OMAHA, Neb. – Make way for the geezers. It’ll be Jim Boeheim against Mike Krzyzewski here Friday night. Then again, we’ve been saying that for more than three decades.
Together, they have won 2,025 games.
Together, they have coached in all but two of the last 42 NCAA tournaments.
Together, they have stayed at their current jobs for eons, while the tournament, and the game, grew up around them.When Boeheim coached his first NCAA tournament game at Syracuse — an overtime win over Tennessee in 1977 — there were only 32 teams in the field, and nobody was seeded.
When Krzyzewski coached his NCAA tournament game at Duke — an 80-78 loss to Washington in 1984 — there were no such things as a shot clock or 3-point line.
Together, they have helped lead Team USA though a gilded age of international competition, and become close doing it.
“My best friend in coaching,” Krzyzewski said of Boeheim Thursday.
“If two guys like us can work together over 11 summers and still be friends, that’s a pretty good relationship,” Boeheim said of Krzyzewski.
Krzyzewski is 71. By the time Dean Smith was that age, North Carolina had already played 159 games and gone to two Final Fours without him. And he’s the youngest coach in this game. “A lot younger in every respect,” he joked.
Boeheim is 73. By the time John Wooden was that age, UCLA was on its fourth different coach trying to replace him.
And yet here they are, still proving that neither the kids, nor the game nor the times have passed them by. Let’s catch up with two guys Thursday who once played for them, and now work as their assistants.
Duke’s Jeff Capel mentioned the time not long ago he was with Krzyzewski and Boeheim on a flight.
“I just listened to them talk for the hour or whatever it was we flew. I remember when we landed, I got to the hotel room and I called my wife. I said, 'I just listened to the most amazing conversation, because you’ve got two guys that are combined are going to win over 2,000 games, and they’re so different.’
“And for a young coach, it was fascinating and great, because it shows you the example that you have to be true to who are you, and these two men are perfect examples. Coach Boeheim couldn’t do it like Coach. Coach couldn’t operate and do what Coach Boeheim does."
Syracuse’s Gerry McNamara talked about where the relationship has led.
“Now they’re changing and adapting to each other’s system. I know we’ve taken a few things on offensive over the years that Coach brought back from the Olympics. And now you see Coach K playing the zone. So it’s pretty neat to see these guys who have experienced so much together to be on this stage.
“I’m sure deep down as friends, they don’t want to be going against each other and eliminate one another."
Krzyzewski can still take a gaggle of freshmen and fix a season on the fly, changing Duke’s direction by going to a zone defense — which is the foundation of Boeheim’s program.
Boeheim can still get his Orange to play above their grade in the bracket. Since 2013, Syracuse has beaten six higher seeded teams. That got the Orange to two Final Fours, and however long this run lasts.
College coaching is a landscape of constant movement. Nobody stays anywhere forever. But Boeheim enrolled at Syracuse the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Krzyzewski first went to Duke when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. There have been six more presidents since.
The sport can chew up and spit out coaches,or men can move on their own. But not them. Never them.
Does Boeheim ever seem 73? Ask his team.
Guard Frank Howard: “Not at all. At least not during the game. He’s fired up the whole game. If we’re not engaged, he can keep us going. It’s pretty amazing, he doesn’t seem like he’s slowing down.”
Guard Tyus Battle: “He’s always there early. You wouldn’t notice he’s 73. He has so much basketball knowledge, he’s always giving us little nuances. Even off the court, he’s helping us. As a player, you just want to soak all that in. Stuff like that doesn’t come around very often.
“I know we don’t joke about his age. He might throw something in there occasionally.”
McNamara: “A few years ago, he might have, when he was having some knee problems. I saw him limping quite a bit, and I said, `Man, Coach is starting to look his age.’ Then all of a sudden, my man starts rocking Pilates. He’s coached and acted with the same intense passion that he recruited me with in 2000. You’re talking about 18 years later, and we’re still in the same position. It’s pretty remarkable.”
Does Krzyzewski ever seem 71?
Guard Trevon Duval: “Sometimes I forget Coach is that old. His energy is always through the roof.
Center Marques Bolden: “It can become mind-blowing at times. We think we’re smart when it comes to basketball, but you go up against a guy like that who can teach you so much about the game and yourself personally, it’s just crazy.”
Capel: “He keeps himself in shape, he works, he’s around young people, he tries to be in their moment.”
Thursday night, these two aging buddies will try to send one another home. Can’t be easy. Neither figure to have that many more chances at the Final Four.
“I never look at the other sideline,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s Duke against Syracuse, he’s going to go after us, we’re going to go after him, and we’ll be friends before and after, and during.”
It has been a golden age for coaches in their golden years. Five of the past eight national championships have been won by men in their 60s. Only five titles this century have been won by men younger than 53. The three oldest-coached championships in history have all come in the past seven years – Jim Calhoun in 2011, Krzyzewski in 2015, Roy Williams in 2017.
Meanwhile, nobody under 40 has won one since Jim Valvano in 1983.
These old guys do pretty well in the tournament. But one of them has to lose Friday night.