At the tail end of the first half of Tuesday’s match-up between Duke and Pittsburgh, Blue Devils long time head coach Mike Krzyzewski had what can only be described as an outburst. Duke’s student fan section, affectionately known as the Cameron Crazies, chanted at Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel, sparking Coach K to snap, first screaming “Shut up!” across the court before stopping to shout that Capel was “one of us” on his way to the halftime locker room. Krzyzewski is, of course, referring to Capel’s history having both played for Duke and coached on the Blue Devils’ staff before taking the gig at Pitt.
1. Duke basketball is an institution. In the 20 years before Coach K took the lead in Durham, Duke made the NCAA Tournament just six times. In his 40 years at the helm, Duke has been, nearly without question, the best program in college basketball. At some point in the mid-1980s, Duke’s students became the standard for the loud raucous crowds that every other student section aspired to emulate. Duke basketball, for the better part of four decades, had been exactly three things: success, Coach K, and the Crazies. To see two of those at war, for even a moment, is jarring. It was stunning.
2. The most stunning thing? How poorly Coach K handled the situation. He later confessed to not understanding what was being chanted by the students (more on that in a minute). That would mean this incident boils down to a man in his 70s mishearing something and snapping because of it. There’s nothing wrong with a coach relaying a message to his team’s fans. If Coach K believed the Crazies were disrespecting Capel beyond a level he deemed acceptable, there is a myriad of better ways for him to have handled himself. He could have taken to the public address microphone to calmly request the fans be more respectful. He could have said something less boisterous on his walk to the locker room. There were other options.
3. The students have put forward that they were chanting, “Jeff Capel, sit with us.” This chant format is common at Duke games. When a high profile recruit or notable celebrity attends a game at Cameron, the Crazies often use this chant as a cheeky way to endear themselves to the subject of the chant. If anything, it’s a compliment. Even if that is the case, I struggle to think of any chant that they could have directed at Capel that would warrant the outburst we saw from Krzyzewski, except for some sort of racial slur.
4. That being said, it’s pretty understandable why Coach K was confused. It’s a weird chant to apply to the other team’s head coach. I’m sure there are dozens of other ways to playfully reference Capel’s history at a Dukie, all of which make a little more sense than this particular chant.
5. Unless….we want to toss on the tin foil hat and indulge in a little conspiracy theory: You can’t discuss Krzyzewski’s time at Duke at this point in his career without starting to wonder when he might step away into retirement and who might fill his shoes. There’s not currently another member of the Krzyzewski coaching tree at a higher profile position than Capel at Pitt (Apologies to Bobby Hurley and Wojo). In a world where Coach K steps away soon, he’d have to be considered one of the early contenders for the Duke gig. So, maybe Duke fans want to keep him in their good graces?
6. That theory gets really fun if you take it a step further. Maybe Coach K heard the fans perfectly fine and put that together quickly in his head. Made it was a jealousy-fueled tirade? The chances of this are minimal at best, but hey, we can all dare to dream up something scandalous like this, right?
7. Coach K did schedule a meeting with several of the leaders of the student group on Thursday. In front of 40-50 students, Coach K took steps to smooth things over. He explained some past history, including Capel being booed by home fans as a player. Coach K showed a video package of other chants he deemed more acceptable. He also detailed a weird parable about dropping a used tissue on the floor to teach his players the meaning of their home court. The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, went nearly out of its way to make it clear the one thing Krzyzewski did not do during their meeting was outright apologize. While I, nor the reporter from The Chronicle, attended the meeting, the words coming from inside Duke seem very carefully chosen. “Clearing the air” and an apology are not one in the same. It would be odd in fact to schedule a meeting, apologize, and then point out how the students erred with their chant and should be better.
8. Not to mention, Coach K apparently referenced the recent death of Kobe Bryant and his fellow travelers on Sunday in his meeting with students, suggesting he was in a fragile emotional state. Krzyzewski coached Bryant as a member of two different Olympic teams and recruited him as a high school star. I do not question that this week has been very difficult for Coach K, as it clearly was for so many who were close to the Bryant family. And yet, in the brief moments in which Coach K snapped on Tuesday night, in the midst of a close conference game, were his emotions really being affected by anything other than his affection for Capel and his misjudgment of the chant he thought he heard? I am not here to question his grieving process, but I struggle to see the connection between the two events. If his emotional state was altered to that level, there should be questions about his fitness to roam the sidelines this week.
9. Lastly, I’m curious the effect this event will have on Coach K and his legacy moving forward. The basketball community regards him as a class act and a man of high character. This lapse in judgment doesn’t change that, but should be a reminder that he and his program are far from perfect. We’re only three days removed from the event and it feels forgotten already. This should have been a far bigger deal! The most recognizable face in the sport went berzerk on his own team’s fans! If Duke makes a run in March, CBS would being doing viewers a disservice if they bow at Coach K’s feet for two hours every game without even mentioning this incident.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.