Always, Mike Krzyzewski has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect his legacy, considering but ultimately passing on the three most famous coaching seats in basketball: the Lakers, Celtics and UCLA. He is Duke's coach, and he never had to leave to sit in someone else's shadow to validate his greatness.
Now, Krzyzewski is destined for the United States Olympic bench when the job description is no longer caretaker, when the circumstances promise far more to gain in victory than lose defeat. For the USA, the Olympics have always been about the talent on the floor, but come the Beijing Games in 2008, that tournament promises to be as much about the savior on the sidelines.
USA Today has reported the inevitable has been decided, and Coach K will officially be declared the 2008 Olympic coach by late October. Coach K gets the challenge that he's been longed groomed to take over. Rest assured, the job has come a long, long way from Krzyzewski's 1992 summer vacation on Chuck Daly's staff at the Barcelona Games, where Olympic regulations simply required adult supervision for the Dream Team in the Olympic venues.
Yet now, if the United States trades back its 2002 Athens Bronze for gold medal in the Beijing, Krzyzewski will discover that, indeed, he never had to leave Duke to elevate his Hall of Fame standing on the professional level.
For his own best chance for success, Coach K comes to USA Basketball when it finally understands that the Olympic gold medal is no longer its birthright, that the system, the preparation, the roster has to be transformed.
"There is a certain arrogance that still says, 'How can anybody beat us at our own game.' Well, they have," said St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli on Wednesday, who coached the USA's Under-21 team to Argentina at the FIBA World Championships in August. "We have to be more diligent throughout our program, understanding the nuances of international basketball."
The U.S. basketball machine has been trampled upon and embarrassed in the 2002 World Championships and 2004 Athens Games, leaving little choice but for officials to understand that the days of Olympic teams had to end. Now, it needed a program again, a system, and Athens was painful proof that throwing together a summer all-star team is a doomed proposition. Unless Shaq, Kobe, Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd and Kevin Garnett decide they want to play -- and that's probably not happening anymore -- the gold medal will forever be a struggle.
The U.S. needs to prepare its player for the nuances of international play, where passing, shooting and chemistry are at a premium, where what two teams look like a mismatch in lay-up lines can often be a mirage. And if Jerry Colangelo and his committee wanted to turn to campus for its next coach, no one's persona and presence but Krzyzewski's could've commanded the respect of a max salaried-out NBA roster.
"That coach's body would be left at the door," Martelli said. "They would suck the blood out of anybody else. It's completely different with Mike. He has the persona, the credibility, the success, that allows him to be the one."
Unlike Larry Brown's disgraceful disposition in Athens, Krzyzewski will be loyal to the cause, promising a far more selfless and trustworthy leader than Coach Right Way. Brown had barely arrived in Athens before beginning to dispense blame to everyone else for inevitable failure. This way, Brown could try to take credit in victory and declare helplessness in defeat. All he succeeded in doing was angering Commissioner David Stern, the NBA general managers represented on USA Basketball's executive committee and the players whom Brown so hypocritically suggested were ill-fit and selfish.
It didn't help the Gregg Popovich's 2008 candidacy against Krzyzewski to have been sitting with his mentor, Brown, on the Athens bench -- even if the superb Spurs coach would've never behaved that way. Popovich has won three championships with the Spurs to match K's three at Duke, winning with a roster born of international players. What's more, Popovich could've guaranteed Tim Duncan's participation in Beijing -- something the Spurs center swore he doesn't want to do after growing so frustrated with Olympic officiating that constantly found him on the bench in foul trouble.
Nevertheless, the length of the college season itself gives Krzyzewski a far better chance for preparedness and thoroughness in Beijing. At worst, he's going to be done with Duke's season late on the first Monday night in April. The way it goes for championship contenders in the NBA, they can be playing until late June, leaving them little time to recharge and refocus on the Olympic qualifying and Olympic games. It's even been suggested that Krzyzewski is willing to take a one-year leave at Duke prior to the Olympics, an idea that seems plausible what with his trust in longtime assistant Johnny Dawkins.
Krzyzewski, an old West Point cadet, has wanted the job of coaching the United States Olympics team for the longest time. In a lot of ways, he was destined to do it. Dean Smith and Bob Knight and Chuck Daly have been Hall of Famers remembered for winning it all in the Olympics, but given the timing, the circumstances -- the desperation of getting back on top -- Mike Krzyzewski has a chance to be remembered as the United States coach now.
Looking back, Krzyzewski was right. To get the greatest seat in coaching, he never had to leave Duke.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His New York Times best-selling book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, can be purchased at Amazon.com.