Mickie Krzyzewski sits next to her husband, Mike, alongside a hundred or so other coaches and wives who are gathered in the Holy Family Catholic Church in Winston-Salem, N.C. They are here on this steamy July day to lay Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser to rest. Mickie looks down at her watch. It's 5:15 p.m. I don't want the next 45 minutes to pass, she thinks. At 6, the funeral will begin, and the heart attack that took their 56-year-old friend will be real.
She holds her husband's hand. Like Prosser, he spent the past few weeks crisscrossing the country to see the next generation of basketball stars, and to make sure they saw him too. Just yesterday, he took a private jet to a tournament in Orlando, then to another in Memphis, before flying home that same night. Mike is four years older than Skip was.
A few minutes before 6, the casket is pushed down the aisle of the church, which is now filled with more than 1,000 mourners. Nancy Prosser walks behind it with her sons, Scott and Mark. Prosser's coaches are next, followed by the current team of Demon Deacons, in blazers and matching school ties, all holding hands. Behind them march a group of former players, heads bowed.
The service begins. Mickie cannot take her eyes off Nancy. She has to know it's real now, Mickie thinks. And the worst is yet to come. Nancy will go home and see Skip's clothes in the closet, his papers on the desk. His smell will still fill their room.
Mickie looks at her husband's face, then at the faces of the other coaches. Each one, she knows, is considering the same reality: That could be me.
Mike is about to enter the 39th year of his coaching life, and it's getting no easier, even with all his achievements. Or maybe because of them. He has told Mickie that any upcoming season could be his last at Duke. They've talked about reevaluating the future after his Olympic coaching commitment is fulfilled. But that's not what she is considering as the priest begins to speak.
What if I had to go home tonight, Mickie Krzyzewski asks herself, and Mike was gone?
How do you know when it's time to leave?
Maybe your body tells you. After two hip replacements, Mike Krzyzewski can't jog anymore. He knows what can happen when you push physical limits. In 1995, after first lying to doctors about the extent of his back pain, he broke down and had to take a half-season leave of absence to recover. Still, he lifts weights and pedals dozens of miles on an exercise bike each day. Of course, Prosser had been jogging just before he was stricken and seemed generally in good health. If health is a sign, it's a tough one to read.
Maybe your schedule tells you. Krzyzewski will be 61 before season's end. Like most ultrasuccessful men his age, he is spread very thin. He's a grandfather of five who runs what amounts to a sprawling family business: Debbie, his eldest of three daughters, is Duke's head of basketball external affairs, and his second, Lindy, has a master's in psychology and an office next door to Cameron, where she counsels his players. Jamie, the youngest, writes for Coach K's show on XM radio and co-authored his most recent book. Jamie's husband, a former point guard for Army like her father, is Duke's newest graduate assistant.
Krzyzewski is in great demand as a speaker (earning as much as $100,000 per speech), and he gives regular motivational talks at Morgan Stanley and General Motors; both are run by Duke grads. He has endorsement deals with Nike, American Express and State Farm, and he runs summer basketball camps for some 2,000 kids and a fantasy camp for around 80 adults. He oversees two leadership programs, one at Duke and another at West Point, and raises millions for Duke Medical Center, for the new Emily Krzyzewski Family Life Center (named for his mom), which serves Durham's poor, and for his basketball team's new practice facility.
Mickie asked her husband to walk away from one of his many other responsibilities when he signed on with Team USA in 2005. He didn't. More recently, she asked him to cancel the next fantasy camp, set to take place just before the Beijing Olympics. At last check the sixth annual K Academy is still on for June 2008.
Or maybe the game tells you. Krzyzewski prides himself on his ability to adjust. When his star point guard Bobby Hurley went down with a broken foot in 1992, K let forward Grant Hill run the offense for five games, helping Duke roll to the second of its three national titles. Ten years later, after Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer left as juniors, he took a team with six freshmen to a fifth ACC tourney title in a row and a sixth consecutive Sweet 16.
But can he adjust to a game that no longer plays to his strengths? Young players are no longer willing to wait their turn, blunting K's ability to stockpile talent. And no one, not former players, not his wife, not even the man himself, will say he became the best at what he does by outsmarting opponents on the court. He succeeded by convincing his players to put the team—his team—above all else.
That works only if the players have the same goals as the coach. And today, too many see college as the minor league it's long been, useful as a stage to sharpen skills for the teams that pay. It's not that kids aren't hearing what K has to say. They just don't think his message is as relevant.
