Mike Krzyzewski first walked onto the court in advance of a Duke game as the Blue Devils' coach in November 1980. He was 33 years old. More than 99% of sports fans had never heard of him. Even those who had couldn't correctly pronounce his name, much less spell it.
More than four decades later, it's over.
The Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer and widely recognized GOAT of college basketball coaching watched his incredible career come to a close Saturday via an 81-77 loss to No. 8 seed North Carolina in the 2022 Final Four. Just like in 2019, his No. 2 seed Blue Devils were eliminated by a lower-seeded team deep into the bracket. In between that disappointment and this disappointment, they missed the NCAA Tournament in 2021 after there was no NCAA Tournament in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So Krzyzewski's run at Duke -- his marathon of a run at Duke -- did not end the way he wanted or how most expected, especially considering this team, his final team, was a 4.5-point favorite in the Final Four over its biggest rival after starting 7-0 with wins over Gonzaga and Kentucky and spending part of November ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. Back then, with Duke relying heavily on five-star freshmen Paolo Banchero and Trevor Keels, and Duke still trying to get five-star freshman AJ Griffin acclimated after a preseason knee injury, the prevailing thought throughout the sport was that the Blue Devils would be super-scary when all of those amazing young talents naturally improved as the season progressed.
Krzyzewski's sixth national title seemed possible. And when the Blue Devils marched through the West Regional with wins over Cal State Fullerton, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Arkansas, Krzyzewski's sixth national title seemed probable, evidence being that Duke was the betting favorite to win the national title as of Saturday morning. But on Saturday night, the Blue Devils got caught, for a second time in less than a month, by their rivals from eight miles down US-501. It's a loss that will likely bother Krzyzewski forever, if only because having your career ended two wins short of a national title by your forever rival can't be fun.
So now it's over.
Forty-seven years after it started, in 1975 at Army, Krzyzewski's head-coaching career has come to an end. Again, it did not end the way he wanted or how most expected. But, very quickly, and especially over time, the memory of how it concluded will fade and be replaced by an appreciation for how it unfolded. After struggling in his first three seasons at Duke and compiling a 13-29 record in the ACC, Krzyzewski made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1984.
From there, things took off.
The Blue Devils would go on to make 36 NCAA Tournaments in a 38-tournament span from 1984 to 2022. They advanced to 12 Final Fours in four different decades. They won five national championships in three different decades. And that's why Krzyzewski -- who also led USA Basketball to three Olympic Gold Medals in 2008, 2012 and 2016 -- is generally regarded as the best men's college basketball coach of all-time, even above John Wooden and his 10 national championships, because of the way Krzyzewski built Duke into college basketball's biggest brand and then consistently kept the program at the tip-top of the sport for four decades. Great as Wooden was, each of his 10 national titles were won in the same 12-year span and during a time when the sport, in general, wasn't nearly as competitive from coast to coast.
What Krzyzewski accomplished is different and more impressive.
He won 1,202 games in his career.
That's the Division I men's record -- perhaps forever.
He did not exit a champion at the age of 75 even though that seemed possible earlier in this season, but Krzyzewski is walking away as the undeniable king of the sport. Between what he did at Duke and with USA Basketball, he has, quite literally, coached more elite basketball players than any human in the history of the planet. And it should be noted that he never really reached a point where it looked like the game had passed him by even as he continued to work long past the age most are done with this profession.
When his career started, basically nobody knew his name and even fewer people could spell it. All these years later, he's now exiting as one of the few humans recognized by a single letter.
To go from that to this via a four-decade career loaded with accomplishments was unimaginable back then. Now, on his way out, it's hard to imagine anybody ever exceeding what Coach K has done.