Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams have been roaming these sidelines for so long, it has been difficult to imagine Duke or North Carolina without them. Until now.
Seeing both Duke and North Carolina win games with substitute coaches over the past two weeks was as reminder that not only will Krzyzewski and Williams depart these benches at some point, it may not necessarily be when they either may have thought or hoped.
These titans of college basketball have the kind of job security that anyone but Supreme Court justices would envy, and both will have the final say over how and when their tenure ends, but while they can control who they recruit and what defenses to play and when to call timeout, neither can exert total control over his own health.
That was all too clear Tuesday night, when Williams had what may have been the worst of his chronic spells of vertigo, leaving the bench in the second half of a dicey win over Boston College. He resurfaced for post-game handshakes and spoke briefly with the media to say he was OK, but in the immediate aftermath of his collapse there was a chilling uncertainty about his condition.
Williams, 65, has been openly dealing with vertigo for a decade, and this season, he has been limping around on bad knees that were surgically repaired over the summer and will likely need more repairs. He also went through a cancer scare a few years ago when doctors found benign growths on his kidneys. For the most part, his health issues have been more frightening and annoying – keeping Williams off the golf course – than threatening.
Meanwhile, last week’s Dukegame at Georgia Tech, which the Blue Devils won with Jeff Capel in charge and Krzyzewski watching in the heart wing of Duke Hospital, felt like an eerie glimpse into a post-Krzyzewski future at Duke.
Krzyzewski, who turns 69 on Saturday, has knee problems of his own, and said last Saturday he’ll need surgery this summer. He already has had both hips replaced, was in the hospital for tests two years ago after complaining of dizziness on the Duke bench at Wake Forest and last week for the first time since 1995 missed a game entirely. There will be no rest this summer, with the Olympics coming up in August.
Capel, the former Oklahoma and Virginia Commonwealth coach, has been the fulcrum of Duke’s unbelievable recruiting run, and his decision to pass on the Arizona State job last spring in the wake of Duke’s national championship certainly created the impression that he was now the coach-in-waiting in Durham – although Steve Wojciechowski, now at Marquette, has for a long time been seen by insiders as the most likely successor.
The post-Williams future at North Carolina offers fewer signposts. Steve Robinson, the former head coach at Florida State and Tulsa, won praise from Williams and North Carolina players alike for shepherding the Tar Heels through a surprisingly difficult game against the Eagles, winless in ACC play, but Robinson is 58 himself and not part of the Dean Smith coaching tree.
We take it for granted how remarkable it is that Williams and Krzyzewski have continued to do their jobs at an elite level in such a high-pressure, high-intensity profession at an age when many of their high school and college classmates of equivalent achievement are retiring to a life of leisure. They have managed to avoid many of the health issues suffered by men in their seventh decades, but not all.
They have seven national championships and 19 Final Fours between them, but time always wins in the end. While both are still clearly as capable as ever, the past two weeks have been a reminder that their health may have more to say about when they stop coaching than they will.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock