Coach K's knee surgery is a reminder the golden age of coaching is nearing its end
Enjoy guys like Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo while you can
News that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski will , and that his extraordinarily talented Blue Devils team is cancelling its trip to the Dominican Republic, was certainly jarring but not exactly a bombshell.
This isn't open-heart surgery; it's a knee replacement. This isn't even close to life-threatening; it's surgery meant to help maintain an active lifestyle. And the trip to the Dominican -- while a trip the players surely looked forward to, and a time where this national title-contending young team could work out early kinks -- well, whatever. Cancelling a few exhibition games and some beach time in August certainly is different than Coach K missing a few weeks for surgery in the middle of a season, as he did last season.
But look a little deeper into this news and you'll see a moment that could mark a turning point in our current golden era in college basketball coaching.
Because for the 70-year-old Coach K -- and the rest of us college basketball fans -- this is one more reminder that the end could be closer than we could ever imagine.
"It wasn't sustainable for me for a long period of time to go forward with my knee," Krzyzewski said in a video released by Duke on Thursday. "I could kind of muck it out for the Dominican trip, but for the whole season it would not be appropriate to do this."
He put a good spin on it. He said he was looking forward to surgery. He said he would be 100 percent and ready to coach this team by the first practice Sept. 30. And he said in a statement this is a "positive development for both our team and myself because it will allow us to be at full strength for the start of practice in the fall."
All of this might be true.
But it's also another reminder that the all-time greats who man college sidelines across America -- 70-year-old Coach K and 67-year-old Roy Williams, 72-year-old Jim Boeheim and 63-year-old Bob Huggins, 64-year-old Rick Pitino and 62-year-old Tom Izzo, even the comparatively youthful 58-year-old John Calipari and 54-year-old Bill Self -- ain't getting any younger. We might look up a few years from now and wonder where all the great coaches went: Some might retire, others might be off to the NBA.
So appreciate them while you can.
In Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, one character asks another how he went bankrupt. "Two ways," the character, Mike Campbell, replies. "Gradually and then suddenly." That's the way it will be when Coach K steps down from his throne. There have been signs of his coming retirement for years. There was the announcement in 2015 that the Rio Olympics would be his final Games coaching Team USA. There was the age going upward. And there were the surgeries: Six over the past 16 months, none close to life-threatening but each a reminder that youth doesn't last forever.
Ask those close to him -- former players, assistant coaches and staff -- and they'll tell you they believe Krzyzewski will man the sidelines for Duke as long as he is physically able. The man lives and breathes basketball. Watch him in action -- whether it's working a ref at a raucous Cameron or studying a batch of recruits for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, as he was doing in Las Vegas a couple weeks back -- and you'll swear the man is ageless. His never-ending energy conveys a man who will coach forever, or certainly at least until he's 80. For God's sake, I challenge you to find one gray Coach K hair.
But someday, and sooner instead of later, the gradual ending to the greatest basketball coaching career -- yes, over even John Wooden -- will be given a sudden finality.
When Krzyzewski does someday announce he's retiring from the job he has held since 1980, the news will be accompanied by a flurry of speculation about what's next. How will Duke survive the departure of the man who shaped the program into one of the capitals of basketball? How can a new coach ever work in Coach K's enormous shadow? And who will that new coach be? Will Duke keep it in the family by hiring a Krzyzewski disciple -- perhaps Duke assistant Jeff Capel, or Northwestern coach Chris Collins, or Harvard coach Tommy Amaker -- or will it go outside the family with a big-name, like a Billy Donovan or Sean Miller?
It will be easy for all that speculation to distract us from what Krzyzewski retirement really will mean. His career has been so remarkable because he has succeeded in three different eras in the sport: The massive growth of college basketball as a nationally televised sport in the 1980s, the age of four-year collegiate stars in the 1990s and today's one-and-done era Coach K was slow to buy into but does so now with gusto. When he does retire, legacy stories will be written about an end of an era at Duke.
But it'll be much more than that.
When Coach K does hang it up for good, it will mark a turning of the page for a golden era in coaching, one we might never see again.
So appreciate Krzyzewski while you can. Same for the other legendary college coaches we have the privilege of watching coach a meaningless nonconference game in November or a hype-filled Monday night game in April. It might seem like they'll be around forever. But then all of a sudden they will be gone.
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