DURHAM — Nolan Smith knew the day would eventually come. No one, after all — not even an institution such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski — can coach forever.
That knowledge still didn’t prepare him for the inevitable reality that hit last Wednesday when the winningest coach in college basketball history revealed his decision to retire after one more season of leading the Blue Devils.
“I never tried to envision it or think it was coming soon,” said Smith, a member of Duke’s 2010 national championship team who now serves as an assistant on Krzyzewski’s staff. “As someone who admires Coach, you never want to think about it. You hoped it would never end. But now that it’s here, it’s surreal.”
Surreal is an accurate description of the gathering held at Cameron Indoor Stadium, on the floor named for the guest of honor, to publicly acknowledge that Coach K was ready to step away from the job he’s held since 1980.
The 74-year-old Hall of Famer entered the stage to the Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch” and began dancing to the song along with family members and guests — including his hand-picked successor-in-waiting, Jon Scheyer — seated in the first few rows.
Although his remarks included plenty of retrospection, it was clear Krzyzewski was more interested in looking ahead to his final season on the bench than backward on all he’s accomplished.
As such, the event was more of a celebration than a wake for everyone involved.
“I was happy. It’s time,” said Chris Carrawell, who like Smith was an ACC Player of the Year for Duke before becoming an assistant coach at his alma mater, when he learned of Krzyzewski’s retirement plan. “Coach has done everything.
“When you think about it, he’s going into his 42nd year. I’m 43. I committed to Duke in the fall of 1985. You don’t think the same coach is going to be here 26 years later, so the opportunity to play for him and now come back and work for him has been an amazing journey. But he’s still the man and will always be the man.”
And for one more season, he’s still the man in charge of the Blue Devils.
That means a lot to the returning members of the team, as well as the incoming freshmen and graduate transfers scheduled to arrive on campus soon for the start of summer school sessions.
“He said when he recruited me that he wanted to coach me for however long that he can,” junior wing Wendell Moore Jr. said. “It’s been a great opportunity to learn from him for going on three years. I really don’t see anyone else I want to learn from.”
Despite the added attention Duke’s coaching transition is expected to attract, including pregame tributes to the coach before every road game, senior forward Joey Baker doesn’t think Krzyzewski’s lame-duck status in 2021-22 will be a distraction.
For either Coach K or the players on his final team.
“He’s a special guy, that’s what has made his career so amazing,” Baker said. “I don’t expect this upcoming year to be anything different. He has a commitment to his players. He wants to coach us and wants one more year with the Crazies, I’m sure. We’re excited that he decided to come back, and we want to do everything we can to make it special.”
While the primary focus of next season will be on improving from last year’s 13-11 record and returning to the NCAA Tournament for one final run at Krzyzewski’s sixth national championship, there will also be an emphasis on preparing Scheyer for the unenviable task of replacing a coach many consider irreplaceable.
“We’ve never seen anything like it in the history of American sports,” ESPN analyst and former Duke star Jay Bilas said in a video posted on social media. “Whether it’s (John) Wooden or Bear Bryant or you name it, this is going to be the toughest act to follow in the history of sports.”
Adding to the degree of difficulty is the fact that the man charged with the task of following in Krzyzewski’s footsteps is just 33 years old without any head coaching experience.
Scheyer has, however, spent the past eight seasons and has been the recruiter responsible for landing the likes of first-round NBA draft picks Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish.
“Jon Scheyer represents, in my opinion and in everyone here’s opinion, best in class relative to the next generation,” outgoing AD Kevin White said. “Simply put, (he’s) an outstanding contemporary leader within college coaching.”
As exciting as the promise of a new generation of leadership might be, those inside the Blue Devils program aren’t in any hurry to push aside the old one. If anything, Krzyzewski’s impending retirement has only heightened the appreciation his former players have for him.
“I’m just looking to soak it all up, to be by his side, continuing to learn as much as I can from him,” said Smith, who will remain on the staff as Scheyer’s assistant. “Just watching how he has always handled everything and how he’s going to handle this year is something I’m going to sit back, watch and enjoy.’