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Opinion: Nobody did it better than Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and college basketball won't be the same without him

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If you came of age as a basketball fan in the 1990s, it was impossible to be neutral about Mike Krzyzewski.

The program he built at Duke had become so big, so successful, so polarizing — and, yes, so annoying — that every time they took the court, it was cast as a battle of good vs. evil depending on which side you were on.

The complaints and conspiracy theories about the Blue Devils ran wild whether it was Krzyzewski intimidating the refs into giving them a friendly whistle or broadcasters like Dick Vitale supposedly rooting for them on the air. The Cameron Crazies were obnoxious, the flopping on defense was out of control and slapping the floor was an annoying gimmick.

Everything about Duke seemed like it dripped privilege and arrogance, all the way down to wriggling out of any responsibility for potential scandals like Corey Maggette playing while ineligible in 1999 or the still-mysterious case of Lance Thomas buying $100,000 worth of jewelry mostly on credit in the middle of the 2009-10 national championship season.

The more you hated Duke, the more it ate at you that year after year, decade after decade, nothing changed. No matter what else was happening in college basketball, which coaches were coming and going, which programs were rising and falling, Duke was always there. For three solid decades, it was the Blue Devils and everyone else.

When Krzyzewski walks off the floor at Cameron Indoor Arena one last time next March after a farewell tour in his 42nd season as Duke’s head coach, he will do so as the greatest college basketball coach of all time.

For many reasons, that will not be a unanimous view. John Wooden won more national titles, Roy Williams and Dean Smith won a higher percentage of their games and others like Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo are widely considered superior tacticians. Some critics could even argue that despite the five national titles Krzyzewski won, he probably should have had a few more.

Mike Krzyzewski celebrates with members of Duke's 2015 national title team.
Mike Krzyzewski celebrates with members of Duke's 2015 national title team.

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What’s indisputable, though, is that nobody has coached college basketball or any other sport as well for as long as Krzyzewski. From early in Ronald Reagan’s second term as president and continuing almost uninterrupted through today, Duke has been both the target for every program to beat and the standard by which the rest of them are judged.

Whatever advantages Duke had, Krzyzewski earned them through his sustained success. Whatever hate Duke received from fans of other schools, it was only so intense because Krzyzewski’s teams were so hard to beat.

It makes sense that Krzyzewski is walking away after one more season. He’s going to be 75 in February. Duke hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2015 and missed the NCAA tournament last year for the first time since 1995 when Krzyzewski stepped away from the team to deal with back problems. Like Williams stepping down at North Carolina earlier this year, the significant changes coming to college sports between more liberal transfer rules and allowing players to make money on their name, image and likeness provide a natural gateway into retirement for college basketball’s old guard.

Given the current trajectory of college sports, it’s possible we will never see another coach with as much cachet as Krzyzewski. By the time Duke won back-to-back titles in 1991 and '92, he had built the most polarizing brand in all of sports. Nearly 30 years later, he’s bringing in three of the top 20 prospects in the 2021 recruiting class for his final season.

One of the cultural undercurrents of Krzyzewski’s early years at Duke that contributed to the polarization was that his program was perceived as being the place where the best white players would go. This wasn’t necessarily unfair given that Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Chris Collins, Steve Wojciechowski and J.J. Redick were among the most prominent Duke players of that era.

But in the mid-2000s, once the top high school players were forced to spend a year in college before going to the NBA draft, Duke began to look a bit like a fading power. Instead of being ranked No. 1 or 2 in the preseason poll every year, the Blue Devils would start more like No. 9 or 10. In fact, Duke’s 2010 national championship team might be one of the most impressive coaching achievements of his career given that there was hardly any NBA-level talent contributing that season. The leading scorer on that team was Jon Scheyer, who is going to be Krzyzewski’s hand-picked successor.

Tired of his teams being labeled slow and unathletic in early NCAA tournament losses to Lehigh and Mercer, Krzyzewski completely changed strategy when he decided it was time to go head-to-head with Kentucky for the best one-and-done recruits in the country. Right away, he landed Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justice Winslow — the backbone of his 2015 national title team.

Only Krzyzewski, who had the gravitas of being the Olympic team coach who was leading LeBron James and Kevin Durant to gold medals, could have pulled that off successfully. But since then, if Krzyzewski wanted a player, he was very likely to get that player.

It has not always worked perfectly on the court — history will look back on the 2019 team led by Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish as one of the most talented not to reach a Final Four — but it has totally flipped some of the old 1990s stereotypes that made so many people despise what Duke stood for.

The minute Krzyzewski walks away next year, Duke won’t be the same. College basketball won’t be the same. Reasonable people can disagree about whether others accomplished more or coached better than Krzyzewski, but nobody in the history of the sport will be able to say they spent 40 years as the center of the storm.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mike Krzyzewski leaves legacy no one in college basketball will match