Mike Krzyzewski never lost his fire

On Oct. 22, 2009, Mike Krzyzewski sat in his office at Duke watching an ESPNU feed emanating from New York, where a young prospect named Kyrie Irving was about to make his college decision.

Irving was, of course, a ridiculous talent. He was also a near certain one-and-done player, the kind of recruit Krzyzewski’s Blue Devil program had either avoided or failed to lure to campus.

Krzyzewski was 62 years old at the time. He had been to 10 Final Fours and won three national titles. He’d been enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame back in 2001. He was rich and famous and respected. He had nothing to prove.

Times were changing though.

Krzyzewksi had won with players who almost exclusively stayed at Duke for three and four years. Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Jay Williams, Johnny Dawkins, J.J. Redick, Shane Battier, Shelden Williams, Carlos Boozer, Bobby Hurley, Danny Ferry and so on.

Now top recruits were unapologetic about trying to get to the NBA after a single season in college. They wanted a place that accepted that. They wanted to be showcased.

Duke, however, was considered old school. So from Kevin Durant to John Wall to Blake Griffin to Kevin Love and so on, the Blue Devils were suddenly recruiting afterthoughts. They didn’t produce an NBA first-round pick in 2006 or 2007. In 2008 and 2009, they landed just two top-50 recruits, per Rivals.com, and none ranked in the top 10.

Krzyzewski graduated from West Point and always excelled in recognizing obstacles and strategizing against them. Duke was still capable of being great (indeed, it had a veteran core that would win the 2010 national title) but he recognized that recruiting was about to become a major problem.

“Players win,” Krzyzewski said that day in 2009. “Coaches don’t win games. Players win games. A coach and his staff can set the stage for a great player to make great plays, but the player has to make them.”

So he changed things up. He rode the publicity and credibility acquired from leading USA Basketball to a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, to recruit players who weren’t wondering what senior night, or even declaring a major, might be like.

DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 07: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils watches his team play against the Virginia Cavaliers during the second half of their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 07, 2022 in Durham, North Carolina. Virginia won 69-68. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Forty-two season in, Mike Krzyzewski has never lost his fire at Duke. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

He was going after the Kyrie Irvings of the world. On their terms.

Irving wouldn’t disappoint that day. He announced for Duke over Kentucky. The office in a tower that stands next to Cameron Indoor Stadium erupted in cheers. This was big. Due to injuries, Irving played in just 11 games for the Blue Devils, but his presence meant more than that. He went No. 1 overall in the 2011 NBA draft anyway.

Where Johnny Dawkins and the 1982 recruiting class provided credibility to a young Krzyzewski and set up an incredible run of success, Irving did the same to an older Krzyzewski. It led to a second act that was nearly as glorious.

Coach K is retiring at the end of the season. Saturday is his final game at Cameron, a 6 p.m. ET tilt against rival North Carolina. That at 75 he’s still on top of his game is a testament to his willingness to adapt even deep into his career.

His final Duke team has already wrapped up the ACC regular season title and behind a couple of other one-and-done lottery recruits (Paolo Banchero and A.J. Griffin) have a real chance at K’s sixth national title.

The tournament is fickle, of course, so who knows. Whatever happens, though, this isn’t a final wave to the crowd by an aging rock star. The Blue Devils are humming as well as ever. New coach Jon Scheyer, currently K’s top assistant, will welcome four top-20 recruits, including Nos. 1, 2 and 3 per Rivals, next fall.

Krzyzewski’s coaching career began at Army in 1975. He spent 42 seasons at Duke. His adaptability of strategy, while maintaining his consistency of purpose, has kept him at the front of the pack.

While it sounds simple, it rarely is. There’s a reason even the best coaches fade. It’s one thing to win 1,196 games – the most of all time. It’s another to rack up 26 of them (and counting) in your final season.

“We went to 10 Final Fours because we had really good players,” Krzyzewski said on the day Irving committed. “We’ve had seven national players of the year here. Well, with those guys, you should go to some Final Fours. We feel if we can get that caliber of talent again, we’ve got a shot.”

Irving opened the floodgates. Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, Wendell Carter, Marvin Bagley, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and others soon rolled through Durham en route to the draft lottery. One great recruiting class begat another one.

There are plenty of reasons why Krzyzewski has done what no one else has. His coaching skills. His motivational skills. His people skills. His work ethic and competitive drive. There will be deserving testimonials to all of it.

But simply on the strategy of figuring out how to win, it isn’t just that Krzyzewski is the best of all time. It’s that at his retirement, he’s still doing it as well as anyone.

It’s a prime that never seemed to end, even if those roars inside Cameron finally will.