Legendary coaches hand picking their successors is a great idea, until it isn’t

Legendary coaches hand picking their successors is a great idea, until it isn’t


Coach K is Duke basketball, and following in his footsteps is an impossible task.

Coach K is Duke basketball, and following in his footsteps is an impossible task.
Image: Getty Images

Tonight will mark the final time Mike Krzyzewski coaches a basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium after 42 seasons as Duke’s head coach. It’s a game against archrival North Carolina, with Hubert Davis patrolling the other sideline in his first season guiding the Tar Heels after the retirement of Roy Williams. Next year’s pair of regular-season matchups between the Atlantic Coast Conferences schools will feature Davis matching wits against Krzyzewski’s hand-picked successor Jon Scheyer, who turns 35 in August.

The word “deserving” pops into my head when discussing these hires, and ones like it in the future, even to the point where I’m not sure that’s the correct way to describe how the blue-blood coaches want to ride into the sunset, yet have a direct say in their lineage. It’s a complicated issue with a necessary system of checks and balances in place. If Scheyer isn’t successful and has a tenure like former UNC head Matt Doherty, he’ll be out of Durham before most of us blink.

Possibly because their predecessors were so pedestal-placed high-profile on a national level that the elevated assistants taking the reins of these sacred programs were never going to fit the bill until they too have conference championships and deep NCAA Tournament runs. If age is a primary factor in legendary coaches turning in their clipboards, maybe the best thing for their programs is to keep the hire internal. That way there’s little residual effects on the current roster, support staff and, most importantly, recruiting. Also, is there a better education of learning what it’s like to be Duke’s basketball coach than from Krzyzewski? And if he’s the master, wouldn’t he know which of his pupils has the best chance to become a new sensei?

Despite protecting the legacy and possible egos of a Krzyzewski, their decisions to step down should have contingencies. There might be no better example of that than the situation at Syracuse. Jim Boeheim will turn 78 not too soon after the Orange begin next season, and he’s already pledged to stay on with the program at least until the calendar flips to 2023. In an interview with ESPN Radio in Syracuse on Wednesday, Boeheim said there’s a plan in place for when he steps down.

No further details of that arrangement were revealed, with Boeheim citing recruiting for shutting the lid on the topic, but he did drop the nugget that he expects to have a say in his replacement. Sorry, that’s bullshit. Boeheim either will have 100 percent of the decision or none. His blessing either holds the weight of Don Corleone or one of the stadium workers, cleaning up after every game at the Carrier Dome. It’s likely the former, Boeheim’s a living legend. Pretending he won’t get his way is dumb, donors to the program will make sure of it. Whether he makes the right decision is a much better debate.

This isn’t just a trend with coaches at the highest level of the sport. Thomas Jefferson University’s Herb Magee, the longest-tenured college basketball head coach of all time, who is also retiring at the conclusion of this season, had his replacement announced in the same September news release as his public notice to step down. Magee started coaching at the Philadelphia school nine years before the release of Rocky. Rick Barry was the NBA’s leading scorer at the time. And he’s handing over his responsibilities to Jimmy Reilly, who’s been one of his assistants since 2007.

This direct line of succession doesn’t transfer to the highest levels of college football as seamlessly. Ray Perkins replaced Bear Bryant as Alabama’s head coach. He was a Crimson Tide alum but had never coached with Bryant and flamed out after four seasons. It won’t be an Alabama assistant who takes over for Nick Saban, who’ll no doubt stay in his current position until at least 2026 with the decision to keep the College Football Playoff at four teams. That day and age of college football is over. Whoever Alabama’s boosters want to poach when that day comes, they’ll get. For history’s sake, Woody Hayes and Hayden Fry were replaced by assistants that left for other jobs years ago, while Bo Schembechler and Vince Dooley were succeeded by assistant coaches on their final staffs.

The lack of Krzyzewski’s presence in college basketball will be an adjustment for the entire sport. It’ll be the same when Boeheim and Saban stop coaching, too. The judgments on Davis, Scheyer, and Boeheim’s replacement will be harsher because of the once-in-a-lifetime scenarios they inherit. Maybe that’s why the cheapest ticket on Vivid Seats to be at tonight’s North Carolina-Duke game is $3,110 and will likely rise closer to tipoff. That’s insane when there’s an option to watch it for free on ESPN. Or maybe it’s not so insane for Duke fans. It’s the last guaranteed day in Durham where the Blue Devils’ success that’s become the norm will be envisioned in the exact same way.



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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.