Coach K Is Back On Top

Fox Sports' Jeff Goodman examines the last year in Durham and what it means going forward.

It was, believe it or not, just a shade shy of one year ago on Nov. 13, 2009 when Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was subjected to the near-torture of having to watch his top recruit, Harrison Barnes, deliver the news via Skype to Duke's archrival down the road in Chapel Hill.

"I want to let you know I'll be joining you guys next year," Barnes informed a downright giddy UNC coach Roy Williams through the social networking video platform.

Just another dagger delivered to Coach K, the latest sending the Duke program further down into the abyss that had become known as Blue Devil mediocrity.

Now, Coach K is literally on top of the basketball world.

It began with the Olympic gold medal in the summer of 2008 and also included another gold this past summer in Turkey at the World Championships.

Sandwiched in between was an improbable national title this past April. On the horizon, quite possibly this April, is taking the mantle from his former college coach, Bob Knight, as the all-time winningest men's Division I coach.

Yes, there is a reason everyone is smiling in Krzyzewski-ville these days.

But there were plenty who pegged the 63-year-old Coach K on the decline, certainly not on the rise.

Myself included.

"People didn't think he could do it in his 60s," said Duke assistant Chris Collins, who also played for Krzyzewski. "He's competitive, and I'm sure he used that as motivation."

"I'm aware of it," Krzyzewski said of the talk he had passed his prime. "But it wasn't really extra motivation. I thought we were one game away from going far a couple of years ago."

But the Blue Devils weren't quite living up to the lofty expectations set in Durham since the mid '80s -- they went to five consecutive Final Fours from 1988-92 and won back-to-back national championships in 1991 and '92.

Duke wasn't just an elite program. It was the elite program.

Duke was winning its share of games, an average of more than 28 per season from 2001-02 to 2008-09. However, Coach K advanced past the Sweet 16 just once in that eight-season span.

There were plenty of excuses. Luol Deng left early, Shaun Livingston and Kris Humphries never showed up, and Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus didn't live up to expectations.

There was the first-round debacle in 2007 to VCU, followed by a second-round departure to West Virginia the next year. Duke made progress in 2009, advancing to the Sweet 16, but it was bittersweet while having to witness rival North Carolina tear through the NCAA tournament en route to a national championship.

Duke was getting crushed, so badly that they even began a campaign of sorts to become more media friendly.

Then came the Barnes announcement.

It was like taking that cheap shot to the head while you're already laying on the canvas.

"If you're coaching long enough, you've been disappointed a number of times," Krzyzewski said. "You can't let that affect you."

However, there were those in Coach K's circle who said it hit him. Hard.

"It's tough, though, when you feel like it's going in your direction," he added of the Barnes recruitment. "It would be a blow to any coach."

This one was especially difficult for Krzyzewski to take, given that Barnes was the No. 1 player in the country and most felt as though he was a lock to play in Durham.

Then, to lose Barnes to that other school down on Tobacco Road.


But Coach K was both rejuvenated and motivated -- largely through the Olympics in which he was able to coach NBA stars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

"It helped me a lot," he admitted. "Immensely. It was a new thing. I learned so much, and when you learn so much, you get better. That's been exciting to me."

It didn't just help Krzyzewski on the court, either. Sure, he learned plenty from working with NBA coaches Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan.

But now he had the ultimate sales pitch.

"He's coached the best players," said Duke-bound Austin Rivers, arguably the best player in the high school ranks. "In the world."

Coach K has made it cool to be a Dukie again, the way is used to be back in the days when Christian Laettner, Jay Williams and Shane Battier roamed Cameron Indoor.

Krzyzewski brought Midnight Madness back a year ago, hasn't placed any Twitter restrictions on his players and even allowed one television network to come in and film an all-access series.

"You have to continue to adapt," Krzyzewski said.

Added Collins: "That's his greatest strength -- with everything he's accomplished, his ability to still consistently adapt to the change in college basketball."

Despite losing two starters and key big man Brian Zoubek from last year's national title team, Duke will be far more intimidating this season with the addition of talented freshman point guard Kyrie Irving and transfer Seth Curry.

"We have enough talent," said senior forward Kyle Singler. "A lot of NBA talent. I don't know if we've ever had that since I've been here."

Duke is the overwhelming choice to cut down the nets again this April -- and the Blue Devils will have a chance next season as well with the addition of Rivers.

Coach K will be 65 years old at the 2012 Final Four with another shot at Olympic gold just months away.

"By the time he retires, he will be known as the greatest basketball coach, at any level, since John Wooden," said Battier, the Houston Rockets forward and ex-Duke standout.

It's hard to argue with Battier.

Coach K may wind up shattering Knight's record of 902 career victories. He'll never catch Wooden's 10 national titles, but one more championship would move him in front of Adolph Rupp into second place by himself with a handful of rings.

"With all the talent he has coming into Duke, Coach K has many more seasons ahead of him," Battier said. "I think the championship mark means more than the all-time wins record."

"It's not a year-to-year thing," Krzyzewski said about his future. "Right now, I'm going to coach for a while. I don't know what a while means, but I'm healthy and I really like our situation right now."

What's not to like? It's completely different than it was last November.

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