Coach K’s gift to his players after Duke’s Final Four loss: Easing their pain

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NEW ORLEANS — Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski walked out of his final postgame news conference and hopped onto the back of a golf cart with his wife, Mickie. 

Coach K won’t be cutting down nets in his last season; there is no perfect ending for his 42-year career, no sixth national title. Instead, Krzyzewski provided a moment of levity for media members gathered around him in a Superdome tunnel.

“Maybe you can super-impose a sunset,” Krzyzewski quipped right before the golf cart drove away, the 75-year-old riding off into retirement. 

Krzyzewski’s demeanor shifted into two shades Saturday night. In one, he was grounded and grateful for Duke’s thrilling Final Four run that ended in an 81-77 loss to North Carolina. There was no outpouring of feelings about coaching his final college basketball game.

“I’m not thinking about my career right now,” he said. 

In another moment, Krzyzewski was consoling his team, hurting with them and doing his best to lift their spirits. He was comforting players as the Tar Heels celebrated and was late to the postgame handshake line. 

“As a coach, I’m just concerned about these guys,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean, they’re already crying on the court. And I mean that’s the only thing you can think about. And then going into the locker room, I’ve said my entire career that I wanted my seasons to end where my team was either crying tears of joy or tears of sorrow because then you knew that they gave everything.

“And I had a locker room filled with guys who were crying. And it’s a beautiful sight. It’s not the sight that I would want. I’d want the other. But it’s a sight that I really respect and makes me understand just how good this group was. And that’s what I’m concerned about.”

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The pain cut deep for Krzyzewski’s players, with the game being tabbed as the “game of the century” and “biggest game in college basketball history” as the first-ever meeting in a Final Four between Duke and UNC. 

Krzyzewski had two coronation opportunities thwarted by North Carolina – first at his final home game March 5 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, then Saturday before a crowd of 70,602. Among those in the crowd were former players, including two beloved ones, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley, who helped pilot Krzyzewski to his first two national titles in 1991 and 1992. Looking despondent in the stands, Hurley repeatedly mouthed, “damn.”  

Throughout the week, Krzyzewski tried to deflect the spotlight away from his final season – to block the noise and focus on reaching a national championship. After falling short, Coach K’s focus shifted to putting his players’ emotions first and his own on the backburner. Behind closed doors, Krzyzewski said he had a responsibility in holding his players’ deep pain from the loss. 

“You take care of the people you love,” Krzyzewski said. “And you take care of the people who have been committed to you and have believed in you. And they check every box. So we’re going to help them get past this and then move on because these are all really young guys.”

The youngest Blue Devils team in his career, in fact. Krzyzewski made it clear that the Duke brotherhood would be lifelong. Big man Mark Williams missed a pair of late free throws that were costly, and Krzyzewski was quick to reframe. 

“I don’t want any of these guys to leave and say, ‘I should have made that one free throw; I should have made that one,’ ” he said. “We win and we lose together.”

The players said they felt his love. Wendell Moore Jr. said it was a “dream” to play for Krzyzewski – the winningest coach in college basketball history. But he said it was Coach K’s influence that felt most like a lifelong imprint. 

“He loves each and every one of us dearly,” Moore said. “And we all love him. So we can do nothing but thank him for everything he’s done for us.”

Freshman star Paolo Banchero added: “Just being able to go to war with Coach (Krzyzewski) and the team for the whole season – he was so committed to us all year. Never made it about him. And you’re just proud that we were able to go out and fight, be in a fight with Coach every game.” 

Krzyzewski later referenced “The Man in the Arena” speech by former President Theodore Roosevelt, which states, in part: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena. … who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause.”

Coach K didn’t ride off into a perfect sunset. But he said his last team helped him finish his career exactly how he wanted. 

“I’ll be fine. I’ve been blessed to be in the arena,” Krzyzewski said. “And when you’re in the arena, you’re either going to come out feeling great or you’re going to feel agony, but you always will feel great about being in the arena.

“And I’m sure that that’s the thing when I’ll look back that I’ll miss. I won’t be in the arena anymore. But damn, I was in the arena for a long time. And these kids made my last time in the arena an amazing one.”

Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson

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