Confetti drifted down from the rafters, and the Florida State band played enthusiastically enough, but the celebratory hoopla moments after the Seminoles beat Duke 78-75 in Tallahassee last Saturday was noteworthy only because it wasn't all that noteworthy. Heck, it was only Duke. They never win anymore. Florida State fans were so unfazed that nobody in the stands even tried to storm the court. The best they could do was a lousy chant: "0 and six, 0 and six."
Six ACC games. Six Duke losses. Stuff like this just doesn't happen to the Blue Devils. At least it never has before. This is the same team, after all, that coming into this season had won 287 games over the past decade, by far the most in the NCAA; the same school that had gone to seven Final Fours in that decade, more than any other conference had. But this year's Duke team, like its ailing coach, Mike Krzyzewski, is flat on its back, and the prognosis is uncertain.
On Sunday, Duke athletic director Tom Butters announced that Krzyzewski would not be returning to the sideline this season. The coach had gamely tried to come back from off-season back surgery, but in retrospect, he had returned too quickly and tried too hard to make up for lost time. The official announcement said that the 47-year-old coach was suffering from exhaustion and that neither his best interests nor those of the school would be served by his returning this year. "Coach K is a Duke treasure,' " said school president Nan Keohane, "and we want to take care of our treasures."
In many ways Duke's decline began last April, the moment Arkansas's Scotty Thurman sank the decisive three-pointer with 50 seconds left in the NCAA title game in Charlotte, denying the Blue Devils their third national title in four seasons. Duke's four freshmen missed so much class time on the road to the Final Four that they had to attend summer school to stay abreast of their studies. Krzyzewski felt compelled to cancel a summer tour of Australia that he had hoped would provide cohesion for this year's team, his youngest in eight years.
It was also during the summer that Krzyzewski began suffering lower-back pain caused by a bulging disk. When it became difficult for the Duke coach to walk or sit, he opted for surgery on Oct. 22, news of which was overshadowed around the Durham campus by a most unlikely development: Duke's normally mediocre football team was still undefeated and on its way to a berth in the Hall of Fame Bowl, only its second bowl bid in the last 32 years.
To recover from the kind of back surgery Krzyzewski underwent, doctors usually recommend a month of inactivity and two more months of limited activity. The coach was studying game film within days and was back at practice after a week and a half. Having already missed the chance to work on some of the team's weaknesses in Australia, he had to work harder than he might have liked.
Although sophomore Jeff Capel and junior Chris Collins were returning starters in the backcourt, Coach K decided to let his three prized freshmen recruits—Trajan Langdon, Ricky Price and the team's only true point guard, Steve Wojciechowski—push them for starting jobs. Fifth-year senior guard Kenny Blakeney also figured in the backcourt mix. Matters were further complicated when Collins suffered a broken foot on the first day of practice and couldn't play until mid-December. On top of that, recruit Joey Beard, once highly rated, played himself out of the frontcourt rotation, contracted mononucleosis and decided to transfer to Boston University.
Despite these distractions, Duke held its own during a rigorous early schedule, winning nine of its first 11 games, including victories over Illinois, Michigan and Georgia Tech. But while the team thrived, its coach suffered. Krzyzewski was sometimes spotted lying on the floor at practice, trying to alleviate his recurring back pain. Then came the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii in December and the long flights that further aggravated his condition. Still, entering the Clemson game on Jan. 4 Krzyzewski's troops were ranked a comfortable No. 7 in the AP poll. Then the sky fell.
That night in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke was soundly thrashed by an undermanned Clemson team that hadn't won in Durham since 1984. Two days later the Devils were about to board a bus to the airport on their way to play Georgia Tech when Krzyzewski informed the team that he was not making the trip but instead would check back into the hospital. He would be replaced by his longtime assistant, Pete Gaudet, who would delegate some of the coaching chores to the other assistants, Mike Brey and Tommy Amaker.
Without Krzyzewski, Duke played tough in Atlanta but lost to the Jackets 75-68. Foreshadowing the misery to come, Blakeney said after the game, "It's tough to win when you have three freshmen in the lineup and no head coach."'