The fireworks were over, the “One Shining Moment” was cut and ready to play, and the confetti on the basketball court at Lucas Oil Stadium was sticking to everyone’s shoes when Mike Krzyzewski finally climbed the ladder at the south end of the court.
This is a moment that’s become familiar to college basketball fans, the fifth time Coach K has cut down the nets after a national title victory. But as the clock was striking midnight in Indianapolis, these nets meant something different.
This was the title that sealed Coach K’s spot as the greatest college basketball coach of all time.
No doubt there are UCLA fans and old-school college basketball types who believe replacing John Wooden’s name with Mike Krzyzewski’s is nothing short of heresy. To these people, no one will ever surpass the Wizard of Westwood. No one can. He won 10 titles over a remarkable 12-season run that was unlike any run seen in college basketball history. He coached four undefeated teams, half the number of the undefeated teams in history. Wooden is Michael Jordan; Wooden is Jack Nicklaus; Wooden is Muhammad Ali.
To those who hang on to the nostalgia that is attached to the sports figures we grew up around, it is impossible to unseat the ones we’ve placed in the Greatest of All Time territory. No matter what, LeBron will never unseat Jordan; Tiger will never unseat Nicklaus; Tyson never could have unseated Ali. Even if they’d won more titles, and even if the context of the titles they’d won should make us all reevaluate our feelings, those people would still hang on to the nostalgia.
And so you must look past the facile “10 is greater than five, therefore Wooden is greater than Krzyzewski” argument.
Coach K has accomplished in an era where it’s far more difficult to win a title than a generation ago. He has five title in 12 Final Fours. He won his fifth, putting him alone in second place, during the season where he became the first coach to win 1,000 games. He has completely shifted his tactics along with the changing times; the last season he started this many freshmen was in 1982-83, and those Blue Devils went 11-17 leading to rumors that Coach K was going to be fired. Now he’s fully adapted to the new one-and-done era, winning a national title with the nation’s top recruiting class, starting three freshmen and having his overlooked fourth freshman, Grayson Allen, become the star of the title game.
When Coach K won his first national championship, the only freshman who received serious playing time was Grant Hill. When Coach K won his fifth national title, 60 of Duke’s 68 points were scored by freshmen, setting a record for most freshmen-combined points in a title game.
And here’s the kicker, the cherry on top that makes Coach K unsurpassed in college basketball history: Over the past decade, Coach K has, alongside Jerry Colangelo, transformed the USA Basketball program into a developmental powerhouse. Plus, he has two Olympic gold medals around his neck; Wooden doesn’t have that.
I asked a slew of Duke players on Monday night whether they thought Coach K was now officially the greatest of all time. All of them said yes. Of course they would say yes; he’s their coach, and they swear by him. But it was how they spoke about him that told a bit about Coach K’s all-time great status.
“This is something we’ve all dreamed of,” senior guard Quinn Cook said. “To be next to coach, he’s been like a father to me. Having his arm around me was probably the best feeling of my life. I’m blessed Coach thought I was good enough to come to Duke.”
“We know he’s the greatest,” freshman Jahlil Okafor said. “We believe anything he says. I remember we were playing North Carolina, we were down seven or nine with two minutes left, and everybody thought the game was over. But he told us we were going to win. And when he tells you that, it really just makes you feel invincible.”
“Coach K helped us flip an emotional switch (when Duke was down nine with 13 minutes left Monday),” senior Marshall Plumlee said. “He helped get our minds right. … From Day 1, everyone showed up and there were no egos in the locker room. Everyone was just consumed with winning.”
In the midst of all the celebrating on Monday, there didn’t seem to be much talking about history among these players. They weren’t speaking about legacy. They were speaking about being able to finally sit back and enjoy the moment.
But this moment was about much more than just one more trophy for one of the most decorated basketball programs of all time. This moment was about crowning a new king of college basketball. That man is Mike Krzyzewski.
Email Reid Forgrave at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.