The upcoming game set for this Saturday night, April 2, has even the nation’s most cynical sportswriters searching for the proper superlatives.
Duke vs. the University of North Carolina, neighbors and college basketball behemoths, meeting for the first time in a men’s NCAA tournament game — and it’s the March Madness semi-finals, with the winner advancing to Monday night’s championship game.
The cherry on top? It’s either the last or the penultimate game for legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is retiring with an eye-popping list of accomplishments: more than 1,000 victories in four decades coaching Duke; five national championships, 13 Final Four appearances and more.
“This is his last run,” Mark Schmitz was saying this week. “Colliding with an arch-nemesis in a game to get to the national championship.”
“It’s the stuff dreams are made of.”
Schmitz, a Madison native and founder and creative director of ZEBRADOG — which specializes in “the art of storytelling through experiential media, signature exhibit and dynamic space design” — has been living his own Duke/Coach K-related dream for some 15 years now.
It started at a conference of top collegiate athletics administrators in Orlando in 2006. Schmitz and ZEBRADOG had recently worked with UW Athletics on Bucky’s Locker Room and Badger Alley at Camp Randall, and with the Green Bay Packers to help rebrand Lambeau Field after a renovation.
In Orlando, Schmitz was introduced to Sue Harnett, a former standout with the Duke women’s basketball team who retained close ties to the athletic program.
“She saw what we do and said, ‘You need to meet my friends at Duke,’” Schmitz recalls.
At the time, Duke was building a new basketball practice facility next to Cameron Indoor Stadium, its storied home arena. A telephone meeting ensued, followed by an invitation for Schmitz to come to Durham in late 2006. There he met Coach K, and ZEBRADOG wound up designing exhibits for the new facility, which opened in early 2008.
The relationship led to a ZEBRADOG contract to build out the Duke Basketball Museum and Hall of Fame adjacent to Cameron, and more recently, to create interactive exhibits to increase the non-game day fan experience inside Cameron itself. Their work has now expanded beyond basketball to encompass all Duke sports.
“We’re the storyteller-exhibit designer for Duke athletics,” Schmitz says.
Along the way, Schmitz’s early respect and admiration for Krzyzewski has increased. Only part of it is the Blue Devils’ success on the court — but that is part of it.
“What I’ve learned from Mike more than anything is to strive for a consistent level of excellence,” Schmitz says. “It’s why so many people have a problem with Duke. They’re so good.”
Schmitz continues: “It’s so hard to stay at the top of anything. For everybody who plays Duke, it’s their biggest game of the year. Every game, Duke gets its opponent’s 110 percent effort. To have thrived at that level for over 40 seasons is extraordinary.”
Schmitz experienced more of Coach K’s personality and presence when ZEBRADOG was hired for the museum work in 2010. Krzyzewski decreed that if Schmitz was really going to understand the heart and soul of Duke basketball, he must participate in the K Academy, a spring fantasy basketball camp in which dozens of hardcore basketball fans don Duke uniforms, play at Cameron, and get tutored by Coach K and former Duke players.
One night at camp Krzyzewski offered commentary on a replay of Duke’s championship win over Butler earlier that year. He talked about success beyond basketball and his commitment to the extended Duke family.
“His charismatic caring for the people around him is infectious,” Schmitz says.
Schmitz has returned to the K Academy almost every year since, although some time back he and a few other campers initiated the Legends Golf Academy “for basketball players with no meniscus left in their knees,” Schmitz notes. It runs concurrently with the K Academy and the two groups socialize together at night. All proceeds from the K Academy Auction — and they are substantial — benefit the Emily K Center, a college-readiness program for first-generation underrepresented students established by Krzyzewski in 2006 in honor of his mother.
It was at an auction for the Emily K Center that Schmitz acquired a prized possession, an official golf bag from the 2018 Ryder Cup.
The U.S. captain, Jim Furyk, had invited Krzyzewski to speak to his team prior to the event. Furyk made Coach K a gift of the bag, signed by him and European captain Thomas Bjorn. Coach K signed it, too.
During golf season, it is proudly exhibited in the golf shop at the Nakoma Golf Club, where Schmitz is a member.
Currently, the bag is in Schmitz’s Madison living room. That’s where he’ll watch the big game Saturday night, FaceTiming with his three adult kids, now scattered around the country.
“All of whom,” Mark says, “grew up with the Blue Devils deeply in their lives.
“Win or lose, we’re proud to have been on the team with Coach K all these years.”
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