News of Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s looming retirement spread slowly across a rain-soaked Durham Wednesday afternoon, news that will close a chapter in the storied coach’s career and forever alter a key part of student life.
“That’s crazy. It’s the first I am hearing of it,” said Bing Ho, a recent 2021 Duke graduate, after a reporter told him the news.
But it didn’t take long for the potential impact of the legendary coach leaving to sink in. The departure of Krzyzewski, one of the most illustrious head coaches in the history of college basketball, will have a profound impact on the Duke community. He is expected to retire at the end of the 2021-22 season, according to Duke.
“I mean, he encompasses all of what it means to be Duke,” Ho, 22, said. “He cared a lot about the people around him,” whether that was a basketball player or a professor of chemistry.
He also created an institution that students could build a community around. For more than 40 years, Coach K, as he was known, created championship winning teams that students obsessed over.
Ho said his social life was structured around big basketball games. Some of his fondest memories at Duke included painting his body for games at Cameron Indoor Stadium or camping in Krzyzewskiville, the makeshift camp that forms in front of Cameron before major games, including the annual matchup against rival UNC-Chapel Hill.
“It was like you were missing part of the culture” of the school if you weren’t part of the Cameron Crazies that followed Coach K, Ho said.
“To all of us (Coach K) was Duke,” ESPN analyst and former Duke basketball player Jay Bilas summed up on television Wednesday.
Big shoes to fill
The person entrusted with maintaining that culture will be Jon Scheyer, a former Duke player and current assistant coach, The News & Observer reported.
It will be no easy feat.
“Whoever is the next coach, I say, ‘Good luck.’ ” said Gene Devine, a former Duke football player who owns the sports bar Devine’s on Main Street in Durham.
Devine, whose bar has been a popular spot to watch Duke games since 1978, said he wasn’t shocked by the news. He thought it could have happened years earlier. And with Roy Williams retiring from UNC-Chapel Hill this spring, he said, it’s clear the tides of college basketball are changing.
“What else was left for him to accomplish?” he asked of Krzyzewski.
When Krzyzewski leaves next year, he will be the winningest men’s basketball coach in Division I history, The N&O reported. He already has won 1,170 games since 1975, first with Army and then since he became Duke’s head coach in 1980. That includes five national titles for the Blue Devils.
But that doesn’t change how seismic a change Coach K’s retirement will be, Devine said.
“It’s a sad day, if you are a Duke fan,” Devine, 65, said. “We’ve all been so fortunate that we were allowed to see Duke play at such a high level for so many years. For a lot of people, it will probably take a while to sink in.”
Most important person on campus
Sitting on a bench on the university’s East Campus, Kenneth McClain, who has worked in Duke housing for 17 years, said the news initially shocked him, but it made sense.
“You know, it’s not a whole lot more he can accomplish,” McClain said. “He’s put in the time.”
But Krzyzewski’s retirement will leave a big hole on campus.
“I think a lot of people, especially the big basketball fans, probably respect Coach K more than the president of the university.” McClain said, noting basketball is one of the few things that unites the student body.
“When the student comes to Duke,” he said, “they become part of (the program).”
Being able to experience the frenzied atmosphere around Duke basketball was one of the major reasons Joey Rufo decided to go to Duke for graduate school.
Rufo, 30, originally from the Philadelphia area, is currently getting a doctorate in mechanical engineering and has split season tickets with fellow grad students for the past four years.
“Obviously it’s a great academic school, but getting to go to basketball games and having an awesome college environment definitely played a factor,” Rufo said while walking on Duke’s campus Wednesday afternoon. “I wanted to be part of that community.”
“It will be impossible” to replace him, Rufo said of Krzyzewski, though he believes Scheyer will be a good option.
Asked what a fitting end to Coach K’s reign at Duke would be, McClain said only a championship would make sense.
“That would be the utmost way to go,” he said. “I guess when you’re that good, that’s about it.”
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