Power Play

By Kevin Faris

For the truly objective person there can be no dispute, Coach Mike Kryzieweski, the head basketball coach at Duke University, is a great college basketball coach. He has won three NCAA titles, taken his team to the Final Four 10 times, and is third all-time with 64 NCAA Tournament wins. He turned Duke into a national power, and perhaps even more impressively, has surpassed the second-winningest college team, the North Carolina Tar Heels, as the best team on Tobacco Road. Even the biggest hater in the world has to give him his due. It is this unequivocal acknowledgement of his accomplishments, which caused most people to believe that he would turn down the offer from the Los Angeles Lakers to be their head coach.

As it turns out, it appears most people were correct. Finally putting an end to endless speculation that began on July 1st, Coach K declared Monday that he would stay at Duke. He gave the expected responses, he “loved Duke with all his heart,” and that the speculation about him coaching the Lakers had simply “ballooned” out of control. So, if these comments were expected and he surprised few by staying, why was there constant hand wringing and analysis? Why were Andy Katz and Dick Vitale of ESPN sounding the death knell to college basketball if their patron saint left for the LA? There are two sides to every story, and looking at two key factors, money and legacy, shows why Coach K decided to stay, and why the performance of the media, specifically the sycophants at ESPN, was exactly what he wanted.

Money—If he had taken the job, Coach K would have been the highest-paid coach in pro sports. That means he would have been making more than Larry Brown, Joe Torre, Bill Parcells, and Bill Belichik, all proven winners at the professional level. The offer, rumored to be $40 million over five years, is also a lot more than he was making at Duke. When pundits voiced their opinion why Coach K would take the job, money was the biggest factor. If Duke wants him to stay, what do they do? They have given him a lifetime contract, they have named the basketball court after him, he has an “administrative assistant to the president” position, and he has part of the Business School named after him.

Duke has a new president and the growing emphasis in the ACC has been on football. The last time Coach K seriously talked to a pro team, the Boston Celtics in the early ‘90s, Duke also had a new president. There is nothing like the threat of leaving to bring the new administration around and really show them who is boss. Sure enough, both the president and the athletic director commented on a re-structuring of Coach K’s lifetime contract, perhaps extending the benefit into the afterlife?

By walking away from $40 million , Coach K has provided a talking point commentators like Dick Vitale will hammer home repeatedly during the upcoming season. “Coach K turned down the money, baby! $40 million, baby! He loves Duke and college basketball more than money! He can turn water into wine!” While that last part may be an exaggeration, it is only slight. This also provides Coach K with the opportunity to tell recruits and players contemplating jumps to the NBA that he turned down the NBA and the money to stay at Duke, and they should as well.

Legacy—Coach K’s legacy as a coach is, at this point, as remarkable as can be. Despite leading a program that has had, in no particular order: allegations of giving high-paying jobs to unqualified parents of Duke players, a player who beat his girlfriend, a player accused of rape, a player caught smoking marijuana on campus, a player accosting an NCAA official following a tournament loss, a player jumping off the bench and shoving another team’s head coach, and a player appearing on Internet web sites intoxicated with graffiti and worse strewn across his body. Most people like to say Duke is a pristine program with absolutely no problems. The first negative or critical comment on ESPN against Coach K or Duke will be, why would you want to leave a position where no one questions you? Where you can berate student reporters? Where you can yell and curse at referees, and never be thrown out of a game? Where no one asks why your players consistently fall short of expectations at the next level? Where you can scream, “You f@#*ed us!” at officials after losing to Connecticut this year, but still be considered a great sportsmen who exudes class? Why leave?

The threat of leaving also begat four solid days of people turning Coach K into something bigger than Duke, and bigger than college basketball. “A huge blow to the college game” is how Katz described it, ignoring millions of fans of other schools who really do not care what happens at Duke. By sitting back and allowing the media to worship at his alter, Coach K has established a legacy where Duke fans, college basketball fans, and the sports media are seen as being forever grateful that he graces us with his presence. Somewhere a Dookie is crying, “He loves us, he really loves us!”
There are several reasons why the move to the pros was not going to happen for Coach K, and the money and his own legacy/image are just two of them. College coaches in the pros have not done well lately and failing, like Rick Pitino in Boston or Steve Spurrier in DC, is forever a black mark next to your name. Coach K did nothing but play a power game with Duke and with his adoring public.

Truth is, college basketball would have kept on going with or without Coach K. One person should not be bigger than the school and certainly not bigger than the game. n