Coach K says goodbye after rough loss to Tar Heels

Mike Krzyzewski was apologietic and disappointed on a night in which he was celebrated

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski stands during the national anthem before the team's game Saturday against UNC in Durham. In his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Coach K's team came up short against the rival Tar Heels. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

DURHAM — On a day devoted to celebrating his accomplishments, the last thing coach Mike Krzyzewski wanted was a party.

“I’m glad this is over,” he said. “Let’s just coach and see what the hell happens in the tournaments.”

In his final home game, Duke suffered a surprising 94-81 upset loss to archrival North Carolina. After the Tar Heels celebrated on the floor named after him, Coach K had to sit through a ceremony in his honor.

His fans had paid Super Bowl prices for the chance to bid him farewell, so Krzyzewski would endure the pomp and circumstance, even though he’d much rather have been breaking down film of the loss and preparing for the ever-shortening road ahead for his final team. He would give his farewell speech to the Cameron Crazies and accept his gifts.

But first, he had something to say.

Just as the introductory hype video was ready to run on the videoboard above the floor, Krzyzewski went to the microphone at center court.

“This isn’t part of the program,” he said, “but let me just say this. I’m sorry about this afternoon.”

The crowd began to cheer supportively, trying to lift their coach’s spirits, but that wasn’t happening on this day.

“No,” he said, waving a hand at the crowd. “No, please, everyone be quiet. Let me say this. It’s unacceptable. Today was unacceptable.”

Krzyzewski, who famously toasted a 40-point season-ending loss to Virginia that could have cost the young coach his job by saying, “Here’s to (bleeping) never forgetting tonight,” was once again ready to fight. “But this season has been very acceptable,” he added. “And this season isn’t over.”

Then, eyes gleaming with rage — not the emotion the ceremony was expected to inspire — Krzyzewski sat and endured the speeches. He accepted the gifts — a bench on the campus named after him, five scholarships for Duke students — and he gave a speech reflecting on his career. But the headline from the day was a celebration spoiled.

All season long, and really for the last four decades, Krzyzewski has talked about focusing on the next game, swearing that he doesn’t reflect on the past or look too far ahead. Saturday, at Cameron, for one game, he took his eyes off the path in front of him, and the Blue Devils paid the price.

With 96 former players in attendance and career retrospectives airing on seemingly every channel, the focus was clearly on the past, and with Duke having wrapped up the ACC regular season title heading into the game, the trap was set.

“The last few days have been really good,” he said, “a celebration of our program. And because I’m stopping coaching, it’s kind of been like a celebration of me. I don’t like that. We’ve basically been living in the penthouse the last few days with room service and everybody saying nice things. We didn’t play hungry.

“I understand how this could happen. Carolina could gave helped us by not being so good. They didn’t. They were that good. X’s and O’s questions are not really relevant today. Any X’s or O’s that we did would not have kept the ship afloat. Our ship was going to sink today, no matter what.”

The game began with Krzyzewski being greeted by his former and current players at center court for a huge group photo. He then got choked up during the national anthem, fighting back tears.

Then it was time to battle in the sport’s biggest rivalry.

“Before the game, you get a little teary-eyed, and you’re like, ‘Whoa! I can’t do that!’” he said. “When I come out for the game, I’m supposed to be in character. Then the game started, and I was crying more about how we were playing.”

It’s a lesson Krzyzewski has preached time and time again over his four decades — teams need to learn how to handle success. It’s a lesson he and this edition of the Blue Devils learned the hardest way possible.

“On Thursday, instead of trying to get past the past, I should have set the tone for the future,” he said of his message to the team. “That’s leadership. If I had to do it over again, I’d have made a different choice.”

Now his team will need to take the lesson into the postseason.

“We’re 0-0,” he said. “We’ll be that twice: now and next Sunday, we’ll be that again. Hopefully, the lessons we learned from 31 games, including especially this last one, will help us in both situations.”