I can still remember, as a high school senior after having been accepted into Duke to my utter amazement and absolute joy, while watching a Duke men’s basketball game on the grainy television set in the basement of my buddy’s house and seeing Coach K scowling and prowling along the sidelines, thinking to myself, there’s my basketball coach. And after four years at Duke, and however many years since (too many that I care to count), Coach K is still my coach.
And Coach K is everybody’s coach — well, perhaps not everybody. But aside from the players, you could say that he’s the coach of every Duke student, and grad, and fan. I, like so many others I’m sure, feel a special connection with Coach K. I entered Duke in 1984, shortly after Coach K got there in 1980. Also like Coach K, my first couple of years at Duke were, shall we say, challenging, and I didn’t know if I’d last there for very long. But I found my footing, as did Coach K, and, in the process, I learned a lot about persistence and resilience and just discovering who I was.
Way back when I was at Duke, when Jay Bilas had hair and you could always find Australian rules football on ESPN, the men’s basketball team had yet to fully come into its own. But I was at every game in Cameron all the same — we all were. It was just special there. It was different. We were an arm’s length from the action. And I can proudly say that I was among that class to be christened as the Cameron Crazies. Those games meant everything to us, and those players were our guys. And Coach K, he was our coach.
I was a sophomore in 1986 when Duke made it to the NCAA Finals against Louisville. There was this big movie screen set up on West Campus where they showed the game and the quad was packed with people. I thought we had it won (I still think we had it won), but the Blue Devils came up short that night. I was so disappointed I wanted to drop out of school, and even met with my advisor the next day. Fortunately, he talked me out of it, and Duke went on to win a few titles after that — the first of which I covered as a reporter for the Associated Press.
It’s somewhat fitting to me that the final time I see Coach K coach Duke in person was in Louisville, where I eventually settled. It seems that whenever Duke comes to town, they honor that 1986 Cardinals team, and well they should. Yet it doesn’t bother me to see all that now because I have reframed those images in my mind. To me, that 1986 NCAA Championship game was not so much a loss as it was a beginning, and not just for the Duke men’s basketball team, but for me as well. I recovered from that heartbreak, and I went on to graduate from Duke. And I’ve accomplished some things that I’m proud of — Coach K too, I imagine.
As I reflect on Coach K and what he’s meant to me, while I sit in my home office beneath the 2015 NCAA Championship pennant that he autographed, I think back to that wide-eyed high school senior. I never had any direct contact with Coach K — other than to nervously hand him that pennant to sign at my nephew’s basketball camp and he was gracious and courteous and spoke about the players in my graduating year who he coached — but that doesn’t mean, when watching Duke play, whether in person or on some grainy television set wherever I happened to be in my journey to become the person I am, that he still wasn’t my coach — because he was. Coach K will always be my coach.