Sports: champions prove age is just a number
It’s turned out to be a sporting year that baby boomers can love as much as their early bird specials. Remember the happy codger’s reruns at Speedway a few weeks ago? The one who is not so far from being eligible for AARP membership and senior menus in some restaurants? Remember Helio Castroneves proving that old people can still climb fences?
Spider-Man, right? Well, Spider-Man was created in the comics as a teenager. Castroneves is 46 years old and is now the fourth oldest Indy 500 winner on record. When he crossed his first checkered flag in 2001, Alex Palou, the driver who had finished second a fortnight ago, had just turned 4.
But so it is with the Year of the Geezer.
Nick Saban coached Alabama to their last national football championship at the age of 69. The Tide legend that Saban is often compared to, Bear Bryant, retired at age 69. When asked after his last game what he would do without football, Bryant replied, “Probably croaking in a week. Four weeks later he was dead.
Many coaches see a moral in this story: keep working. Saban has now signed until 2028 when he will be 77.
Tom Brady won the Super Bowl MVP award at the age of 43. Just like he did at 24.
Phil Mickelson won the PGA at 50. He is the only man in history who, had he wanted to, could have won a major tournament one week, then competed in the Senior Tour the following week.
Novak Djokovic still reigned supreme in tennis with his 18th Grand Slam victory at the Australian Open. He is 34 years old. In tennis, it’s like ancient Rome. At the start of last week, he was crisscrossing Roland Garros, where his main rival appeared to be 35-year-old Rafael Nadal.
Return to Castroneves: All race winners complete victory laps, but they usually need a car. You might remember how he trotted north along the front stretch to frolic with the crowd, then south. By the time he finished, he had almost completed the Indianapolis 501.
“People put on a number and a tag and say, ‘The guy is old,’” he said at the age. “I still have fire. I like what I do.”
So who’s next to beat the clock? What about Mike Woodson? Indiana University gave him his first chance as a college basketball coach at 63. Some have wondered if this could be a little, uh, mature for a rookie college coach. Wooden jeans retirement with 10 national championships at 64. But as Castroneves said, the fire can still burn.
Which brings us to the Mike Krzy-zewski farewell tour.
He’ll be 75 next February, and another good run at Duke would fit right in with the current golden age of the ageless. This puts into context how long Krzyzewski has been with the Blue Devils: When he coached his first game against Duke in 1980, that year’s national championship coach Scott Drew of Baylor was 10 years old.
The five coaches he beat in the national championship — Roy Williams of Kansas, Steve Fisher of Michigan, Lute Olson of Arizona, Brad Stevens of Butler and Bo Ryan of Wisconsin — are gone. Retired or on various career paths or deceased. Duke has played 3,118 games in its history and Krzyzewski has coached 44.9% of them.
His saga resonates in this state for several reasons.
His first paid job as a coach was as an IU graduate assistant for the 1974-1975 season. Quinn Buckner was one of the Hoosiers at the time. “I knew he would succeed. I didn’t know he would be what he is, ”Buckner said. “The X’s and O’s he was getting from one of basketball’s brilliant minds [Bob Knight], but it also had the ability to get everyone to buy into it without anyone feeling left out. This feeling of belonging and commitment to each other. I was a young man back then, but you always had that feeling for Mike.
Buckner got to know Krzyzewski better when they worked with Knight during the 1984 Olympics. “He is as unique as anyone I have ever known,” Buckner said. “There are people with power who want to let you know they have power. He’s not like that, but he breathes it in everything he says and does.
Another thing from Indiana about Krzyzewski: An astonishing number of memorable moments of his career have occurred within the city limits of Indianapolis. His Duke teams have played 11 NCAA tournament games in this city. He lost two.
He was here the first day the Hoosier Dome hosted an NCAA tournament session in 1987. Duke committed 23 turnovers but held off Texas A&M 58-51 in the first round. “It’s much better to win ugly than to lose with beauty,” Krzyzewski said that day.
He was here in 1991. It was already his fifth Final Four, but the Krzyzewski era completely dawned when Duke shocked the No.1 and undefeated UNLV 79-77. The Rebels were 34-0 and scored at least 95 points in 22 games. Two nights later, the Blue Devils beat Kansas for Krzyzewski’s first national title.
Not all days at Indy have been pleasant. He was here in 1996 when Duke was ruled out of the tournament by an eastern Michigan goaltender 5-5. Earl Boykins scored 23 points in a 75-60 upset against the Blue Devils, the first time in 41 years that they had lost in the first round.
But Krzyzewski was back for the Final Four in 2010. That included a 78-57 semifinal breeze against West Virginia, with 23 points from Jon Scheyer. This is the guy who’s going to take Krzyzewski’s place, and good luck with that one. Two nights later, Duke led Butler by two points in the dying seconds and Gordon Hayward’s midfield shot was in the air which looked like it was good. Do we need to continue?
Krzyzewski was on the losing side here in the 2013 regional championship, a game that became famous when Louisville’s Kevin Ware broke his leg in a gruesome spectacle, and the Cardinals responded by beating Duke 50-31 in the second half.
And he was there in 2015 for a fifth national championship, his third in Indy. That young coach who celebrated his first championship at the Hoosier Dome in 1991? In the fifth, he was recovering his grandchildren after beating Wisconsin at Lucas Oil Stadium, his life course measured in part by his stops at Indianapolis.
Now comes the last round of Krzyzewski. By the way, Bankers Life Fieldhouse will be hosting a first and second round next March. He might as well show up one last time in Indianapolis. Much like Saban could have Alabama here for the college football playoff championship game in January at the age of 70, and Castroneves plans to claim a fifth Indy 500 victory next May at the age of 47. .
“For Mike it’s just a no-brainer,” Buckner said of the championships and the young assistant he’s played for before. “Mike is in the process.”
They are aging champions. Hear them roar. •
Lopresti is a longtime Richmond resident and is a graduate of Ball State University. He was a columnist for USA Today and Gannett newspapers for 31 years; he covered 34 Final Fours, 30 Super Bowls, 32 World Series and 16 Olympics. His column appears every week. He can be contacted at [email protected]