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Coach K is right: College football and basketball need their own commissioners

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, shown in 2019, has called for a reimagined college basketball leadership. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Before he became one of the most important voices in college athletics, Jay Bilas was part of Mike Krzyzewski’s first important recruiting class at Duke. And Bilas, who later worked under Krzyzewski while going to law school, eventually realized that the coach’s wisdom went far beyond game strategy.

“After a while something hit me: All these wins aren’t an accident,” Bilas once told me. “We meet people all the time who think they’re the smartest guy in the room. Coach K is the smartest guy in the room. He’s always a step ahead.”

Krzyzewski has never been afraid to express an opinion. He also has become accustomed to criticism. That’s the price you pay when you have been at or near the top of a sport as intensely competitive as big-time college basketball for almost 35 years.

Those facts again came into focus last week when Krzyzewski said he wasn’t sure it was such a good idea to be playing college basketball with the world still stuck in the jaws of the coronavirus. He made those comments after a loss to Illinois, Duke’s second loss in eight days to a top-10 team. He also noted that some people would no doubt think he was questioning the wisdom of playing merely because his team isn’t very good right now.

Krzyzewski has won 1,160 games and five national championships. He’s not likely to freak out over a couple of December losses, not likely to cavalierly say something he otherwise wouldn’t because of one or two games. I’m not speculating here. I know he felt that starting the season Thanksgiving week was a mistake.

The NCAA was created to protect college athletes. Now it’s trotting them out during a pandemic.

He said that to me in August. He said it again in November, even while I was arguing that the more games that could be played the better — unless the NCAA wanted to cancel the season in the interest of safety. There is no way that’s happening. There will be an NCAA tournament this season — whether it is in March or April or concludes with the Final Four being played on Fourth of July weekend. There are hundreds of millions of reasons the tournament will be played.

Not surprisingly — and as Krzyzewski predicted — the trolls were soon out in force, claiming that Krzyzewski was reacting to the two losses. More surprisingly, Alabama Coach Nate Oats, one of basketball’s really good guys, joined that chorus. Responding to a question from a reporter, Oats said: “Can I ask you something? Do you think if Coach K hadn’t lost the two nonconference games at home, he’d still be saying that?”

When Oats later learned that Krzyzewski had, in fact, said exactly that repeatedly, dating from the summer, he was horrified. He publicly apologized to Krzyzewski after calling him to apologize in person. Like me, Oats believes that if there’s going to be a college basketball season, the more games that can be played as soon as possible, the better.

In the meantime, Krzyzewski canceled the rest of Duke’s nonconference schedule — games against Elon, Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb — to give his players a chance to go home for the holidays, something many teams won’t get to do in this compressed season. I doubt he canceled those games because he was afraid of losing.

It’s worth noting that Duke also pulled out of this season’s Battle 4 Atlantis, even after it was moved to South Dakota, because of coronavirus concerns.

Lost in his remarks, though, was something Krzyzewski has been saying for years, something arguably more important to the future of the college game: It’s not clear who actually leads this sport. Which means the NCAA is no longer capable of being in charge of college basketball or college football.

“There are three things involved here, and they’re all very different,” Krzyzewski said to me in 2010, sitting in an empty locker room before a game. “Football needs one set of rules, men’s basketball needs another set of rules, and the nonrevenue sports need their own set of rules. Each of them needs a commissioner, someone who knows and understands the sport or sports and the issues each of them faces — which are entirely different from one another.”

The big-time football schools have more or less broken away from the NCAA, operating the College Football Playoff with very little input from the NCAA, whose president, Mark Emmert, often points out his lack of authority when things go wrong.

Unfortunately, the CFP, in addition to being a cartel that caters to the 65 power schools while shunting the Group of Five schools to the side, is completely lacking in leadership. Decisions are (allegedly) made by 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, but each conference remains its own little fiefdom.

Amid college basketball’s pandemic ‘mess,’ calls for pausing the season grow louder

That’s why we have witnessed the chaos of this football season in the big-bucks conferences: The Big Ten and Pac-12 decided to shut down in August, while the ACC, SEC and Big 12 went ahead with plans to play. There was similar indecision and dysfunction among the Group of Five conferences. The Big Ten and Pac-12 then reversed themselves in September and opted to start playing in October and November, but their schools struggled to complete even limited schedules.

As I said, chaos.

If there had been a commissioner, one who knew what he was doing, a blanket decision would have been made in August: Everyone plays, or nobody plays. While I was a frequent critic of his actions as Big Ten commissioner, recently retired Jim Delany would have been perfect for the job — and still would be.

College basketball has been all over the map, too. Some schools have yet to play a game, while others have played as many as eight; the Ivy League and two historically Black schools opted not to play at all. The NCAA did form an ad hoc committee of coaches in the summer organized by Dan Gavitt, one of the few truly competent people working for the NCAA. That group made the decision that the first and only goal of this season was to play the NCAA tournament — again, back to those hundreds of millions of reasons.

Gavitt, 54, son of legendary former Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt, has been in charge of the NCAA men’s tournament since 2013. He’s different from his father — far less confrontational — but has all his smarts and love of basketball. He would be a good choice to be the basketball commissioner.

More out of the box would be Ed Tapscott, former coach of American University and the Washington Wizards and a longtime NBA front-office executive. Hiring a Black commissioner, in a sport largely run by White men but largely played by Black men, would be an important gesture. More importantly, Tapscott is like Krzyzewski: He’s almost always the smartest guy in the room.

If Krzyzewski were a few years younger — he will be 74 in February — he also would be a good choice. One problem: He still wants to coach. And I can promise you a couple of losses will never change that.

Read more college sports coverage:

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