One of sports’ most successful and recognizable figures, Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Kryzewski, coached his final game last weekend. Fittingly, it was in the Final –– a stage that Coach “K” has been well acclimated to in his career.
And who else ended his career, but North Carolina.
The spectacle of the national semifinal almost overshadowed the actual game itself. It was the first time Duke and UNC had met in the NCAA Tournament, and it was Kryzewski’s final season, which had been consistently repeated game after game for almost the entire regular season, and then even amplified when it came to the postseason.
That constant reminder, as well as the history of Duke basketball under Kryzewski, meant sports fans were almost relieved when North Carolina not only knocked Duke out of the tournament, but defeated them at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Kryzewski’s last career home game. Tickets for that game approached $4,000, and when K gave a farewell speech at the end, Twitter was quick to mock the fans and coach alike.
The send-off for a bastion of sports excellence felt weird.
“COACH K’S CAREER IS OVER. THE EGOTISTICAL (blank) IS DONE,” a Barstool Sports headline reads.
“Coach K should come back for another year. It can’t end like this. It should end on a perfect note: another embarrassing loss, but next year,” The Ringer’s Kevin Clark wrote.
It was safe to say the media coverage was slanted one way throughout the season and it wore on the average sports fan.
As someone who personally can be annoyed by Duke basketball, and the over-romanticization of figureheads within sports – I must admit that the heckling was fun. But it’s also important to remember the impact these figures do have on their sport. College basketball isn’t what it is today without K.
“I thought it was really impressive how several of the opposing coaches in the ACC had special memorial tributes to him and his legacy before their conference games this season,” men’s basketball coach Josh Andrews said. “It showed the impact he’s had on so many coaches and other programs.”
So, while it can be fun to delight in the downfall of sports legends and those who we find annoying, or are simply tired of –– there is something to say when almost an entire sport rallies behind and recognizes one coach’s influence.
And while announcing a retirement a year before actually retiring can be a sign of a desire to be honored – it’s also hard to know Kryzewski’s true motives behind his announcement.
“I don’t believe Coach K planned on having all the attention that he did receive,” women’s basketball head coach Jody Maritnez said. “I believe it was to help the recruiting process for the next head coach (Jon Scheyer) and to allow others understand the vision for the future for Duke basketball.”
There certainly is something to Scheyer being named coach-in-waiting a year before ever coaching a game –– it gives the program time to transition and begin a new direction before undergoing that change.
However one views this last season –– as an egotistical retirement tour or a year of planning –– it doesn’t detract from a truly legendary career. Five national titles, 13 Final Fours, 15 ACC Tournament championships is impressive no matter who accumulated them, and it’s clear the respect he gathered along the way far outweighs the accolades.
So, all of this to say –– it’s ok to have fun with sports. Those personal allegiances to teams, players and other aspects of sports also come with their common enemies. But, it is important to recognize at times, like these, a figure’s impact and reach on sport.
“Even though I am a NC Tar Heel fan, I have respected Coach K’s philosophy of time management and motivation to his players to take “ownership” of being on the Duke basketball team,” Martinez said. “He invested in his players on and off the court. He used basketball as a tool to prepare his players for the game of life.”