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Farewell to Mike Krzyzewski: A remarkable coach and a remarkable man

Mike Krzyzewski coached his 1,570th and final game against North Carolina in the Final Four. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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The longest farewell tour since the Rolling Stones’ first, sixth and 10th goodbyes ended late Saturday night in New Orleans, when North Carolina beat Duke, 81-77, to advance to Monday night’s national championship game against Kansas.

And so Mike Krzyzewski’s extraordinary 47-year coaching career came to a bittersweet end after 1,570 games — 1,202 of them victories. The sweet part for Krzyzewski was steering a team that once appeared overwhelmed by the pressures of his goodbye season to a record-breaking 13th Final Four. The bitter part: losing his final game — to his school’s greatest rival.

Only two great college basketball coaches have retired after winning national championships: UCLA’s John Wooden in 1975 and Marquette’s Al McGuire in 1977. Saturday’s loss will no doubt linger with Krzyzewski as he heads into the sunset. But coming up just short in that wonderful and intense game doesn’t change his legacy even a little bit.

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It’s possible no one is more relieved than Krzyzewski that the curtain has finally come down on the circus his walk-off season became. He certainly didn’t want to lose his finale to anyone — much less North Carolina. In the movies, Duke would have won the national championship game Monday night, and Krzyzewski would have ridden out of the Superdome on a white horse.

This, however, wasn’t a movie. And real life often doesn’t have happy endings, not even for a coach whose numbers — while mind-blowing — don’t begin to tell the story of his career or his life.

That tale has been told on a seemingly endless loop since he announced last June that after 42 seasons at Duke — a school that took a chance on him when he was a 33-year-old with an unpronounceable name coming off a 9-17 season at Army — he would walk away this spring.

He had come a long way from literally having to spell out and pronounce his name at his introductory news conference. The school newspaper’s headline was direct: “Krzyzewski: this is not a typo.”

I have written before about meeting him when I was in college and he was the coach at Army. And I have written (many times) about what is now known as the “Denny’s Game,” a 109-66 first-round loss to Virginia in the 1983 ACC tournament that ended with six of us sitting in an Atlanta-area Denny’s at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Tom Mickle, Duke’s sports information director at the time, raised a glass of water and said, “Here’s to forgetting tonight.”

To which Krzyzewski responded by raising his glass and saying, “Here’s to never f---ing forgetting tonight.”

He never has. When Duke won its first national championship in 1991 in Indianapolis, I walked onto the court and put out my hand to congratulate him. He pulled me closer so he could whisper in my ear: “We’ve come a long way from the f---ing Denny’s,” he said.

Yes, they had. And yes — gasp! — he does curse. Detractors, and they are legion, act as if he is the first and only coach to utter a profanity. There are lots of other criticisms: His teams get all the calls; he stopped graduating all his players when he began recruiting one-and-dones; he tried to influence the NCAA not to count his team’s 4-15 mark against his record when he missed the last 19 games of the 1995 season after back surgery.

All I can tell you is this: He does curse. The rest, disregard.

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He might have retired at the end of last season, but he didn’t want to go out in the wake of a pandemic-damaged campaign, playing games in empty arenas and with a lousy 13-11 team. He wanted one last hurrah with a good team. He was turning 75 in February and thought this was the moment.

Some critics have pointed out that both Dean Smith and Roy Williams, Hall of Fame coaches down the road in Chapel Hill, retired far more suddenly: Smith in October 1997 just before the start of a season and Williams last April.

Smith had always said he would quit when he wasn’t emotionally ready for the start of practice; Williams had just had enough of today’s one-and-done, transfer portal world. He promised Smith he wouldn’t quit before he turned 70, and he carried out that promise, even though he might have been ready to head for the exit a few years earlier.

But Krzyzewski never stopped loving to coach — even in today’s messy climate. When I asked him about the timing shortly after the announcement, he said it strictly had to do with recruiting.

“How could I go into homes in September and answer the question about how long I was going to coach when I already knew the answer?” he said. “I wasn’t going to lie, and when I told the truth, the word would be out about five minutes later. This way, Jon gets a fresh start with no ifs, ands or buts.”

Jon is Jon Scheyer, Duke’s next coach, who played on a national championship team in 2010 and has coached under Krzyzewski for nine years. He’s 34, a few months older than Krzyzewski was when he got the job in 1980.

“Actually, Jon is a lot better prepared to be Duke’s coach than I was,” Krzyzewski said in that same conversation in June. “He’s played and coached in the ACC. I hadn’t done either.”

I pointed out there was one difference: “You didn’t have to succeed you.”

He didn’t argue.

How would you like to have Mike Krzyzewski for a father-in-law?

The first time I met Krzyzewski in December 1976, he was with then-Iona coach Jim Valvano and then-Columbia coach Tom Penders. All were in their 20s. This was at a weekly coaches’ lunch in New York City at Mamma Leone’s, then one of the restaurants in Manhattan. Duke was playing Connecticut in Madison Square Garden the next night — in the preliminary game! Fordham-Rutgers was the feature. Seriously.

Bill Foster was Duke’s coach. Valvano had played for him at Rutgers. So when the lunch was over, Valvano brought over his two coaching friends to meet Foster.

For some reason, Foster mentioned that I did a decent imitation of Smith. When I waved him off, Valvano said, “Come on, just do it. The three of us combined will never win as many games as Dean.”

Smith ended up with 879 victories — the record when he retired. Valvano won 346 games and a national title. Penders won 649. Krzyzewski won 1,202. His career produced all sorts of similarly outlandish numbers, such as 16 seasons of at least 30 wins, 26 Sweet 16s, 17 Elite Eights, 13 Final Fours and five national titles — all coming after the tournament expanded to 64 teams.

But the numbers don’t begin to measure the man. So I will end on a story I have told often.

My father died Feb. 5, 2006. The funeral was two days later. I got home that night, exhausted and drained. Duke was playing at North Carolina and it was — naturally — a 9 p.m. tip-off. I fell sound asleep early in the game and woke up with about two minutes left. Duke won a typical Duke-Carolina battle, holding on in the final seconds.

Too wound up by then to sleep, I sat down at my computer to catch up on emails I hadn’t looked at for two days. About 45 minutes later, the phone rang. I picked up, thinking it was my brother or sister.

A voice said, “I figured you’d still be up.”

It was Krzyzewski. “Hey,” I said. “Nice win tonight.”

“I just wanted you to know,” he said, “that when I stepped into our last huddle, I looked up at the sky and I said, ‘This one’s for you, Martin.’ ”

I had no idea how he knew my father’s name. That’s who Mike Krzyzewski is.