NEW ORLEANS — After the last game of his 47-year career, Mike Krzyzewski walked to the podium in a makeshift media room at the Superdome and spoke after Duke’s 81-77 loss to North Carolina in the Final Four — exactly four weeks after the Tar Heels spoiled his last home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But he wasn’t interested in talking about his legacy or career, which came to an end in New Orleans in a loss to his greatest rival.
“First of all, congratulations to North Carolina, ” Krzyzewski said. “Hubert and his staff and those kids have done a heck of a job and tonight was a battle. It was a game that the winner was going to be joyous and the loser was going to be in agony. And that’s the type of game we expected. We would have liked to have been on the other side of it, but I’m proud of what our guys have done.”
He added: “It’s not about me, especially right now. I’m just concerned about these guys. I mean, [they were] already crying on the court, and I mean, that’s the only thing I can think about.”
In June, Krzyzewski announced that the 2021-22 season would be his last and assistant Jon Scheyer would replace him. With 1,202 wins, 13 ACC championships and five national titles, he is generally viewed as the greatest coach in college basketball history along with John Wooden, the legendary UCLA leader who won 10 national titles during a 12-year stretch.
For Krzyzewski, Saturday marked the end of a 47-year career that included 42 seasons at Duke.
In 1975, Krzyzewski secured his first head coaching job at Army, where he remained for five seasons before he was hired at Duke prior to the 1980-81 campaign. After finishing under .500 in league play in three consecutive seasons at Duke, Krzyzewski was on the hot seat. But he steered the program to the national title game in his sixth season, commencing a reign that would span across generations.
Krzyzewski got his Division I job more than 10 years before the NCAA adopted a three-point line in 1986 and he thrived all the way through the one-and-done era. The Duke team that reached the Final Four this season was the youngest team of Krzyzewski’s tenure.
Duke and North Carolina had never met in the NCAA tournament prior to Saturday’s meeting in the Final Four.
“That’s something that I never thought about and will never think about,” Hubert Davis said when asked about handing Krzyzewski the final loss of his career. “All I’m thinking about is these players. Coach K is unbelievable and that team is the best team, so far, we have played. We just happened to make more plays tonight.”
While he was disappointed in the loss, Krzyzewski said the game — the teams traded leads in the final minutes — had lived up to the hype.
“Those kids for both teams played their hearts out and the crowd was standing most of the game,” he said. “It was a heck of a game so it met up to that [hype]. … I’m proud of my guys. We had our chances in the last couple minutes, but they’re good.”
Krzyzewski repeatedly told reporters that there would be another time and place for him to reflect on his career and legacy, but he wanted to focus on the players who were grappling with their emotions following the loss on Saturday.
“We gave it our all, and it sucks we came up short, but I’m proud of the effort that we put in and the way we went out,” Paolo Banchero said after the game.
Now, college basketball will move forward without Krzyzewski, who has been a beacon for the sport for more than four decades.
On Nov. 28, 1975, he led Army to a 56-29 win over Lehigh in his first game as a collegiate coach.
On Saturday, his Duke team suffered an 81-77 loss to North Carolina in the final game of his career.
“I’ll be fine,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve been blessed to be in the arena. And when you’re in the arena, you’re either going to come out feeling great or you’re going to feel agony, but you always will feel great about being in the arena. And I’m sure that’s the thing, when I look back, that I’ll miss. I won’t be in the arena anymore. But, damn, I was in the arena for a long time. And these kids made my last time in the arena an amazing one.”
Then, Krzyzewski walked down a set of stairs into a waiting area as his wife, Mickie, stepped through the black curtain with family and friends in tow.
And Coach K was gone.