Some who know him well say that Krzyzewski understands the game has changed and that he sees himself trapped in his own catch-22: If he recruits players he knows will be one-and-done, he risks tarnishing his well-polished image and raising the ire of his critics at Duke. But pass them up and he can forget about what used to seem like annual trips to the Final Four.
And that's why they say he's changed too, that increasingly he is a team player only as long as it's his team and his players. This was never more the case than in March 2006, when a party gone bad brought Duke to its knees. Everyone on campus felt compelled to take a side in the lacrosse scandal, and all waited for the school's most recognizable figure to take a stand.
No one got what they wanted. Krzyzewski says he was put in a no-win situation, that anything he said would have fueled the fires. But by staying silent he lost some credibility, and maybe some of his soul.
Used to be that the big worry around Duke was, would Coach K leave? Now even he has to be wondering if he's stayed too long.
Video of J.J. Redick hitting one perfect jumper after another flickers across a projection screen, accompanied by Bryan Adams, singing "Everything I Do, I Do It for You." The image morphs into Redick embracing his college coach and saluting fans after his final game. When the lights come up, Krzyzewski walks onto the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium. "J.J.," Krzyzewski says, "is a great example of what a Duke basketball player should be."
Krzyzewski stands in front of the 80 or so middle-aged men who've paid $10,000 apiece to spend the five July days at the K Academy. To his right sit Redick and a handful of the 25 former Duke players who will coach and hang out at the fantasy camp. "The best journey is the one a coach takes with a player," K continues as he introduces Redick, the day's guest speaker. "And with J.J. it was an incredible journey. My big regret was not being able to put enough talent around him."
Redick takes it from there. "It took a while to understand the level of work needed to be great," he says, glancing at his coach. His coach picks up the cue: "Being great means being lonely." And it is well-known that K uses isolation, his and his players', to forge an us-against-the-rest mentality. "You are constantly being watched and envied," he says.
When Redick is done, Krzyzewski hugs him, then tells the campers he has something special planned. One at a time, he calls up the 11 men who've played in each of the previous four camps. He presents each with a Duke jersey in a large glass frame and shakes their hands. Then he turns their attention to the far side of the arena, and a black curtain falls to reveal the 11 "retired" jerseys hanging from the Cameron rafters. "You are part of our family," he says. "But," he adds, a sly smile showing through, "we'll take the jerseys down at the end of camp, before this year's players see them."
The crowd is rapt. His players have always been his top salesmen, which both pleases and amuses them, given the mixture of respect, love and loathing many feel for their old coach. At a charity roast a few years back, ESPN analyst and former Dukie Jay Bilas told the audience of Blue Devils players, coaches and supporters, "Coach has a new book out: The 10 Greatest Men in History—and What I Think of the Other Nine." The line drew laughs and applause. Krzyzewski's intense belief in himself—and his ability to transfer that belief to his players—is legendary.
But that quality has a side those players would rather not see. Many will say—always off the record—that they can agree with K on nine out of 10 things, but all their coach will remember is the one disagreement. Like one of his heroes, George W. Bush, Krzyzewski sees the world in absolutes: You're with him or against him. That unites his players on the court, but it confounds them much of the rest of the time.
The camp is a rare chance for Krzyzewski to slow down, drink some wine and play cards with former players who appreciate the chance to relive college days and the opportunity to network with scores of successful businessmen. K enjoys it too. It's not always so comfortable for him on campus anymore. For all the talk of his power—one of his offices (with a personal thumbprint-scan entry) is the highest point on campus after the chapel, and the perception is that he got Joe Alleva his athletic director job—Krzyzewski says he still has to battle and beg for everything he gets. "People don't believe that," he says, "but it's true."
This fall the battle for athletic department resources is particularly intense, with heightened interest focused on a football program that has become a national joke. (The team's last winning season was in 1994.) Last winter, 200 former football players gathered on campus for the first-ever Duke Football Summit to discuss ways to improve the program. The event, publicly supported by K, was convened after members of a group called Concerned Duke Footballers lobbied for a meeting with the administration over their university's lack of support for their game.
It's easy to argue that K deserves all his team receives. Many continue to treasure him for building a program that's attracted big money from donors and boosted applications from top high school students eager to bask in the glow they grew up watching on TV. But deservedly or not, some resent K's lifetime deal that last year paid him $1.26 million and the millions more he makes promoting himself and his team. And he was shaken two springs ago when at the height of the lacrosse scandal 47 professors (including several department heads) petitioned president Richard Brodhead to de-emphasize D1 athletics.
To this day, Krzyzewski still can't understand why so many on campus spoke against the lacrosse players. "The three boys were the real heroes," he says. "I think those professors should apologize."
