To correspond with Jason King's feature on how tough it is to replace a legend, three of our writers gave their take on who will be the toughest icon to replace. Also see Andy Katz's take on Jim Calhoun and Dana O'Neil's take on John Calipari.
In recent years, Duke’s supporters have pondered a future without 65-year-old coach Mike Krzyzewski. Will the Blue Devils insert one of their talented assistants when he departs? Or will the program pursue a young leader, such as Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart?
It’s always possible to find a capable coach when a noteworthy orchestrator exits stage left. It may be near-impossible, however, to replace this legend.
No program will face a tougher task than Duke on the day Coach K decides to retire. Yes, the school appeared in multiple Final Fours prior to Krzyzewski’s arrival in 1980. But the modern fan doesn’t recognize Duke basketball detached from his tenure.
When most programs hire new coaches, the cliché suggests the team has commenced a new chapter in its history. Well, Coach K is his own book. He has won 927 games, more than any coach in the game’s history. He’s won four national championships. And despite college basketball’s metamorphosis during Krzyzewski's 30-plus years with the program, he’s managed to lead the Blue Devils to the Final Four in four decades.
From the short-shorts era to the one-and-done era, he has remained relevant and helped Duke maintain its status as a powerhouse -- and that success has elevated the entire university. You say Duke anywhere in America and non-basketball fans will recognize the name. Duke basketball did that. Coach K did that.
The program's followers have already expressed their gratitude. Fans camp out for season tickets in Krzyzewskiville. The team plays on Coach K Court. The team’s practice facility is named after him, too. Duke could change the squad’s name to honor him and it still wouldn’t reflect his contributions to a program that’s matched North Carolina stride-for-stride in the two schools’ longstanding rivalry during his tutelage.
Selecting successors for the game’s remaining Goliaths (Boeheim, Calhoun, Calipari, Williams) will prove difficult. But Duke’s plight seems more challenging than the rest. Krzyzewski has transformed his program with such a precise touch that any other hand will seem foreign, at least for a time, even if it’s one of Duke’s own.
The future without Coach K is a pending reality. He's still coaching with plenty of vigor, but at some point he’ll walk away. But no coach will truly replace him. He has meant too much to that program, one whose identity is directly linked to the coach who constructed it.