As elite coaches face twilight, who will follow legends at Duke, UNC, Syracuse and Louisville?

2:46 | College Basketball
ACC remains most intriguing conference approaching Selection Sunday
Tuesday February 21st, 2017

The breadth of accomplishments of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Louisville’s Rick Pitino are daunting. They are four of the six active Hall of Famers coaching in college basketball, indelible fixtures on sport’s landscape. The four coaches have combined for 143 seasons on the college sideline, 108 of those at their current schools. They are the top four active coaches in wins, combining for nearly 4,000 victories (3960 as of Saturday), 32 Final Fours and 10 national titles. 

Their careers are also much closer to the end than the beginning, as a combination of age (Pitino is the youngest at 64), NCAA issues and deteriorating health portend a college basketball landscape without its iconic mainstays in the near future. Just how soon is anyone’s guess. But considering the NCAA issues facing Louisville and North Carolina and Krzyzewski’s latest health issues (back surgery led to a month-long absence this season), it’s reasonable to project that none will be coaching five years from now. NCAA issues already expedited Boeheim’s exit, as he “intends” to hand off the program to veteran assistant coach Mike Hopkins after the 2017-18 season.

The fickle whims of NCAA investigations and unpredictability of health will ultimately shape their decisions. Those are both impossible to predict. None seems anxious to leave, as the same indomitable wills, egos and competitiveness that got them to the Hall of Fame are also going to shape their decisions to walk away.

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“Coaching college basketball is the most powerful form of crack cocaine for these guys,” says a coach familiar with all of them. “The arenas they play in are the crack houses. This is who they are, their identity. It’s how they assess themselves as a human being.”

Who will replace them as the faces of the ACC and college basketball? And who will end up at their current jobs? Those are the two biggest questions simmering beneath the surface of the 2017 college coaching carousel. This season’s carousel projects a high-volume of turnover but is again unlikely to feature any true blue-blood jobs. (Of the nine Power 5 jobs that opened last season, the best were Wisconsin, Pittsburgh and Stanford). And with apologies in advance to fans at N.C. State, Missouri and Illinois, your jobs aren’t elite.

With impending change coming to the faces of the game sooner than later, it’s fascinating to ponder who will fill the void. No sport on the American landscape highlights the coach as star more than college basketball, a long-time truism that’s managed to increase since one-and-dones began toe-touching campuses in 2006. With the elite players spending months on campus instead of years, the game’s identity has shifted even more dramatically to the sideline. 

Identifying the faces of the future starts in obvious places. There are two other active Hall of Fame coaches—Kentucky’s John Calipari (58) and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (62). They’ve combined for 13 Final Fours and could each have lengthy stays at their respective schools. Both have been tempted by the NBA multiple times in recent years, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if one or both ended up there. (Calipari is already denying interest in the New Orleans Pelicans job). It would be a shock, however, if they left their current college job for another.

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Also filling the void will be mainstays of the college game like Kansas’ Bill Self (a deserving Hall of Fame nominee), Villanova’s Jay Wright, Wichita’s Gregg Marshall, UConn’s Kevin Ollie, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Arizona’s Sean Miller, Virginia’s Tony Bennett and UCLA’s Steve Alford. (West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, 63, is fifth among active coaches in wins. His history of health issues make it difficult to imagine him going longer than five more years).

Which established face could move up into one of those gilded jobs? Arizona’s Miller would be a prime candidate to return to his eastern roots. Texas’ Shaka Smart will certainly be a blue blood target. Could a veteran like Brey—coming off back-to-back Elite Eights—return to Tobacco Road where he began his college career as a Duke assistant? Could Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin, Virginia Tech’s Buzz Williams, Providence’s Ed Cooley, Cal’s Cuonzo Martin, Florida’s Mike White or Ollie position themselves for a leap?

Brad Stevens just extended his contract with the Celtics this off-season and loves the NBA game, which makes it naïve to project him returning anytime soon to college. (Sorry, Indiana fans). Billy Donovan has established himself in Oklahoma City, where his future will be attached at the hip with Russell Westbrook.

Considering that Duke, UNC and Louisville may not open for a few seasons, who could emerge during that time? Are rising coaches like Dayton’s Archie Miller, Xavier’s Chris Mack, Butler’s Chris Holtmann, VCU’s Will Wade and UNC-Wilmington’s Kevin Keatts positioned to keep soaring? Do they stay at their current jobs where they are well positioned to win in order to hold out for better gigs?

Here’s a look at the future of four of college basketball’s top jobs.

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Duke

Coach: Mike Krzyzewski (70)

Future: This is college basketball’s favorite parlor game. And, really, has been for the past decade. Krzyzewski’s back surgery cost him a month earlier this season. He’s had five surgeries since April, including a knee repair and hernia repair. Krzyzewski missed a majority of the 1994-95 season with back issues and also had his right hip (1999) and left hip (2002) replaced. How long can he defy Father Time? “I think he’s younger today than the day I got here nine years ago,” Duke athletic director Kevin White said in a phone interview.  “There is no timeline here. He’s looking out to a pretty long horizon. Longer than anyone would ever suspect.”

Timeline: White was quoted before the season saying that Krzyzewski’s contract ran through 2021, which is four more full years after this one. White said he expects Krzyzewski to honor it. His body will ultimately determine that. Results are obviously not an issue, as he’s winning and recruiting as big as at any point in his tenure. His departure doesn’t appear imminent, as health is the biggest variable.