At the same time, he is plagued by the memory of his silence. The question never goes away: Why, with the whole nation watching, did the school's most famous person say nothing in support of the athletes or the lacrosse coach, Mike Pressler, a friend? Or in support of his school and his president? The administration asked him to write an editorial to defend the community in which he'd raised his family, the one being portrayed in the media as rife with elitism and racism. He declined.
Instead, K's first public comments came three months after the incident became national news. It was a mild statement of support for the players, whom he now says he believed to be innocent from the start. "A lot of people told me not to speak out—it wasn't my place," he says. "I knew anything I said was going to make the situation worse."
Maybe that's true. Maybe his words would have been twisted the way others' were at the time. Maybe, as Mickie thought, the school was looking for a frontman for the cameras. But he's forged a reputation as someone to depend on—"I'm not a basketball coach, I'm a leader who happens to coach basketball," he said in a ubiquitous American Express ad a couple of years ago—and when his community expected him to take charge, he didn't. And everyone noticed.
"I've never been a fan of nondecisions," says Tom Butters, the former Duke athletic director, who hired Krzyzewski, then a little-known coach at Army, in 1980. "If you can't support these boys, who can you support? There are times when you have to put your ass on the line."
Butters retired a legend in 1998 after 30 years at Duke. It's been said on campus these past 20 months that the lacrosse scandal would never have happened had he still been in charge. He was tough but fair. Many loved him, some detested him, but everyone always knew where he stood. "Did I anticipate Mike would step forward?" he says. "Yes, because he has stepped forward so many times on so many issues, and because of the gravity of the situation. I am in no way critical of the way he responded, but I was surprised.
"He is so powerful, and he is not one to be shy about his views. I would have thought he would anguish in his silence."
A FEW hundred graduate students are hanging out in tents in a campus parking lot, waiting for the basketball season's annual ticket lottery to begin. They're also waiting for Krzyzewski to pay his annual late-night visit with his wife.
It's been a good few months for K. In September, Team USA won the Olympic qualifiers in Las Vegas to earn a ticket to Beijing. A year earlier, it had been an open secret that Krzyzewski didn't connect with LeBron James or the other younger players who follow James' lead. This time, he had Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant and home-court advantage against inferior talent. It all went so well the squad drew comparisons to the original Dream Team.
But the students in the tents don't care about the Olympic team. They care only that Duke isn't considered a contender for the national title this season, after losing eight of its final 12 games last season and finishing 22–11. And Krzyzewski is painfully aware that although only 1,200 of the arena's 9,314 seats are reserved for Cameron Crazies, rows in the student section went empty for more than half of last season's home games. So tonight he breaks tradition, bringing all his players to the lot to help him sell the team.
"I know last season was disappointing," he tells the students, "and I will tell you I didn't do a good job." Team USA is not the distraction some have decided it is, he argues, insisting instead that the summer experience has him in midseason form and ready to push the Blue Devils. "This season," he says, "we're going back to being Duke."
Krzyzewski is upbeat again two weeks later when he meets the media at the formal start of practice. That changes the next day after news arrives that Greg Monroe, the nation's No. 1 prep big man and K's top target, has committed to Georgetown after watching Midnight Madness (a practice the Blue Devils avoid). Last spring, Krzyzewski lost out on Patrick Patterson, a big man who could have raised this season's team into the preseason Top 5, just as he missed the year before on Brandan Wright, who took UNC to the Elite Eight before turning pro.
So K won't have a top inside presence this season or next. Instead, his team will be small but good, and better if freshman Kyle Singler blossoms into Duke's next big star, as K expects he will. But it's hard to see how these Blue Devils return to the Finals. And if that's the case, how long will Singler stay once the pros come calling? And if they don't call, how good could he be, anyway? As one person close to the program says, "Only our failures stay."
Maybe it's unfair to define success only as collecting players who regularly take you to the Final Four. But that makes it no easier to forget that back when the team got there seven times in nine seasons, its fans referred to the Final Four as the Duke Invitational. That is where Coach K set the bar. When he thinks about the future, he has to consider whether Duke can ever reach that bar again.
He's not the only one. "Duke Basketball died peacefully in his sleep," wrote a school newspaper columnist in response to Monroe's decision. "Duke Basketball is survived by his 13 children, his father Mike Krzyzewski and 6,000 angry fans, most notable of which includes the Class of 2008. It will become only the second class since 1985 to never witness a Final Four appearance.
"An ongoing memorial service," it concludes, "will be held from November until March."
Unrealized expectations. A divided campus. Empty seats in Cameron.
What if that's now just life at Duke?