Mike Krzyzewski was back in the office Wednesday afternoon and gave his normal day-after-game feedback. His schedule will be back to normal Thursday.
But as Duke’s plane was ready to leave RDU airport Monday night, Matt Jones kept waiting for one more person to get on board.
“I was always waiting for Coach to walk onto the plane,” he said. “So it was weird.”
In the Duke program, there is no confusion about which coach is Coach: Mike Krzyzewski. That’s what everyone calls him, from players to assistants to support staff. It’s a job he has held for 36 years. And when he suddenly became too sick Monday to make the trip down to Georgia Tech, it was definitely weird for everyone involved.
Assistant coach Jeff Capel stepped in and led Duke to a much-needed 80-71 win over the Yellow Jackets Tuesday night. Capel has nine years of head coaching experience at VCU and Oklahoma, and that showed in his decision to scrap the ineffective zone defense Duke had prepared in favor of man-to-man for the second half. That was a shrewd move by a veteran coach, and Georgia Tech went from shooting 58 percent in the first half to 31 percent in the second.
“The guy who was coaching the game has led a team to an Elite Eight. You know what I mean?” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. “He was a great head coach at VCU and Oklahoma.”
Krzyzewski’s absence was unnerving for Capel, too. It was the first time since the 1994-95 season – Capel’s sophomore year – that Krzyzewski had missed a game. He missed the final 19 games of that season due to a back injury as Duke missed the NCAA Tournament.
“I'd be lying to you if I didn't think back to that, because the trip he didn't make was at Georgia Tech,” Capel said. “So it was a little bit ironic.
“But at the same time, you know you have to – and this is what Coach has taught us – you have to move on to the next play. And you have to be ready. People have to be ready and have to step up. And fortunately for us, everyone was ready to step up.”
Capel and fellow assistants Nate James and Jon Scheyer stayed positive with the Blue Devils and kept them informed. They reminded the team that Krzyzewski had them prepared, as the group had started game planning for the Yellow Jackets this past Saturday.
Unlike in 1994-95, the Blue Devils weren’t worried about Krzyzewski being gone long. They were – and still are – confident his absence is temporary. He was feeling better by Wednesday afternoon and is is expected to coach Saturday against N.C. State. The Blue Devils had a previously scheduled off day from practice, and that gave Krzyzewski more time to rest.
“We knew we would get him back. We knew that he was with us in here,” Jones said as he touched his chest over his heart. “And knowing that as a team, we came out here, and we were together.”
It was a festive locker room, with players exchanging hugs and chest bumps long after Capel had finished addressing the team. Capel grabbed Plumlee outside the locker room for some congratulatory words before heading up the two flights of stairs for his first postgame press conference in five years.
“First and foremost, I’m really, really proud of our guys,” Capel said. “It’s been a very emotional past 48 hours.”
After the game, the Blue Devils used an iPhone to FaceTime Krzyzewski from the plane. In the era before information was everywhere and everyone was in constant contact, that luxury didn’t exist for the 1994-95 team. Duke took care of business , thanks to Krzyzewski’s traditional man-to-man defense. Now the Blue Devils are ready for him to come back.
“That's our captain,” Jones said. “Our leader.”
Or, as Capel put it more simply: “He's our Coach.”