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June 24, 2021

Other voices: Coach K’s legacy

Of all the commercials that have made cheeky pitches for light beer over the years, this one is a classic:

A man hitches a limo ride in an airport lobby — and he hopes, to the Final Four — by passing himself off as Mike Krzyzewski.

“Yes I am,” the guy proudly “confirms” to a man holding a sign bearing the Duke coach’s name.

Once aboard the long, black limo, the impersonator indulges himself on the phone, prank-calling sports analyst Billy Packer (“Do you have Prince Albert in a can?”) as well as basketball stars Grant Hill and Jason Kidd.

The punchline, of course, is that the person who happens to be driving the limo is the actual Coach K.

Once the star-stricken pretender begins to realize this, he asks, mangling the Hall of Famer’s name: “Hey, aren’t you Coach Kroogerwooski?”

Krzyzewski turns and smiles.

“Yes … I am.”

That 1993 ad (for Bud Light, if you’re wondering) came to mind as Krzyzewski, who has won more men’s college basketball games than anyone ever (1,170 and counting), was announcing that the next Blue Devil basketball season will be his last.

At age 74 and wildly successful in his 41 years at Duke, Krzyzewski certainly has every right to go fishin’. He has won five national championships (so far), 15 ACC Tournaments and three Olympic gold medals.

When he arrived at Duke in 1980, the program was struggling and, for a while, Krzyzewski’s future in Durham wasn’t assured.

But before long, the man with the name as hard to spell as it is to pronounce didn’t need those extra syllables anymore. He was simply Coach K.

Duke became a perennial winner, the gold standard for success and consistency in men’s college basketball.

And when the game changed, so did he. Krzyzewski succeeded first with four-year players and more recently with “one-and-done” NBA stars in waiting.

More tellingly, is there any other coach on Earth who rivals love to hate as much? Or to beat? (Ask anyone at Carolina or State or, oh, about a hundred other schools.)

Sure, he can get under your skin if you’re an opponent, with his cold stares and his cussing and his players’ accursed slapping of the hardwood with their palms to rally their defense. (And please don’t mention Christian Laettner and that Kentucky game.)

But what joy there is in playing his teams. And, if you’re fortunate, occasionally beating them.

“He made everybody bring their A game for years and years and years,” Roy Williams, former coach of arch rival North Carolina, who himself retired in April, told The Fayetteville Observer.

The fact is, the ACC won’t be the same without Coach K.

And the game won’t be the same without him.

Beyond the court, Krzyzewski also has been a man of conscience and principle.

At the outset of last season, he openly questioned the wisdom of playing college basketball amid a pandemic, and its impact on players’ safety and mental health.

“I don’t think it feels right to anybody,” Krzyzewski said at the time, daring to bite the billion-dollar hand that feeds him.

As it turned out, Coach K had to quarantine himself last season when his daughter and granddaughter became ill with COVID-19.

As for when protesters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, calling for the vice president to be hanged, Krzyzewski wouldn’t hold his tongue. “It was an insurrection,” said Krzyzewski, an Army veteran and West Point graduate. “It went to the very fabric of this great country. The symbol of our democracy is that Capitol. We allowed that symbol to be spit on and stepped on.”

He and his wife, Mickie, also have established charitable foundations that benefit needy children and fund medical research and scholarships.

But what Coach K may be remembered most for is his bond with his teams, which is obvious if you’ve ever listened to his postgame news conferences, especially after a loss.

Even if he criticizes his own players, he does so like a father, with a tone of affection and concern, never to deflect from what he sees as his own missteps in the game.

Not that there have been many.

His ability to be so good for so long may never be matched.

As for whether he is one of the greatest coaches college basketball will ever see, let there be no question.

Yes … he is.

— Winston-Salem Journal

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