Why this Tar Heel is Going to Miss Coach K
No need to adjust your readers or check the calendar. April Fool’s Day hasn’t come early.
We are still in the midst of the happiest, hoop-iest of seasons — March Madness. And what a raucous good time it’s been! Full of bracket-busting upsets, stadiums filled to rafters once again, sudden-death overtimes, and fans coming close to fisticuffs over officiating calls.
It’s also Mike Krzyzewski’s final hurrah after coaching the Duke Blue Devils for 42 years. But you knew that already because the farewell tour has been as long, grand and lofty as the Gothic spires of Duke Chapel.
I thought Coach K’s departure, drawn-out as it was, would have me whooping it up this March. I’m a proud UNC-Chapel Hill alum, after all. A devoted Tar Heel basketball fan. I fly my UNC flag proudly this time of year, live in my lucky sweatshirt, and post schedules, rosters and brackets for easy reference on the refrigerator door.
So what is this emotion I’m feeling as Coach K, reviled among my tribe of blue for decades, prepares to exit the court for good?
Surely it wasn’t sympathy I felt watching UNC pummel Duke in Coach K’s final game in Cameron Stadium — immediately followed by a skunk-in-the-punch celebration of Coach K’s career.
And what about my ambivalence over who to root for in last week’s Duke v. Michigan NCAA matchup? I mean, we Tar Heels don’t cheer for Duke, we curse them — with all the vitriolic flair and elegant invective you’d expect from graduates of such a respected institution.
So what the heck, Ramses? What in Tar (Heel)-nation is going on? And is it just me — or are other Carolina fans experiencing the same head-spinning haze this tournament season?
If so, don’t feel bad — because we’re going to miss Coach K for all the right reasons.
He was someone we loved to hate — and he made it so easy.
For starters, he trained a team of Devils, the most despicable mascot in all of sports-dom. Ergo, Coach K is Lucifer.
Before you get all bristly, let me remind you that I didn’t choose the decidedly uncuddly Blue Devil mascot. I’m just following the logic. And it’s not much of a bucket-shot leap to ascertain that the guy wielding the pointiest pitchfork is evil incarnate.
And Coach K, bless his heart, sort of looked the part — or grew into it, as one does with roles long- and well-rehearsed. He doesn’t smile; he smirks. He scowls, purses his thin lips, and looks down his long nose with scorn at opponents and underperforming Devils alike. He is Snidely Whiplash, minus the mustache, to Roy Williams’ Dudley Do-Right.
Point number two: Coach K doesn’t seem to actually enjoy the game of basketball. And for those of us who do, that is incomprehensible — and grounds for enemy number one status.
He whines and grimaces on the sidelines, blasts ACC refs, talks out of the side of his mouth to players and assistants. Even when his team plays well — as they often do, dammit! — you won’t catch him pumping his fist or backslapping praise. He also doesn’t appear to discourage bad behavior: Think back to Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Gerald Henderson bloodying Tyler Hansbrough’s nose.
Point number three: Hating Duke and Coach K is easy because of the ‘elitist’ factor. You’ve got a private school, foreboding as Hogwarts, just eight miles from the happy, hippy-dippy, sunny, peaceable kingdom of Chapel Hill.
And while the warm-blooded among us take offense at being considered snobbish or snooty, Dookies seem to embrace their reputation for arrogance and privilege. For crying out loud, Coach K stars in American Express commercials. And Cameron Indoor Stadium is yuppie, country club swank, known for its solid brass railings and turning the temperature up to inferno heat for a devilish advantage.
Finally, in sports, politics and life in general, we all need villains to take aim at. We’ve crafted a fine Coach K pinata over the years. Bashing him is ritual, essential and required for Franklin Street admittance. There are Coach K memes aplenty, books written about the Tobacco Road enmity, families divided, and friendships forged and broken over the battle of the blues.
Lucky for us, it’s an unrivaled rivalry, the fiercest and finest in all of sports. Commentators shake their heads over the phenomenon, NBA stars show up for games, tickets to Carolina-Duke games are rare and coveted treasures. And as the ACC has expanded with the arrival of carpetbagger teams from up north, our homegrown, home team rivalry takes on even more import and emotion.
Then, there’s the longevity factor. Players come and go. We’re fortunate if stand-out players stay four years, what with the lure of lucrative NBA contracts and all.
Coaches, the good ones, anyway, stick around: 42 years for Coach K; 36 years for our saintly Dean Smith; 18 years for the affable Roy. They come to symbolize all that we love and hate — and love to hate — about our rivalries and competitive spirit.
Allegiance to sports teams and schools is tribalism elevated to athletic art form. And since coaches are the tribal chiefs, they tend to be who we target, abuse and scorn. A coach who came into the game wearing horns already? Well, that just made the targeting easier, and amped up the entertainment value.
We’re going to miss you, Mike. You’re a punching bag we’ve grown accustomed to, a nemesis of necessity and proximity. A sneaker-wearing Darth Vader. It’s going to be harder, at first, to hate on the bright-eyed, sandy-haired Jon Scheyer. But give us time.