This time, Krzyzewski is wiser about his surgery, return

Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski, right, and assistant coach Jeff Capel watch as the team warms up before against Georgia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 4, 2017. This was Coach K's latest game for a while as he is slated to undergo surgery soon. Capel will fill in for him while he is out.
Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski, right, and assistant coach Jeff Capel watch as the team warms up before against Georgia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 4, 2017. This was Coach K's latest game for a while as he is slated to undergo surgery soon. Capel will fill in for him while he is out. cseward@newsobserver.com

The original episode, played out 22 years ago, riveted us with its tale of a driven ex-Army officer recently risen to stardom, only to be suddenly felled by a debilitating physical and emotional crisis. In the process Mike Krzyzewski was forced to forsake his job and retreat into seclusion, to learn that even unbending will power has limits, and to loosen his hold on the empire he’d built before he could get it back.

“It was a nightmare, it was horrible, horrible,” his wife, Mickie Krzyzewski, said recently of navigating those turbulent days. “Getting well for him was worse than getting sick.” But within months the Duke coach did regain his stride, reorder his staff, his office, his off-court priorities. “He came back with a vengeance,” said Mickie Krzyzewski.

Since then a recalibrated Mike Krzyzewski has directed every one of his Duke teams to the NCAA tournament. Along the way he achieved three more NCAA titles, three Olympic gold medals, more wins than any man in major-college basketball history and status as the most respected coach in the college game.

Now comes the sequel.

In the first go-round, Krzyzewski had back surgery prior to the basketball season. Then he rushed his return to work, was beset by pain and exhaustion and required convincing by his doctors and spouse to step away from the stresses of coaching. Without him the Blue Devils plummeted to the ACC cellar. So low did Duke fall, Clemson and N.C. State were victorious at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where they haven’t won since.

This time, although Krzyzewski spent a month trying to power through the pain in his back, he soon recognized he could not endure without medical intervention.

“You try to beat it, and you can’t beat it,” the coach said of the pain. Then he followed with words impossible to imagine coming from the fierce competitor’s lips in any other circumstance, words that somehow eluded the school’s distributed rendering of his comments. “I give up,” Krzyzewski said improbably, adding quickly. “I do know how to beat it. You have to get surgery. ... I won’t be in a hurry to come back until I’m ready because I made that mistake in my younger days.”

He spoke in the satisfying aftermath of a 110-57 win last week over Georgia Tech, the largest margin of victory in any ACC contest since 1964. Prior to the game, Krzyzewski had announced he would step aside to undergo corrective surgery to his lower back.

Learning from experience

Krzyzewski’s 1995 leave-taking had been more collapse than calibrated choice, accompanied by offers of resignation from his position as head coach at Duke, and worse. This time a plan was put in place, with an expectation his absence would last about four weeks, or until a three-game homestand that includes the first contest of the year against North Carolina on Feb. 9.

When asked about staying involved with the team during his recuperation, experience chastened Krzyzewski’s reply. Shortly after his projected return he’ll turn 70, old enough to know better than to make assumptions about the future. “That’s what I did in the past – I already had it figured out, something I didn’t know,” he said. “That was really not very smart. So let it happen, see what (the doctors) say, and then take my time.”

Abstract wisdom is apt to yield to impatience, to a desire to rejoin a squad so rich in promise it was picked No. 1 in preseason polls. Before Krzyzewski left he employed the eight-man rotation he’d envisioned before player injuries sorely limited the Blue Devils, and prior to star wing Grayson Allen gaining minor outlaw status and a brief suspension for again kicking an opponent. Duke’s optimal lineup overwhelmed rebuilding Georgia Tech just four days after the Yellow Jackets defeated the Tar Heels at Atlanta to open the season.

Krzyzewski left the squad in the hands of a corps of assistants who played for him and understand how he wants things run. His bench staff has been filled with program alums since 1998, an arrangement mirrored at Syracuse by fellow Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim, at 72 the only ACC coach older than Krzyzewski.

Boeheim has a designated successor on the bench in Mike Hopkins, scheduled to take over following the 2018 season. That “coach-in-waiting” concept achieved brief popularity earlier in the decade, mostly in football, but has faded since.

Instead we’re left with old-fashioned speculation. Guessing the identity of Krzyzewski’s preferred successor has become a sporadic pastime in press rooms and among fans and coaches, although it’s clear now, if it hadn’t been for several years, that Jeff Capel III is his man.

Planning to return

Capel, a sophomore on that ill-fated ’95 Duke squad, did well as head coach at Virginia Commonwealth and at Oklahoma for the first three of his five years. Back at Duke since May 2011, he’s drawn uncharacteristically effusive praise from Krzyzewski and job offers from several schools. Capel deftly deflects talk of eventually replacing his boss, his politic replies appropriate coming from the son-in-law of Dan Blue, the Raleigh Democrat who’s minority leader in the N.C. Senate. Still, wielding the gavel in Coach K’s absence is as good an audition as anyone could desire.

As for Krzyzewski’s future, that too is a source of ongoing speculation. Any surgery has risks, but he explicitly stated his intention to return as Duke’s coach. What follows is anybody’s guess. With one-third of ACC men’s coaches past customary retirement age it’s likely we’ll soon witness a parade of transitions, intended or forced. Already Krzyzewski, Boeheim, Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton (68), Miami’s Jim Larranaga (67) and UNC’s Roy Williams (66) are working longer than most coaching predecessors.

“People our age don’t think of ourselves as old, as long as you’re physically able,” Krzyzewski told me two years ago. He cited longer life expectancies, healthier lifestyles and staying current as key factors in extending careers, a trend reflected throughout American society. “I think you start feeling old if you can’t walk, you can’t eat a lot of different things, if you’re immobile in some way. But as long as you have energy and movement and all that, it’s tough to feel old.”

Krzyzewski’s latest back woes unexpectedly returned physical limitations as a prominent cause of concern. A man who, within a nine-month span, has undergone surgery for a hernia, knee replacement, and removals of cysts on his ankle and a fragment of a herniated disk from his back, surely is being sent signals by his body about slowing down. Friday’s surgery was deemed successful, but neither great dedication nor compensation estimated between $7 and $10 million annually, depending on bonuses, can or should keep him on the bench if body or mind deteriorate.

The ultimate question, Krzyzewski said in that 2015 interview, is: “Are you willing to go through the things that aren’t easy for us in order to do the things that you love? Because you’re not just going to do the things you love without doing some things that aren’t easy. There’s a reality to that, and I think you have to have that talk with yourself as you go through that.”

And now more years have passed, bringing with them a return of pre-surgical distress so tiring, so consuming Krzyzewski confessed he wanted to punch the pain in frustration. “But then you’re punching yourself, you’re punching yourself,” he added, sounding trapped.