NEW ORLEANS — Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski walked out of his final postgame press conference and jumped into the back of a golf cart with his wife, Mickie.
Coach K won’t cut the nets in his final season; there is no perfect end to his 42-year career, no sixth national title. Instead, Krzyzewski offered a moment of levity to members of the media gathered around him in a tunnel in the Superdome.
“Maybe you can superimpose a sunset,” Krzyzewski joked just before the golf cart pulled away as the 75-year-old retired.
Krzyzewski’s behavior turned into two shades on Saturday night. In one, he was grounded and grateful for Duke’s thrilling Final Four run that ended in an 81-77 loss to North Carolina. There was no outpouring of feelings about practice for his final college basketball game.
“I’m not thinking about my career right now,” he said.
At another point, Krzyzewski was consoling his team, suffering with them, and doing his best to lift their spirits. He was comforting the players as the Tar Heels celebrated and was late to the postgame handshake line.
“As a coach, I’m just concerned about these guys,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean, they’re already crying on the pitch. And I mean that’s the only thing you can think of. And then walking into the dressing room, I’ve said my whole career that I want my seasons end where my team was either crying tears of joy or tears of grief because then you knew they had given it their all.
“And I had a locker room full of guys crying. And it’s a beautiful show. It’s not the show I would want. I would want the other one. But it’s a show that I really respect and that makes me realize how good this band was. And that’s what worries me.”
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The pain has been deep for Krzyzewski’s players, with the game being called the “game of the century” and the “greatest game in college basketball history” as the first-ever meeting in a Final Four between Duke and A C.
Krzyzewski had two crowning chances thwarted by North Carolina — first in their final home game March 5 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, then on Saturday in front of a crowd of 70,602. Among those in the crowd were former players, including two beloved ones, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley, who helped pilot Krzyzewski win his first two national titles in 1991 and 1992. the bleachers, Hurley repeated “damn” several times.
Throughout the week, Krzyzewski tried to take the spotlight away from his final season – to block out the noise and focus on securing a national championship. After failing, Coach K’s focus shifted to putting his players’ emotions first and his own on the back burner. Behind closed doors, Krzyzewski said he had a responsibility to contain his players’ deep pain over the loss.
“You take care of the people you love,” Krzyzewski said. “And you take care of people who have committed to you and believed in you. And they tick every box. So we’re going to help them get through that and then move on, because they’re all very young guys .”
The youngest Blue Devils team of his career, in fact. Krzyzewski made it clear that the brotherhood of dukes would be lifelong. Big man Mark Williams missed a pair of late free throws that cost dearly, and Krzyzewski was quick to reframe.
“I don’t want one of these guys to go away and say, ‘I should have made that free throw; I should have done that one,'” he said. “We win and we lose together.”
Players said they felt his love. Wendell Moore Jr. said it was a “dream” to play for Krzyzewski – the winningest coach in college basketball history. But he said it was Coach K’s influence that most resembled a lifelong imprint.
“He loves us all deeply,” Moore said. “And we all love him. So we can only thank him for everything he’s done for us.”
First-year star Paolo Banchero added: “Just being able to go to war with the coach (Krzyzewski) and the team all season – he’s been so committed to us all year. I’ve never talked about him. And you’re just proud that we got to go out and fight, fight with Coach every game.”
Krzyzewski later referenced former President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech, which states, in part, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena. … who knows great enthusiasms, great devotions; who spends himself in a noble cause.”
Coach K didn’t leave in a perfect sunset. But he said his last team helped him finish his career exactly the way he wanted.
“It’s going to be okay. I was lucky to be in the arena,” Krzyzewski said. “And when you’re in the arena, you’re either going to feel good or you’re going to feel the agony, but you’re still going to feel good 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 those kids made my last time in the arena was amazing.”
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.