DURHAM, NC — Mike Krzyzewski has done his best to contain his emotions throughout the season.
On a historic day that saw Duke stunned by rivals North Carolina in Coach K’s final home game, the 75-year-old coach icon did what he became known over the years: he took responsibility on behalf of his team.
“I’m sorry for this afternoon,” he told an impassioned fan base at the Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday – addressing the Cameron Crazies in particular. “Today was unacceptable. But the season has been very acceptable. The season is not over.”
Then, after keeping all the emotions in check throughout the season, the feelings started pouring out as Coach K shed some light tears.
He received a standing ovation and before the game 96 of his former players gathered to salute him in a pitch-spanning huddle.
“He leaves a legacy of mentorship,” Duke University President Vincent Price said, saluting former players who all built their legacies under Krzyzewski. The university announced a scholarship in his name and an on-campus tribute bench. The court is already called “Coach K Court”.
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Krzyzewski and his family gathered at the start of the celebratory ceremony – a heartfelt moment that had the crowd on their toes. Krzyzewski credited much of his success to his wife, Mickie, when he addressed the crowd on Saturday. The couple have been married for 53 years. He called Mickie and her three daughters “the four most beautiful women with all wisdom”.
“I was able to jump into the deep end with our program,” he told the crowd. “Because my family allowed it. They knew I loved it. And I love them. I’ve never heard my (three) daughters say, ‘you love basketball more than me.’ Because it’s not true. I love my family more than basketball. … but my family loves basketball.”
Then he addressed his second family – 96 of his former players in attendance, including all-time greats Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Elton Brand, Jay Williams and JJ Redick.
Minutes before the denunciation on Saturday, Krzyzewski walked into the Cameron Indoor Stadium to deafening applause, walking through a human tunnel of former players. He made sure to touch every player as he passed, acknowledging their efforts to see him and their sacrifices over the years that helped make him the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history.
“The Brotherhood is not going away,” Krzyzewski said. “We have a great succession plan. Whether you showed up today for me and my family means everything to me. We didn’t play well today. And there were times when neither did you. .”
Coach K said he would try to control his emotion before the end of the game, but showed visible emotion during the national anthem, his last as a coach at Cameron.
“The biggest sports venue in the world,” Krzyzewski told the crowd afterwards. “It’s hard for me to say it’s over. So I’m just going to say the regular season is over.”
Associate head coach Jon Scheyer, Krzyzewski’s retired replacement, said the goal for the season was to harness emotions and turn them into wins. So far, that has been the case for a young Duke team (26-5, 16-4 ACC) that has established itself as a national title contender and potential No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But Scheyer told his own emotions that he’s been handling the job like a “double-edged sword” on a personal level since playing for Coach K and leading Duke to a national title in 2010.
“That’s my coach right there,” Scheyer told USA TODAY. “I know he’s going to be mad at me for saying that, but that’s his final season. For me and the players, when you’re trying to do something to the best of your ability, you naturally have to feel something. We will follow his example, but this season is full of emotions. That emotion is important to fuel this year’s team.”
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.