Turns out college basketball’s greatest coach couldn’t manufacture the perfect ending.
Then again, Mike Krzyzewski isn’t quite finished just yet.
Coach K’s Blue Devils managed to lose his final game at Duke’s quaint Cameron Indoor Stadium Saturday. Which was bad enough. But the loss came at the hands of arch-rival North Carolina.
Even worse was the score: 94-81. The most points Duke allowed in a game this season. And come crunch time, Carolina scored on 11 of its final 13 possessions.
Duke’s desultory performance caused Coach K to grab the microphone and make an unscripted announcement prior to the post-game ceremonies scheduled in his honor.
“I’m sorry about this afternoon,” he began. He was then forced to pause because the crowd roared, as if to say, in unison, “It’s OK.”
He asked for quiet. “Today was unacceptable,” he declared. “But this season has been very acceptable. And the season isn’t over, all right?”
Typical Coach K. Immediately taking a loss and using it as motivation for future success. I was instantly reminded of one of my favorite Coach K stories.
When he was hired on May 4, 1980 by Duke AD Tom Butters, Krzyzewski was the head coach at West Point, where is team had just completed a 9-17 season. He was so well known that he had to spell his last name at his introductory press conference.
After three seasons, his record at Duke was 38-47. His teams had lost to Princeton, and at home to Wagner. Yes, Wagner.
The ’83 season ended with a thud, a devastating 109-66 loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. Duke finished 11-17, the second worst record in the history of Duke basketball.
The worst record, 10-17, belonged to Krzyzewski’s ’82 team.
Here’s Coach K’s version of the story, taken from his book, “Leading with the Heart:”
“After the game, I had put in an appearance at a post-game gathering for Duke boosters, even though Mickie had told me that people would understand if I elected not to show up. ‘I’m not going to hide from anyone,’ I told her.
“Granted, tucked away in a Denny’s at three a.m. off a secluded stretch of interstate might seem like I was trying to hide. But I felt it was important to get my staff together quickly, before we got back home to Durham.
“’OK, listen up fellas,’ I said to them. “We aren’t going to do anything desperate. We aren’t recruiting anyone else. That’s why we recruited these players. If we coach them well, I believe they’ll win. If they don’t win, I’m not a very good basketball coach. Actually, I know they’ll win, because I’m a damn good coach!’
“At that point, Johnny Moore, our promotions director, held up his glass of iced tea and said, ‘Here’s to forgetting tonight ever happened.’
“Then I held up my glass and said, ‘Here’s to never forgetting tonight happened. Not ever.’”
Throughout the ensuing offseason and preseason practices, Coach K made sure the Cameron scoreboard beamed 109-66. Three years later, the players who lost that game took Coach K to the first of his 12 Final Fours.
“At Denny’s in 1983, I stuck with my core beliefs,” Krzyzewski wrote. “I stuck with the players I recruited, and I told them that I believed they would be successful. And they were. That same team that went 11-17 as freshmen went on to be 37-3 in 1986 when they were seniors. They finished the regular season ranked number one in the national polls, went to the Final Four, and lost the national championship game to Louisville.”
Equally impressive is Coach K’s adherence to the importance of family. His own family always came first. He proudly recalled Saturday that none of his girls ever said, “You love basketball more than us.”
What he did do was make Duke basketball a family. Over 42 years, the family has grown quite large. Saturday, 96 former players lined up to welcome Coach K onto the court for the final time at Cameron.
One of those former players was Mark Causey, a local orthodontist. A legendary high school player, he averaged 26.9 points per game and led East Hall to the 2001 Class 2A state championship. He was named the Class 2A Player of the Year.
Causey was so good that he caught Coach K’s attention. He was invited to Duke as a preferred walk-on. Causey played one season at Duke, scoring 13 points in 12 games. He became the player the Cameron Crazies yelled for whenever Duke was up by 30 with four minutes to go.
“It’s amazing,” Dr. Causey told me a few years ago. “I didn’t get to play that much, but if you’re on the team, you’re always part of the Duke family. Coach K remembers everybody.”
And that’s why Causey was invited to stand on the court Saturday, along with Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Danny Ferry, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, JJ Redick, Kyle Singler, and all the rest. Every member of the Duke family was remembered.
And their coach will never be forgotten.