DURHAM, N.C. — For 41 previous seasons, Mike Krzyzewski has counseled Duke basketball players on how to handle the swirling emotions of their Senior Day. The commingling of pride, joy, sadness and nostalgia can be a lot to process before the last time they take the court in Cameron Indoor Stadium and bathe in the adoration of the home fans.
Saturday, it’s finally Coach K’s Senior Day. It’s time for him to coach himself on how to say goodbye to college Camelot.
At the final pre-North Carolina press conference of his incredible career Thursday, Krzyzewski walked himself through it, thinking out loud. He acknowledged that the reality started to hit Wednesday—this is it, the 648th and final contest here, the culmination of a symbiotic relationship between a man and a building that has become synonymous with the passion of the college game. The collegians who play and cheer in Cameron never age, but the coach is now 75 and Saturday is an ending that is both a long time coming and arriving quite suddenly.
“It’s crazy. How did that happen? How is it here?” K said, with disarming candor. “I’ll have to spend some time, have a meeting with me. Maybe a few tough talks about keeping my eyes on the road, so to speak.
“In sport, you never know what’s going to happen—so the spontaneity of emotion and performance, it’s one of the great things about sport. It really is reality TV, and reality TV is not reality TV. Sport is, and that’s the beauty of it. I’m talking to myself right now—I think I’m just going to let it happen. See what the hell happens.”
A wise choice not to script what is better left unscripted. But here’s an educated guess at what will happen:
- The glitterati will be on a scale never seen for a regular-season college basketball game, with the connected angling for tickets and the rich shelling out thousands to get in the door of the 9,314-seat Gothic bandbox. Virtually none of the other Mount Rushmore coaches in the sport had a formalized, final-game goodbye like this—not John Wooden, not Dean Smith, not Bob Knight, not Roy Williams, not Jim Calhoun. (Adolph Rupp was feted before his last home game at Kentucky in 1972, but there was still a chance he would continue coaching past what was the mandatory retirement age of 70. His retirement wasn’t official until three weeks later.)
- The nostalgia and tradition will be thick, with an estimated 80 former Krzyzewski Duke players in attendance. “In the first few years I wouldn’t have predicted 80 of them would be coming back—or that I’d even have 80,” Krzyzewski said Thursday, alluding to his rocky first three seasons on the job.
- The emotional challenge will be steep for a man who prides himself on his military discipline and focus. Krzyzewski is hardly an open book of feelings, but he’s also far from a machine. Don’t expect a Nick Saban/Bill Belichick study in stoicism.
- The ESPN-ification of the day will be overwhelming for viewers at home, reinforcing Duke’s Most Favored Nation status with the network that televises more college hoops than any.
- Then the Blue Devils will beat the powder-blue brakes off Carolina.
The last of those is no sure thing, of course. The prideful commitment on both sides of this rivalry should ensure that the Tar Heels won’t willingly submit to being a sacrificial ram on the altar of Coach K’s high holy day. But this is not a great Carolina team, and this is a Duke team that won the Atlantic Coast Conference by open daylight and is now hitting its highest gear of the season.
And, frankly, it’s impossible to see this Cameron crowd letting Krzyzewski’s final act in their midst end badly. They may not roar like the olden days of the 1980s and ‘90s, when the Cameron Crazy mystique was born and built, but this will be a charged environment.
Coach K, the Team Builder
The traditional Krzyzewskiville tent city has been relocated from outside Cameron to the concourse of Wallace Wade Stadium, the football joint just a short walk away. As of Thursday afternoon there were 74 tents circling the place, with more students rolling in every few minutes carrying sleeping bags and cases of hard seltzer. They will get into Cameron Friday night for the traditional pregame talk from Coach K, then be officially let off the leash Saturday morning to stoke the “College GameDay” atmosphere.
For many years, Krzyzewski had a view out an office window of the Krzyzewskiville tent city that became a staple of Duke student life. During the joyless pandemic season of 2020–21, there was nothing to look at. Having it back this season—and the surging crowds inside the building—has helped make this a happy coda for the coach. “These things are good for the university culture,” Krzyzewski said.
But as much as Cameron is intertwined with Coach K, he said not to expect to see him at Duke home games next season. “I mean, where would I sit?” He joked. (As tough as tickets are to get, and as much as the school has admirably prioritized student seating down low, I suspect they could find a spot for him.)
“I’m not going to hover,” Krzyzewski said. “Everyone needs their space. Right now, this is still my space.”
For one more game, Krzyzrewskiville will roil with enthusiasm for its namesake. For one more game, Coach K will coach on Coach K Court. For one more game, the ultimate sporting marriage of man and building will create its own magic.
After four decades of honoring others, it’s finally Senior Day for Coach K. Keep your Kleenex handy, Mike. This could get dusty.
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