DURHAM, N.C. — No longer coaching but still involved in the college sports landscape as a Duke ambassador, Mike Krzyzewski’s assessment of college athletics is that the current model is at a breaking point.
“It’s the most important time in college sports,” Krzyzewski said in an exclusive interview with The News & Observer, “and it’s really the most chaotic time.”
The 75-year-old Krzyzewski, who retired after 42 seasons as Duke’s basketball coach in April with more wins (1,202) and Final Four appearances (13) than any men’s college basketball coach, made college athletics his life’s work. Starting in 1974 as an Indiana graduate assistant coach, and then serving five years as Army’s head coach prior to his arrival at Duke, that’s 48 consecutive years in the business.
He addressed the changing state of college athletics with the N&O, and during a special town hall edition of his SiriusXM radio show Thursday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium’s Champions Club.
With the NCAA in the midst of a restructuring and athletes able to profit off their name, image and likeness and with more freedom to transfer than ever before, college athletics are moving away from the amateurism model and closer to professional sports.
Krzyzewski is pro NIL, saying it’s the “impetus of change.” He said the NCAA missed the boat in the early 90s by cracking down on NIL-type activities rather than embracing it. Now, 30 years later, it was forced to accept it due to state legislatures and federal court decisions.
While he “hates what’s happening with college athletics,” Krzyzewski added, “I’m all for the rights of the student athletes and for them to do as much as as much as they can.”
To solve the disparity in those two thoughts, he said major changes are needed because the way the NCAA has governed college sports is outdated.
“Nothing against Kodak, but do you have any Kodak cameras?” Krzyzewski said. “It’s Kodak. It’s Edsels. It’s 8-track tapes or whatever. Come on. It doesn’t work anymore.”
New NCAA leadership
NCAA president Mark Emmert announced his retirement plans in April. A frequent critic of Emmert’s decisions, Krzyzewski nevertheless doesn’t believe Emmert’s departure will fix what’s wrong with college athletics’ governance. Instead, he said believes it’s time to re-imagine the whole system.
But first, he said, a leadership group has to be identified.
“Who would you have in the room to decide all this?” Krzyzewski said. “I don’t know. You know what? Nobody knows. So create another room. Create another room.”
What does that mean? The first thing is to find common ground between schools.
“Like has to be with like,” Krzyzewski said. “What are your needs? What are things that happen in that environment?”
That could mean, he said, the long discussed breakaway of top conferences, like the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12, to form their own governance model separate from the NCAA. But Krzyzewski wants the thinking to go beyond even that, saying rules should be specified for different sports due to their different nature of their needs.
“What happens for specific sports?” he said. “Are you a revenue producing sport? Are you an Olympic sport? You know, everyone can’t live in exactly the same house under the same conditions. That’s not being unfair to anybody. It’s just being realistic that certain things. Certain things happen in your neighborhood that don’t happen, another neighborhood. So to have a rule for all neighborhoods doesn’t work. That’s been the downfall of the NCAA.”
College football will lead the way
One thing for certain, Krzyzewski said, is college football will lead the way in these changes.
“SEC football is the best college sports product on TV except for March Madness,” Krzyzewski said, adding the SEC adding Texas and Oklahoma is “building an empire.”
The revenue all schools and conferences derive from football — it’s the largest part of any television deal — means that financial muscle can’t be ignored.
“We are, right now, a boat without a paddle,” Krzyzewski said. “I’d like to see football paddling because they are ahead and they are also more powerful.
College basketball must work as one
College basketball still has a seat at the table, of course. But to strengthen it, Krzyzewski said it’s paramount that men’s and women’s college basketball approach this as one entity.
“Men’s and women, they have to come together, you know, like be a big block,” Krzyzewski said. “And with the growth of the women’s game, it’s stupid not to do that. It shouldn’t be conflicting. It should be together and go forward.”
After receiving criticism for the inequalities present at the men’s and women’s tournaments in 2021, NCAA leaders made changes to the 2022 tournaments. One cosmetic move was to have both tournaments under the March Madness marketing scheme, rather than using it only for the men’s tournament.
Of course, something that makes March Madness such a big draw is the appeal of schools from all levels of Division I having access to the tournament so they are competing on the court for the same prize. That’s how St. Peter’s from New Jersey made it to within one win of the Final Four last season.
Krzyzewski is drawn to how college football has already whittled itself down to the top 120 schools in its Football Bowl Subdivision. At the same time, he still wants March Madness to have a way for schools, like St. Peter’s, to have a way into its championship.
“You could some up with a way for, and I’d rather not call them little schools but schools in a different neighborhood, to still have an opportunity to participate in that,” Krzyzewski said. “Maybe it’s not in the same way, with 32 automatic qualifiers. There are a lot of maybes. But something has to start here, with one domino.”
Mike Krzyzewski, retired head coach of the Duke Blue Devils men's basketball team, tapes an episode of his SiriusXM show during a SiriusXM Town Hall With Coach K event at Cameron Indoor Stadium on June 2, 2022, in Durham, North Carolina. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images for SiriusXM/TNS)