Duke Is Willing to Gamble on Coach K's Selection for a Successor

While he'll have plenty of resources, Jon Scheyer's limited track record further displays the power of legendary coaches in college basketball to pick their replacement.
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There is a self-evident truth for coaches in college athletics: if you win enough, you choose both the hour of your departure and the name of your successor. This is part of the immense control that is granted to the great ones. They morph from employees to potentates who dictate the future paths of their programs.

In this spring of 2021, on the cusp of seismic change in college sports, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski now follows North Carolina’s Roy Williams down the gilded path of power exits. Two of the giants in college basketball history have all but named their replacement. In the case of Williams, there was a thinly veiled “coaching search” that quickly landed on Roy’s chosen man, assistant Hubert Davis. In the case of Krzyzewski, sources say the deal is done before the legend’s retirement announcement is even official: assistant Jon Scheyer is next Dookie up in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke's Jon Scheyer

Both hires are massive gambles. They may work out fine, but there is no track record of head-coaching success for either man. The line of proven winners willing to crawl to Tobacco Road for those jobs would stretch for miles—but in both cases the retiring legend called the shots, and he aimed down the hallway in the basketball office.

Occasionally this happens in pro sports, but more often this is a college thing. Even highly capable and respected athletic directors, like Bubba Cunningham at North Carolina and Kevin White at Duke, cannot usurp the power of their legendary coaches. There is a trust that the stewards of these programs are acting in legitimate good faith, and not just making successor decisions as an extension of their own egos.

There are some notable recent internal successor successes in football: Lincoln Riley following Bob Stoops at Oklahoma; Ryan Day following Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Basketball offers a mixed bag: Kevin Ollie won a national title at Connecticut but flamed out quickly thereafter and was fired; Jim Crews couldn’t sustain what Rick Majerus got rolling at Saint Louis; Brian Dutcher has done very well following Steve Fisher at San Diego State.

College basketball also is in the midst of a No College-Head-Coaching Experience Necessary/Alumni Hiring trend that the Tobacco Road hires flow into. The impact of Juwan Howard’s successful start to his tenure at Michigan cannot be overstated, especially when considering that Indiana followed by naming Mike Woodson and Speedy Claxton was promoted at Hofstra. Davis is a Tar Heel hero from the Dean Smith days and Scheyer was a star on Duke’s 2010 national championship team and an assistant on the ’15 title team.

Another part of the equation: In the cases of both Williams and Krzyzewski, neither had a former assistant or player who had proven himself beyond a doubt to be the man who should follow The Man. That’s surprising, especially when it comes to Coach K and his legion of acolytes.

Jeff Capel went to Oklahoma and won, but ran into NCAA trouble and returned to the Duke bench as an assistant before getting his current job at Pittsburgh. Three straight losing seasons there hardly stamped him as the attractive choice to lead the Blue Devils.

Chris Collins had the breakthrough season at Northwestern in 2017, earning the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth. But since then it’s been a debacle: 45 wins, 74 losses. If anything, he moved closer to the hot seat in Evanston than the big chair in Durham.

Steve Wojciechowski’s diminishing returns at Marquette earned him a pink slip in March. Nate James has been on the Duke bench longer than Scheyer but just took the head-coaching job at Austin Peay. Mike Brey, the most accomplished of Krzyzewski’s old assistants, has swooned at Notre Dame and is 62 years old. Quin Snyder has done fine in the NBA with the Utah Jazz, but his one college stint ended in disaster at Missouri and he probably has zero interest in returning to that level.

Unless Duke opened up to an outside search, Scheyer was just about the last man standing. Perhaps also the best man standing, we’ll see. But the fact that this news broke on the same day that eternal fantasy college candidate Brad Stevens was kicked upstairs to a front-office job by the Boston Celtics adds another layer of coulda-woulda intrigue.

That said, there are things to like about Scheyer and the situation he inherits. A Chicagoan who had his name thrown around this spring as a potential hire at DePaul and (very briefly) Loyola, he is well regarded in recruiting circles. He can spend the 2021–22 season completely attuned to his successor’s role. And, for Dick Vitale’s sake, he’s taking over freaking Duke.

The facilities and program profile are among the most attractive in the sport. The school can sell both academic excellence and a fast track to the NBA, covering a wide swath of elite prospects with one or the other or both. Three five-star prospects are arriving for next season, and Krzyzewski is still around for nearly a full year to sell the place—and his replacement—to future Blue Devils.

“Jon knows the program,” ESPN analyst and former Duke player Jay Bilas said. “He’ll be with Coach K this year. He doesn’t have to do it Coach K’s way; he just has to be himself. The resources are in place.”

But in addition to that vote of confidence, Bilas also offered this opinion: “There’s never been a harder act to follow.” Better slap the floor extra hard after next season, Jon.

This much is sure: It’s going to be a strange thing when Duke-Carolina games in 2023 match Davis vs. Scheyer after more than 60 consecutive seasons in which Dean Smith, Williams and/or Krzyzewski were coaching. For a sport that loves to sell the coaches as its marquee figures, we have a sudden and dramatic wattage decrease at two of the bluebloodiest of all programs.

Is Hubert Davis more Roy Williams or Matt Doherty? Is Jon Scheyer an inspired choice or a comfort hire? In college athletics, schools let departing legends decide what happens next, and part of the bargain for all that winning is that they’re willing to live with the fallout if the next guy isn’t the right guy.

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