Publish date:

Duke Basketball: The Final Chapter of Coach K's Career

Mike Krzyzewski, Duke Blue Devils Basketball

Mike Krzyzewski plans to author a storybook ending to his legendary Duke career

The text message arrived on March 12, the day after Duke’s basketball season ended when positive COVID-19 tests and subsequent contact tracing knocked the Blue Devils out of the ACC Tournament.

"Let's do this different next year," Mike Krzyzewski wrote.

At that point, the pandemic's crippling effects on the sports world were clearly on the Hall of Fame coach's mind.

But in the days and weeks that followed, plans for an even more dramatic change, already in his mind, grew more likely.

Having been a Division I head coach since 1975 and Duke's top man since 1980, and owning more career wins than any other college coach, Krzyzewski decided that the time had finally arrived for him to plot his departure and put a succession plan in place.

By mid-April, after discussions with his wife and three daughters, he'd decided that the 2021-22 season would be his last as a coach. By late May, Duke had decided that associate head coach Jon Scheyer would take over the program once Krzyzewski's tenure was through.

Related: Duke Basketball Team Preview and Season Prediction 2021-22

In early June, Cameron Indoor Stadium housed press conferences on consecutive days to announce Krzyzewski's retirement plans and Scheyer's impending promotion.

Already, headlines announcing his retirement have rankled Krzyzewski.

He is retiring, he told those close to him. He isn't retired. Not yet.

That is why Krzyzewski announced his succession plan in the manner he did. He wants to put his all into the 2021-22 Duke team, hoping to make one last Final Four run that ends with his sixth NCAA championship with the Blue Devils.

Related: Mike Krzyzewski's 10 Greatest College Teams

"This is not a day for thanking everybody, as it is not over," Krzyzewski said on June 2. "But today is a day to thank you all. I am a lucky guy. We are going to go for it as much as possible and as much as we can this year, and we are going to try to turn this place into what it is supposed to be, and then we will be able to walk away to another part of what we are doing."

Down the road in Chapel Hill, Roy Williams announced on April 1 he was retired — immediately. Just like that, a Hall of Fame coach who'd led North Carolina to three NCAA championships and five Final Fours was done.

Conversely, Krzyzewski, true to his roots as a West Point graduate and former Army captain, wanted his replacement to work side-by-side with him for one year before taking over the job.

So, while Hubert Davis gets his trial by fire as UNC's head coach, Scheyer gets to benefit as an understudy throughout the 2021-22 season.

The plan, in Krzyzewski's mind, puts the Blue Devils in a better position to succeed on the court.

Over the summer, while Scheyer and fellow assistants Chris Carrawell and Nolan Smith were on the road recruiting players who will come to Duke in 2022 and beyond, Krzyzewski remained in Durham focusing solely on his final team.

Krzyzewski felt that he couldn't offer a scholarship to a player, knowing that he planned to retire, and then end his coaching career right as that player was about to arrive on campus.

"For me to get to the end of next year (and leave), it wouldn't be right," Krzyzewski said.

The benefit to his final Duke team could be immense. The Blue Devils players arrived on campus shortly after the spring semester ended, taking classes in both summer school sessions.

NCAA rules allow Krzyzewski and his staff to work in the offseason with the players on the court four hours a week, plus four more hours of agility and conditioning work. But he's also around to counsel the players on their game or offer tips when they are reviewing film from their scrimmages.

"I want this to be as good of a basketball team as we've had in my 46 years," Krzyzewski says. "That's the main thing I'm focused on."

This season's Duke team has the talent to live up to Krzyzewski's goal. At the same time, it will require all of his management, leadership and motivational tools to return to the mountaintop a season after his team missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995.

Recommended Articles

The Blue Devils were 13-11 after beating Louisville in the second round of the ACC Tournament last March when COVID-19 ended their campaign. A season without spectators at Cameron Indoor Stadium turned out to be the most forgettable of Coach K's career.

Duke returns four players from that team, including starters Wendell Moore Jr., Jeremy Roach and Mark Williams. The talent is bolstered by five-star recruits Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels, plus four-star guard Jaylen Blakes.

