association with the best collection of basketball talent on the planet had obvious benefits for him in his day job. LeBron became an occasional billboard for Duke’s recruiting operation, including saying at one point that he hoped his own son would play for Krzyzewski. Rival coaches and reporters sympathetic to them complained that Krzyzewski’s association with the national team was turning the stars and stripes into a Duke promotional arm, and they weren’t entirely wrong even if their opposition was self-serving. Your hometown’s high school coach very well could have won multiple golds with a roster nucleus including LeBron, Kobe, and Kevin Durant. But he didn’t. Krzyzewski did. He was probably more than a babysitter on those teams—and it’s worth stressing that not every coach in LeBron’s career has gotten such an effusive endorsement—but still got the gift of the cushiest possible perch to build his empire. Duke’s recruiting skyrocketed to new heights in the 2010s, as Coach K realized he could (or had to?) recruit the kind of one-year stars he once liked to claim he would never entertain.

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Then there were the sweet breaks and bounces that are impossible to count, sometimes leading to national titles and other times merely to iconic memories. The Christian Laettner shot happened. Tre Jones forced overtime against UNC with the silliest game-tying sequence you’ve ever seen in your life. Grayson Allen didn’t get called for a travel. Jeff Capel’s half-court runner went in, and Gordon Hayward’s didn’t. The latter shot came in the 2010 national title game, one round after Duke rolled over an outmatched West Virginia, which it got to face because WVU had upset a Kentucky team that had John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.

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At this point, are we cherry-picking? Doesn’t any career this great require this many things falling into place so perfectly, whether in sports or business or politics or anything else? Didn’t these Duke teams have some rough breaks, too, like when a Kyrie Irving injury submarined what might have been another championship team? Is all of the good luck only so obvious in this case because Coach K’s program has also managed over the years to become the sport’s primary villain through an eclectic mix of success and sanctimony? Yes to all of the above. Eventually, Coach K was so frustratingly good that it got comfortable to cite luck, because the alternative was reckoning with a world he had made all his own.

It all led to Saturday, the perfect confluence of Krzyzewski building a war machine and getting an ultra-fluky chance to fire it at the Tar Heels one last time. The most stunning thing about the aftermath of that stunning game is knowing that, for the first time since the 1970s, Krzyzewski will not be back to pull the trigger again.

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