INDIANAPOLIS – As he walked the halls of the Nike All-America Camp here on Thursday, his first official day of work as "still" Duke's basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski kept hearing the same reaction.
"Coach K," shouted a security guard, "thanks for coming back."
"Thank you," nodded Krzyzewski, before adding quietly, "Although I don't think I ever left."
The Los Angeles Lakers gave Krzyzewski 40 million reasons to turn his back on the ailing NCAA earlier this week. But by saying no to that pile of riches and yes to a level of sport where he has become a national icon, Krzyzewski earned something else: the devotion of college basketball fans everywhere.
Duke may not be everyone's favorite team, but anyone who loves the college game has to agree it is better with Krzyzewski in it, especially in an era when so many young players leave for the NBA early – if they arrive at all.
"It feels good," Krzyzewski said Thursday of his newfound fans. "That wasn't the reason I did this, but I found out how popular the college game is and how most people seem very happy … people now in cars, I am walking down the street and [they shout] 'way to go Coach K.'
"They may be thinking I am nuts. But for whatever reason it has had a very good impact."
The reason is Krzyzewski.
He has become the ambassador of his sport, in part because of the overwhelming success of his Blue Devil teams – three national titles and 10 Final Fours in the last 19 seasons – but also because he is a classy, intelligent, likable presence in a sport that is no stranger to scandal and scoundrels.
So, during a spring in which eight high schoolers were selected in the first round of the NBA draft and a series of eye-popping scandals still are fresh in everyone's mind, getting Krzyzewski to follow his heart and stay put was a victory for the sport.
He made it OK to be a college guy.
"Money isn't everything," said Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton, who also is in town for the Nike camp. "I think it is terrific he made his decision. We need him."
Krzyzewski arrived here at 8:30 a.m. Thursday; the first day coaches can evaluate top high school talent. Dressed in pressed khaki shorts and a blue Duke golf shirt, he sat and watched three hours of three-on-three games featuring some of the best players in America.
That was followed by another three-hour session of scrimmages midday and another three hours at night. He wouldn't leave until after 10 p.m. It will be like this for Coach K and his colleagues just about every day through the end of July. Recruiting season is a grinding combination of early flights, late games and courting teenagers.
It is a long way from the NBA, where more money and less work were waiting.
"Actually for me a certain part of [recruiting] is really good," Krzyzewski said. "I have always enjoyed being on the road … the actual evaluation. I just sat there for three hours and saw a lot of good players."
Krzyzewski, a West Point graduate, is the very best in the business at using every advantage at his disposal, and he plans on using his goodwill to press the NCAA for better management and marketing of men's basketball.
"We have neglected our game for a while," he said. "We haven't run it the way we should."
But mostly Thursday was like any other summer day during his career. He was looking for players he liked and who liked him back. He was working through the headaches of trying to sustain a dynasty in the modern era, when your best players leave and your best recruits don't show.
"I just want to keep bringing in good kids knowing that the attrition rate is amazing.
"I don't have a sophomore class and I only have two freshmen, so obviously this recruiting class is big. We have put a lot of kids in the pros since 1999. So we have to kind of recover from that."
Thursday he went back to work.
Still the coach. Still the one.