Coach K, Roy Williams and More: Behind the Trend of Legends Leaving College Sports

As the NCAA landscape faces big changes, multiple longterm fixtures are hanging it up. Are the two connected?
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Jimmy Dykes politely asks for a brief moment while he scans through his cellphone to retrieve a message.

The text he received from a somewhat young head coach at a Power 6 basketball program, he says, will provide an appropriate answer to a question he’s just been asked. How frustrated are college basketball coaches at the state of the industry?

“This text says a lot,” says Dykes, an ESPN college basketball analyst and former coach.

Dykes finds the message and begins reading.

“I’m trying to process it all. The last 14 months and the rule changes will FOREVER change the model of college athletics. The next five years will be the most volatile we’ve ever had in the sport. I’m trying to figure it out every hour like every other coach in the country.”

The college coaching fraternity—basketball, football and beyond—has been simmering now for several months over the changing landscape of college athletics, specifically rules governing athlete compensation and transfer liberties. In fact, some believe that the NCAA’s modernization of its rules is even pushing longtime coaches and administrators out of the profession entirely.

Coach K and Roy Williams first bump

On Wednesday, Mike Krzyzewski announced his retirement, and while at 74 he’s well past the normal retirement age, there is a sense that he’s the latest coach and administrator from his generation who has called it quits in light of the mounting changes to the game.

Krzyzewski, who will leave after this upcoming 2021–22 season, follows former North Carolina coach Roy Williams out the door as well as his own athletic director, Kevin White, a longtime AD whose influence in the college sports administrative world is unparalleled. Lon Kruger, the longtime men’s basketball coach at Oklahoma, retired recently, too, and so did Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez, Georgia’s Greg McGarity and Dan Guerrero, the long-tenured AD at UCLA.

All of those men are at least 65 and many of them have long barreled through 70. But is it coincidence that the titans of college sports are exiting the industry ahead of the most unsettling year in its history? Some, even those among the group retiring, say no.

Chief among the issues is the roster management problem caused by the new transfer rule allowing all athletes the ability to transfer once in their careers and play immediately at their new school. There is also the impending uncertainty of athlete compensation and lingering struggles from the COVID-19 shutdown. Even the future of the NCAA itself is in question.

“So many of us grew up in what I would call the golden age of athletics, where it was not as complicated. It’s always been complicated but nowhere near as complicated as it is now,” says McGarity, who, after more than a decade as Georgia’s AD, is now working for the Gator Bowl.

“I doubt Coach K and Roy Williams could say for certain, ‘This is who is going to be on my team next year.’ The uncertainty is adding to the exodus of coaches from the game. It’s a domino effect. It affects everyone, including athletic directors.”

Not everyone agrees, of course. At least one of the retirements was scheduled to happen last year. Alvarez, 74, delayed his departure to lead the Wisconsin athletic department through the pandemic.

Others have been a long time coming, industry experts say. White and Williams, for instance, are both 70, and Kruger and Guerrero are 68.

“Coaching and being an AD today is really, really hard and you get to a certain age and everybody has to go at some point,” says Gene DeFilippo, the retired former Villanova and Boston College athletic director who is now the executive director of Turnkey Sports and Entertainment, one of the most widely used coaching search firms. “I think a lot of it is age. Guys are tired.”

However, for two of college basketball’s greats, Williams and Krzyzewski, the transfer situation is linked to their departures, according to several published reports and their own public statements.

Williams, a self-proclaimed “old school” coach, spoke out against the NCAA’s new transfer legislation in March. The coach, in fact, was caught in one of the more high-profile transfer situations earlier this year, when his five-star, 7-foot center, Walker Kessler, jumped into the transfer portal after one season, eventually landing at Auburn in a move that finally nudged Williams out the door.

Across the college basketball landscape, coaches are grappling with this new reality—free agency, they say, has arrived in the sport. Earlier this spring, the transfer portal boasted more than 1,200 men’s basketball players, accounting for about one-fourth of the available Division I scholarship spots.

Mining college basketball’s new waiver wire may be the quickest path to success. This year’s men’s national champion, Baylor, started two and sometimes three transfers, getting 54% of its points from those players this season.

Across the NCAA, transfer rates continue to soar, according to research from the governing body. In men’s basketball, about 40% of players who enter D-I out of high school depart their initial school by the end of their sophomore year. The four-year transfer rate in men’s hoops has risen from 10% in 2010 to 16% last year.

“I think you see coaches saying, ‘I don’t want to deal with this anymore,’ ” says Dykes. “I think there are a lot of college coaches trapped in their job. They don’t like the landscape, like how it looks and there’s no way out for them in their mind because of the pressure and responsibilities all of us have in life.

“It seems like we have lost two of the great voices in college ball. I don’t know if this is too strong to say, but all the hype and push for NIL and the transfer rule ... what are the unintended consequences? It may shorten a lot of coaching careers quicker than we thought they would end.”

However, there are dozens of young coaches—and old—embracing the new rules. They are, in fact, excelling because of them, surveying the transfer portal and plucking the most talented players to add to their rosters.

Baylor wasn’t the only team to make a deep run in the men’s NCAA tournament with a transfer-heavy lineup. Houston transfers scored 61% of the team’s points and accounted for 121 of the team’s 155 total starts in the Cougars’ Final Four dash. Other Final Four teams, UCLA and Gonzaga, used stars from the portal, including the Bruins’ leading scorer, Johnny Juzang, and the Zags’ leader in assists, Andrew Nembhard.

“I think with the changing landscape, if Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski were 40 years old, there wouldn’t be a discussion point. They’d adapt and be fine with it,” says Jay Bilas, a former Duke player for Krzyzewski who is now an ESPN analyst. “But he’s 74 years old; he's looking at retirement whether those changes are coming or not.”

In his news conference Thursday, Krzyzewski confirmed as much, saying that the changes in college basketball didn’t have an impact on his decision. The same goes for Alvarez, who rebuffed any notion that his retirement was tied to NCAA rule changes.

“The new rules, everybody has to deal with them,” Alvarez says. “It’s certainly going to be different whether you like it or not.”

No matter their reasons, the departures leave gaping chasms in college sports at a critical time. Replacing many of them are unproven coaches and administrators who are staring at a metaphorical black hole.

“The next three or four months, it’s the most uncertain time in the history of college athletics,” says Oliver Luck, a former college administrator and NCAA executive.

Some of the old dogs simply shrug. DeFilippo sees it as history repeating itself. The guard in college athletics changes every so often, the older generation giving way to a young wave of coaches and ADs who must navigate newfound and controversial rule changes.

DeFilippo recalls the NCAA’s reducing football scholarships from 95 to 85. Gasp!

He remembers the retirements of John Wooden, Vince Dooley and Bear Bryant. Gasp!

In the end, it all worked out.

“People want to blame it on this and that. It’s just time. We’ve always had issues in college athletics. We’ve always had legends leave,” DeFilippo says. “I never thought we’d see another Bear Bryant and [now] there’s Coach Saban. I never thought there would be another Wooden and there’s Coach K. I don’t know who he is, but there will be another Saban and K. Maybe he’s 10 years old right now.”

More College Basketball Coverage:

• There Will Never Be Another Like Coach K
• Duke Willing to Gamble on Jon Scheyer
• Roy Williams Reacts to Coach K Retirement News