Next: It would be surprising if the candidate didn’t come from the Duke family. Associate coach Jeff Capel is a top candidate. He went 4-3 during his interim stint this winter, a missed opportunity to bolster his candidacy. Northwestern’s Chris Collins and Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski, both former Duke guards, are poised for NCAA Tournament bids this season. They’d at least have to interview Harvard’s Tommy Amaker, who has led the Crimson to four NCAA Tournaments. (If Bobby Hurley resuscitates Arizona State the next few seasons, he’d emerge as a name). Brey worked for White at Notre Dame before the athletic director left for Duke, so there’s some logic there. Arizona’s Miller and Virginia’s Bennett would be intriguing outside options and arguably have better credentials than anyone in the Blue Devil family. But it’s hard to imagine Duke breaking away from Duke.

North Carolina

Future: Williams will be 67 when next season starts. There’s been less speculation about his future this season, as he looks physically healthier than last year. (He was noticeably limping while recovering from knee replacement surgery and also collapsed during a game at Boston College.) Williams has stated he’d have a “hard time” leaving UNC amid its NCAA issues and he wants the program in “good shape” upon his exit. But considering the complications and length of that ordeal, that could end up being Pollyannaish.

Timeline: Considering that the investigation of UNC’s academics can be traced back to 2011, it’s hard to imagine immediate closure on that front. The NCAA verdict and Williams’ health are the variables here. Both impossible to predict. On the court, UNC may have the best team in the country this year. Performance obviously isn’t an issue. Williams’ contract runs through 2020. So much can change by then. Williams maintained after the NCAA Tournament he’d like to coach five to nine more years.

Next: The best guess here remains Arizona’s Miller. It would make sense that they make a huge run at Texas’ Smart, especially if he gets that program back to the top of the Big 12. Notre Dame’s Brey would fit, as a pleasing offensive aesthetic is important to the Tar Heel faithful. If UNC officials didn’t consider Dayton’s Archie Miller because he attended N.C. State, they are as ignorant as they are arrogant. There’s no logical candidates in the UNC family right now.

 

Louisville

Coach: Rick Pitino (64)

Future: The only two things certain about NCAA investigations are they won’t be resolved quickly and you would be foolish to predict the outcome. NCAA enforcement has a history of making it up as they go along, which makes accurately projecting potential punishments as likely as picking a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket. The future of Louisville’s program, and Pitino’s career in some ways, are tied to the fickle NCAA process. Williams can relate. So can Boeheim and UConn’s Jim Calhoun, as their exits ran parallel to NCAA ignominy. Louisville and Pitino’s time before the Committee on Infractions is expected to come in the next six months, and he’s fighting the NCAA charges that he’s presumed responsible and failed to monitor a former staffer paying $5,400 for strippers. 

Timeline: This is difficult to say. Pitino initially said years ago he’d stop coaching in 2017 when his contract expired. Then he walked back on that. He’s under contract through 2026, but it’s difficult to imagine him going that long. Would NCAA sanctions in addition to what Louisville already self-imposed change anything? Pitino faces the realistic possibility of an in-season suspension.

Next: Cronin would be a logical frontrunner. He’s a former Pitino assistant and is headed to his ninth NCAA Tournament, including his seventh in a row. Athletic director Tom Jurich has long been enamored with Villanova’s Jay Wright, but that seems like a reach. Tech’s Buzz Williams has certainly earned the respect of many around the ACC in a short time. Mack, Smart and both Millers could also emerge as names.

Syracuse

Coach: Jim Boeheim (72) 

Future: There’s a plan in place for Hopkins to take over at the start of the 2018 season. Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack reiterated that publically as recently as earlier this month. The reality here is that Boeheim was essentially forced out because of Syracuse’s significant NCAA issues. This doesn’t sit well with him. People close to him still hold the belief that he’ll somehow figure out a way to coach past next season. (Boeheim has remained relatively quiet on the topic, saying little publically about the transition to Hopkins.) The read here is that it offends Boeheim’s ego and competitiveness that he’s being told to leave a place that he willed into being a top-echelon college job in his 41 seasons as head coach.

Timeline: Boeheim is no stranger to controversy and off-court issues. His answer has always been to win, as winning dulls the stain of scandal and quiets critics. Can he change his fate at Syracuse by continuing to win?

Who is next? It’s scheduled to be Hopkins. That’s what the university announced, and the plan that’s been set in place. The university officially announced the transition to Hopkins and no one from campus or the athletic department has wavered. But it’s hard to envision Boeheim going quietly into retirement. (Can you imagine him waving to opposing crowds on a David Ortiz-style goodbye tour next year?) His wife, Juli, described Boeheim’s nine-game suspension last year to Sports Illustrated as “quiet misery.” Boeheim is a fighter, as evidenced by his vitriolic public comments in the wake of the Bernie Fine scandal and Syracuse’s latest NCAA issues. Boeheim maintains Syracuse didn’t cheat, they broke the rules, which was greeted by a soundtrack of laughter and skepticism at the Final Four last year.

The feeling around Boeheim’s circle is that he wants to remain as coach and plot his own exit. And if that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine him exiting cleanly. Whether that amounts to anything remains to be seen, as it would be a horrible look for the university to reverse course in the wake of the NCAA issues. But there are few people who think Boeheim will go quietly. 

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