NEW ORLEANS — Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski exited his final post-game press conference and hopped onto the back of a golf cart with his wife Mickie.
Coach K will not take down nets in his final season; There is no perfect ending to his 42-year career, no sixth national title. Instead, Krzyzewski provided a moment of hilarity for members of the media gathered around him in a Superdome tunnel.
“Maybe you can dub a sunset,” Krzyzewski joked just before the golf car drove away and the 75-year-old retired.
Krzyzewski’s behavior changed into two shades on Saturday evening. In one he was grounded and grateful for it Duke’s thrilling Final Four run ended in an 81-77 loss to North Carolina. There were no feelings as he practiced his final college basketball game.
“I’m not thinking about my career right now,” he said.
In another moment, Krzyzewski was comforting his team, hurting them and doing his best to lift their spirits. He comforted the players as the Tar Heels celebrated and was late for the post-game handshake line.
“As a coach, I’m only worried about these guys,” said Krzyzewski. “I mean, they’re already crying on the pitch. And I mean, that’s the only thing to think about. And then when I went into the dressing room, I’ve said my whole career that I wanted my season to end where my team is – I cried either tears of joy or tears of sorrow because you knew then that they gave their all.
“And I had a dressing room full of crying guys. And it’s a beautiful sight. It’s not the sight I would like to see. I would want the other one. But it’s a sight I really respect and makes me understand how good this group was. And that’s what I’m worried about.”
WINNER, LOSER:UNC and first-year coach Hubert Davis in full swing
Krzyzewski’s players were in deep pain when the game was dubbed the “Game of the Century” and “greatest game in college basketball history” as it was the first-ever Final Four meeting between Duke and UNC.
Krzyzewski had two coronation opportunities that were thwarted by North Carolina – first in his last home game on March 5 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, then on Saturday in front of a crowd of 70,602. Among those in attendance 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.
Throughout the week, Krzyzewski tried to divert the spotlight from his final season – to block out the noise and focus on achieving a national championship. After falling short, Coach K focused on putting his players’ emotions first and his own on the back burner. Behind closed doors, Krzyzewski said he had a responsibility to save his players’ deep pain from losing.
“You take care of the people you love,” Krzyzewski said. “And you care about the people who committed to you and believed in you. And they tick every box. So we’re going to help them get over it and then move on because these are all really young people.”
In fact, the youngest Blue Devils team of his career. Krzyzewski made it clear that the Duke fraternity would last for life. Big man Mark Williams missed two late free throws that were costly and Krzyzewski was quick to make a revision.
“I don’t want any of these guys to go and say, ‘I should have taken that one free throw; I should have taken 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” playing for Krzyzewski – the most successful coach in college basketball history. But he said it’s Coach K’s influence that feels most like a lifetime imprint.
“He loves each and every one of us very much,” Moore said. “And we all love him. So all we can do is thank him for everything he has done for us.”
Freshman star Paolo Banchero added: “Just being able to go to war with Coach (Krzyzewski) and the team all season – he’s been so committed to us all year. He never made it. And they’re just proud that we were able to go out and fight, fight every game with Coach.”
Krzyzewski later referred to former President Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech, which states in part: “The credit goes to the man who’s actually in the arena…who knows great enthusiasm, great dedication; who pretends to be a good cause.”
Carriage K didn’t drive into a perfect sunset. But he said his last team helped him end his career exactly the way he wanted.
“I’m fine. I’m blessed to be in the arena,” said Krzyzewski. “And when you’re in the arena, you’re either going to feel great or you’re agonizing, but you’re always going to feel great when you’re in the arena.
“And I’m sure I’ll miss that when I look back. I won’t be in the arena anymore. But damn, I’ve been in the arena for a long time. And those kids made my last time in the arena was amazing.”
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.