On the day before what turned out to be the final game of his 47-year head-coaching career, Mike Krzyzewski wanted to make something clear. His thoughts shifted from the task at hand, and his Duke team’s challenge of playing against North Carolina in the Final Four, to the state of the sport in which he’d spent a lifetime, and college athletics as a whole.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to talk to all of you again,” Krzyzewski said early last April, addressing dozens of reporters in the bowels of the Caesar’s Superdome in New Orleans. The day before that, he’d criticized NCAA President Mark Emmert without directly naming him, and he’d chided the NCAA for what Krzyzewski characterized as a lack of vision.
“Where are we going?” Krzyzewski asked, broadly speaking to the myriad questions that suddenly surrounded college athletics. “… What are we doing?” He added that he had “many questions” for Emmert, and that “it’s a new day” in college sports “that should’ve been a new day decades ago. So we’ve got a lot to make up for.”
Then, on the eve of the Tar Heels’ 81-77 victory against the Blue Devils, Krzyzewski began a long soliloquy in which he detailed his criticism. As a head coach, at least, it came to be his final monologue on the state of college basketball, college athletics and his exasperation with the lack of leadership presiding over both.
“I think we’re all frustrated,” he said. “And that’s good, because if you’re frustrated it means then all constituents want change. The thing that I would recommend is that this is a transformational time for college athletics. When you transform, the main thing you transform is structure, organization.
“The structure we have right now does not work.”
The commentary took hold and spread quickly on social media. It became national news. Krzyzewski spoke, and people were listening. And now, in his retirement, the sport and conference he departed faces a critical question: In Coach K’s absence, who becomes the voice and steward of college basketball, whose standing has been eroded in a football-first world. And in the ACC, long college basketball’s premier conference, who steps in to fill a gaping leadership void?
‘We all need to’ step up
This is a pivotal time for college athletics, and especially for college basketball. The sport is facing challenges, both externally and internally, like never before.
Start-up leagues, like Overtime Elite and the NBA’s G-League Ignite, now compete with the college game for talent. The rise of the transfer portal has led to dizzying and unprecedented roster turnover in the college game. Name, Image and Likeness rights have upended recruiting, and created roster management issues of its own. And, more and more, college basketball’s national relevance has been condensed to a few weeks every March and early April during the NCAA tournament.
The sport is facing these challenges, and others, in a time that coincides with a leadership vacuum. Emmert, a target of ire throughout his 12-year tenure, is retiring at the end of next June, and his successor has not yet been named. And Krzyzewski, long the leading and loudest advocate for the health of college basketball, no longer serves as the unofficial ambassador and spokesperson for the game. Among his former colleagues in the ACC, it’s a role nobody seems to want.
“Well, we all need to,” Jim Boeheim, the longtime Syracuse coach, said about the importance of becoming more vocal in Krzyzewski’s absence. “You know, Tom Izzo needs to. I need to. But the young guys do, too. Mark Few. Bill Self. There’s still a lot of guys around that will step in and talk about stuff. I think that’s always happened.
“Coach (Krzyzewski) was a great force because he won championships, he’s smart, had a lot of respect and would speak out about things. Some coaches win, but they don’t want to speak out. You have to speak out. You have to say what you think should be done or what needs to be done, and we need all of our, especially our younger coaches, to step into those roles.”
Mike Brey, the loquacious Notre Dame coach, nominated Virginia’s Tony Bennett who, at 53, is still considered relatively young by coaching standards. Bennett has won a national championship and has long been viewed as one of the bright minds of the game, and “given his age and his accomplishments he is and can be even more of a voice for the ACC and college basketball,” Brey said.
The problem, Brey went on with a laugh: “He doesn’t want to do it. I’ve been bribing him.”
‘It’ll be different’
Brey, who spent eight years as a member of Krzyzewski’s staff at Duke, first noticed the difference without his old boss last May, at the ACC’s annual spring meetings. Every year, the league’s football and men’s and women’s basketball coaches gather there to talk through the issues of the day affecting their sports. This time, there was no Krzyzewski, no Roy Williams — who retired the year before — and no Boeheim, who was not in attendance.
The meetings took on a different vibe without the two coaches, in Krzyzewski and Williams, who’d long commandeered them, and without another, in Boeheim, who has been the head coach at Syracuse since 1976. “It’ll be different,” as Brey put it, without Krzyzewski and with Williams another year into his retirement.
“So you talk about the old guard of guys, it was really an interesting room at the ACC meetings,” he said, “with those guys out of there. We smiled more, without those guys.”
At 77, Boeheim is the oldest coach in the ACC, and in the country (and also the oldest coach in Division I college basketball history). He is the elder statesman of the sport, but he is not the coach who has been in the ACC the longest. That distinction belongs to Leonard Hamilton, who began his tenure at Florida State in 2002 and survived a rough start to turn the Seminoles into a contender.
At 74, Hamilton has gained the reputation of something of an ageless wonder. The years are only just starting to show, and with a subtlety that belies his decades on the sidelines enduring the stress and grind of the job. He offered a slight grin when reminded that he’s now the elder statesman of the ACC, at least among those coaches who’ve been in the league the longest, though he seemed not all that interested in becoming a leading voice of the sport.
“The winningest coach in the history of college basketball,” he said, referring to Krzyzewski, probably can speak a little bit more than Leonard Hamilton.”
Hamilton went on to emphasize Krzyzewski’s standing in the sport: the gold medals he’d won with the U.S. Olympic team; the five national championships; the decades of success that allowed him to retire with more college coaching victories than anyone had ever accumulated. Those things, as much as any, Hamilton argued, allowed Krzyzewski the comfort to become as outspoken as he became in his later years. And it was those kinds of accomplishments most coaches lack.
“We need people with the confidence, and also with the position,” Hamilton said. “Because sometimes when you tell the truth, sometimes that’s not popular. And some of us just keep our mouths shut and roll on, and hope that somebody who has a bigger voice speaks up and say what I really want to say. But I stay in my lane. I try to do what I’m hired to do.”
Hamilton said that Krzyzewski became “a voice for all of us,” before adding, with a laugh:
“I’ll probably pass that torch over to Boeheim.”
Passing the torch
A little later during his time in Charlotte, Boeheim bemoaned the state of the sport. Like Krzyzewski, for whom Boeheim was an assistant with the U.S. Olympic team, Boeheim had watched college athletics flounder under Emmert’s stewardship. College basketball, once a leading revenue driver with a national relevance comparable to college football, had become a hollowed-out version of itself, a game trying to hang onto its place in a rapidly-changing landscape.
“Nobody listened,” Boeheim said, speaking to concerns coaches have raised over the years. “There’s one coach on the (NCAA) college basketball issues committee. One coach. So they just do what they’re going to do and then they see later that, well, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. Well, we have too many of those bad ideas, you end up in a bad place. And right now the game (and) college athletics is in a terrible place.
“I don’t know what they’re going to do. I don’t know what you can do.”
Moments later, Boeheim rose from his seat at an interview table and began to walk out of the room to his next appointment. On his way out, he passed Josh Pastner, the 45-year-old Georgia Tech coach who was the ACC’s youngest coach until Jon Scheyer succeeded Krzyzewski at Duke. Pastner and Boeheim shook hands and shared a greeting, and Pastner asked Boeheim how long he’d been doing this.
“Forty-six years,” Boeheim told him.
“I don’t know if I’ll make it,” said Pastner, who has been a head coach for 13 years.
“You won’t,” Boeheim said with a smile.
“I don’t know if I want to,” Pastner said, smiling back.
“You won’t,” Boeheim said, laughing, as he walked away.