Two transfers — 6'9" Theo John (Marquette) and 6'8" Bates Jones (Davidson) — provide depth in the frontcourt.

The 7'0" Williams and the 6'10" Banchero form a formidable front line, with Banchero a projected 2022 NBA Draft first-round pick who can score from anywhere on the court. The 6'6" Griffin and 6'4" Keels have strong perimeter scoring games as well.

The 6'5" Moore is the rare Duke player who enters his junior season without having played in an NCAA Tournament game. He's motivated to change that situation and send Krzyzewski out a winner.

A sophomore point guard, Roach reunites with Keels, his former high school teammate in Virginia. That familiarity should be an asset that Krzyzewski can use to get more consistent backcourt play to pair with his solid interior.

"I'm so excited about this upcoming year," Krzyzewski says. "It's not about having a run next year. It's about having a finish."

Carrawell, a former team captain and the 2000 ACC Player of the Year under Krzyzewski at Duke, knows that this season will be unlike any other. The Blue Devils routinely play in front of raucous, sold-out crowds whether at home, on an opponent's home court or at a neutral site.

Add to that the emotion and pageantry of Krzyzewski's farewell tour, and the pressure to succeed is even greater for this team.

They are determined to make Krzyzewski's last ride one of his best.

"We knew this day was coming," Carrawell says. "And it came, but we're gonna have a hell of a year. We're looking forward to the year, and we want to make this the best year out of all the years that Coach has coached."

The 34-year-old Scheyer will be right there, too. He knows he'll be in the big chair next season and that he has Krzyzewski's full support.

As when other former players have joined Duke's staff, Krzyzewski told Scheyer not to take the job if he wasn't preparing to be a head coach.

"What I've learned is to give them all these responsibilities where they didn't have different things — they do everything," Krzyzewski says. "Jon's done everything, and in the last few years, we've taken it up to another level. He's one of the smartest coaches in the country, to be quite frank with you. Nobody knows that as well as I do, and Chris and Nolan know it. The players know it."

Scheyer's job is to help push Duke to a successful season in Krzyzewski's swan song while working to keep the program among the nation's best once his mentor is gone. That's quite a unique challenge.

"I think it boils down to communication with Coach and I," Scheyer says. "We are going to do something that really hasn't been done before in sports where someone who has been coaching for 41 years, this has never happened.

"The recruiting piece and planning for the future, Coach has really left that up to us to figure out. Coach is going to be kept in the loop, of course. It's still his program. But it's something that since we've coached together and known each other for so long, it's going to be very natural, I think."

So what comes next for one of the most accomplished coaches the sport has ever seen? He'll maintain his existing office on the top floor of the six-story building next door to Cameron Indoor Stadium. From there, he'll be part ambassador for the program he's built and part advisor to anyone on campus who seeks his input.

He says it will be akin to running a motion offense, reacting to what the defense is doing to find success in an ever-evolving environment.

"To me," Krzyzewski says, "one of the first things is going to be what does Duke need from me in that new world."

He'll also remain connected to the game that's been his life's work.

College athletics as a whole, and basketball in particular, are undergoing wholesale changes unlike any other time since Krzyzewski became a first-time head coach at Army in 1975. Players are now able to maintain their college eligibility while benefiting financially from their name, image and likeness. They can transfer between schools without sitting out a year. Enhanced educational benefits from the schools, tied to their scholarships, will also be available after the Supreme Court ruled this summer that limiting athletes' access to those benefits was unconstitutional.

For years, Krzyzewski has decried the NCAA's lack of foresight on such issues.

By April 2022, he'll no longer be a head coach, and he'll have more time to devote to helping the game evolve if he so chooses. But that time is still months away.

Krzyzewski has a season — one final, special season — to spend on Duke's bench, one more campaign that he hopes will end with nets being cut down and banners being raised. He's doing this one differently than he has any other, but the goals remain as lofty as ever.

— Written by Steve Wiseman (@stevewisemanNCfor Athlon Sports' 2021 College Basketball Magazine.