Coach K Stirs the Passions of the Southern Basketball Faithful

As the legendary Duke coach nears retirement, fans and foes have their say

Photo: Jim Dedmon/Icon Sportswire

Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski in 2016.

Mike Krzyzewski, the men’s basketball coach at Duke University for the past forty-two years, is set to retire after this season. His Blue Devils are a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and the seventy-five-year-old’s coaching career will end with either a loss or his sixth national championship. Krzyzewski’s success in Durham, North Carolina, has earned him both fans and detractors in the South and beyond. Here’s what a few Southern creatives had to say about Coach K’s unparalleled career.

“The story goes like this: Decades ago, Duke planned to tear down Cameron Indoor Stadium and build a large arena like the [University of North Carolina’s] Dean Dome that could hold more boosters and season ticket holders. They would name it after Coach K. The hitch? He refused the honor. Coach K insisted they keep Cameron and the students continue to get the best seats in the building. That behind-the-scenes effort to protect a college basketball institution says everything about Coach K’s vision and integrity.”
Jeff Jackson, author of Destroy All Monsters and Duke alum

“I’ve worshiped in the house of Coach K since the age of ten. I once sat behind the bench and marveled that any human could pack so much swearing into a single sentence. I watched him lose his first championship to Louisville on a big screen on the Duke campus in 1986 and watched him win the title in Minneapolis when I was a senior. Duke without Coach K feels like a Wonderland without Alice or a chocolate factory without Willy Wonka. His sense of humor, heart, and merciless competitive rage will be dearly missed.”
Heather Havrilesky, author of Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage and Duke alum

“All respect due to Coach K and his many accomplishments, but I’m the kind of Kentucky basketball fan that still winces at the thought of Christian Laettner’s heroics/our heartbreak. So I am compelled to forever dislike them both.”
Frank X Walker, poet and writing professor at the University of Kentucky

photo: Michael Berg/Icon Sportswire
Coach K Court at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“His devotion to a stable and decent family, the total lack of scandal, players who appear mostly undamaged and unexploited, extreme wins with enough losses to keep it real, a machine for producing NBA players with enough fan faves who didn’t go pro—Coach K is the ultimate fantasy that high-level sports can have integrity.”
Maya Gurantz, artist, writer, and Duke fan 

“Winning only matters when your opponent is formidable. The more formidable, the better. Coach K has been the most formidable opponent that this lifelong Carolina fan could hope for. His legendary run made our battles legendary. For that, I will always be grateful.”
Tressie McMillan Cottom, writer, sociologist, MacArthur Fellow, and lifelong Tar Heel fan

“The amazing thing about Coach K—besides his incredible coaching skills, of course—is how visible he was on campus. He integrated himself into the fabric of Duke in ways both big and small, and you never got the sense that he was only dropping into Cameron for games. It was always a thrill when you saw him around campus, but it also wasn’t a rare thing. When I was a Duke undergrad, Coach K would have regular lunches with students who signed up to participate. It was a fairly small group each month, and he would answer questions and chat—a really intimate, personal moment of giving back to the “sixth man.”
Lauren Epstein, television executive and Duke alum

“A maxim in fiction writing is that a story is usually only as good as its villain. For the last four decades, Carolina has had the consummate villain in Coach K. He is devious, whining, foul-mouthed, hypocritical, arrogant, egotistical, and yes, a winner—powerful, as a great villain must be. I know many Carolina fans who are celebrating his retirement, but I’m sorry to see him go. UNC’s story can only be diminished by the loss of our incomparable antagonist.”
Adam O’Fallon Price, novelist and creative writing professor at the University of North Carolina

“Duke basketball under Mike Krzyzewski could not be any less Southern—a Polish-American coach from Chicago who won with a melting pot of players in what feels like a New Jersey Catholic high school gym. But Coach K was so good for so long that his career spawned the Cameron Crazies, built Krzyzewskiville, inflamed one of the most hateful rivalries in sports. He turned Duke basketball into SEC football. I think we’ll claim him.”
Tommy Tomlinson, host of the SouthBound podcast and author of The Elephant in the Room