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Mike Krzyzewski Became The GOAT By Being The Ultimate Chameleon

The winningest college basketball coach of all time — and perhaps the only person capable of getting students to willingly downsize from dorm rooms — will have a farewell tour. Duke head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski announced Wednesday that he will retire after the 2021-22 season. Associate head coach Jon Scheyer, a former player who won a national title under Krzyzewski, has been tabbed as the coach-in-waiting.

There are few if any names associated more with a college campus than Krzyzewski is with Duke University. Among active men’s basketball coaches, only Jim Boeheim at Syracuse boasts a longer tenure. No one in the history of college basketball has amassed more wins than Krzyzewski’s 1,170, which he compiled over nearly half a century.1

Since he was named head coach in 1980, Krzyzewski elevated the Duke program into a juggernaut: 20-plus wins in every season from 1996-97 to 2019-20, 12 Final Fours, five national titles. “Mike Krzyzewski’s legacy — never to be repeated again — is truly mind-boggling,” said Duke athletic director Kevin White. “To suggest that Mike has more than earned the ‘GOAT’ mantle within the coaching community, both domestically and globally, is perhaps the greatest understatement of all time.”

Krzyzewski’s background as an officer in the U.S. Army buoyed his stately, buttoned-up sideline demeanor.2 His at-times myopic antics only added to the image of a hard-nosed coach with clearly defined principles and old-school beliefs about the game. But though Coach K’s teams were consistent in their high level of play, their style of play was anything but.


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“Old guys like us, we never change,” Boeheim told USA Today in 2015. “The thing that’s never changed is [Krzyzewski] is very flexible.”

Yes, Krzyzewski’s teams drew lots of charges and were seemingly always about to slap the court. But while legendary head coaches like Indiana’s Bob Knight and, more recently, Gonzaga’s Mark Few established an identifiable on-court persona for their teams, Krzyzewski’s style varied wildly. Unlike his peer and longtime rival Roy Williams in Chapel Hill, who built a legacy on relentless offensive rebounding and a general trepidation around the perimeter, Krzyzewski was willing to experiment and adapt his style to his personnel. 

“As a leader, it’s up to you to adapt to the people you have the privilege of leading,” Krzyzewski said. “Adapting is a word we hear all the time and usually it’s in the context of, ‘Let’s get all the stats up and analyze the numbers. And we are going to adapt to where the market is, where the business is, and where things are going.’ But not many leaders adapt to the people who are going to something with the numbers. Who are they, what are they going through, and do you get their input for ideas? At the end of the day, we lead people, not bottom lines.”

Krzyzewski won a national title with a team that ranked 11th in KenPom’s adjusted tempo and one with a team that ranked 229th. Some of his rosters owned the perimeter, while others governed the paint. He won his most recent national championship — his fifth — behind Jahlil Okafor, a back-to-the-basket big with a team-high usage rate of 27.6 percent. After bringing in one of the most talented recruiting classes of all time in 2018, Krzyzewski looked to the Golden State Warriors for inspiration as he rolled out a 5-out motion offense to open up space for slashers like Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. 

Duke has played a little differently each year

Adjusted tempo and 3-point attempt rate, along with their national ranks, for the Duke men’s college basketball team by season since 1996-97

Season Adjusted tempo Rank 3-pt attempt rate Rank Won title?
2020-21 68.5 152 38.6% 152
2019-20 72.0 34 31.5 301
2018-19 72.1 20 37.3 209
2017-18 69.7 93 36.3 194
2016-17 68.3 175 38.3 129
2015-16 67.7 194 39.9 68
2014-15 65.8 104 33.4 198 🏆
2013-14 64.6 179 39.7 40
2012-13 66.7 75 33.3 162
2011-12 66.4 108 38.6 55
2010-11 68.6 40 35.3 115
2009-10 64.7 229 33.0 154 🏆
2008-09 66.3 127 35.0 115
2007-08 71.5 13 39.1 64
2006-07 64.5 218 29.6 261
2005-06 69.8 29 35.3 117
2004-05 68.3 81 39.8 33
2003-04 67.7 94 33.4 148
2002-03 70.7 40 33.9 121
2001-02 74.5 8 37.6 52
2000-01 74.6 11 41.8 11 🏆
1999-00 72.9 30 34.2 85
1998-99 73.8 34 30.5 163
1997-98 72.3 60 32.2 116
1996-97 69.7 99 36.8 35

Source: KenPom.com

Most of his defenses were elite, pestering opposing ball-handlers behind incessant pressure. But Krzyzewski was willing to cede his preferred man-to-man defense in favor of a predominant zone when he ran out of options, as was the case in 2018.

“I like to play with the best I’ve got,” Krzyzewski said. “I can’t make chicken soup without chicken and ingredients. When you have the ingredients, then make the chicken soup. We have it.”

His ultimate adaptation, however, manifested in the last decade in response to a massive shift within men’s college basketball: players going to school for one year before going pro, thanks to the NBA’s one-and-done rule

Krzyzewski proclaimed in 2005 that he “would never recruit a kid who said, ‘I’m just coming for a year,’” and he continued to bemoan the rule over the years, saying that his program doesn’t embrace it. On Senior Night in 2018, he gushed over Grayson Allen after the Blue Devils toppled the Tar Heels. “I love that kid,” Krzyzewski said. “For the rest of the time I coach here, for however long that is, I’m not going to have a senior like that, because they’re going to be too good, and they’re going to leave.”

Jeff Goodman, who broke the news about Krzyzewski’s upcoming retirement, noted that the transfer portal and name, image and likeness legislation probably hastened his decision. Krzyzewski also often appeared frustrated by the youthfulness of his players; he explained a loss last season by saying, “There’s not an app for experience.” 

But suffice it to say that Krzyzewski’s aversion to one-and-done players is no longer reflected on the recruiting trail. Duke has had a different starting point guard in seven of the previous eight seasons, and the program is now a bona fide basketball factory that has produced eight top-five one-and-done draft picks since 2010

Krzyzewski has played 18 freshmen more than 900 minutes apiece in the past 10 seasons, second only to John Calipari’s 21 at Kentucky in that same span. The departures of Jalen Johnson and DJ Steward after the 2020-21 season made it 23 one-and-done players under Krzyzewski.

The Duke Blue Devils have a brand synonymous with college basketball royalty because of Krzyzewski’s time in Durham. The closest thing to college basketball’s czar, Krzyzewski is and will long be the standard-bearer for the sport. It’s difficult to parse how much credit can be ascribed to a coach for experimentation and adaptability when roster turnover is constant and blue-chip recruits are aplenty. But Krzyzewski, who entered the sport before the 3-point field goal, knew when to tailor his approach to his talent — a route that paid off for him and Duke University.


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Footnotes

  1. Krzyzewski coached five seasons and won 73 games at Army before transitioning to Duke.

  2. Unless, of course, he was throwing his suit jacket in disgust or cursing up a storm.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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