The idea that Mike Krzyzewski was going to retire as the Duke men’s basketball coach soon was pretty obvious. The reality of his pending departure was made more inevitable as he turned 74 and the Blue Devils missed the tournament during an erratic COVID-19 season that also saw nearby rival Roy Williams leave North Carolina.
Speculation about future successors has been going on for years, so the school wasn’t caught flat-footed when Krzyzewski finally made the decision to walk away. There were plenty of former Duke players and assistants on his coaching tree to choose from. Names that had been discussed for more than a decade with each going up and down as they navigated their careers as head coaches.
So the decision to select associate head coach Jon Scheyer as Coach K’s replacement when he finishes his 42nd season at the school was as jarring as the thought of Krzyzewski no longer being on the Duke sideline after next year.
“Duke University has been a central part of my life for more than a decade, and I could not ask for a better place to continue my career,” Scheyer said in a statement. “This is absolutely humbling. First, I offer extreme gratitude to the greatest coach of all time whose career is unrivaled in basketball. Coach K has built the premier program in our sport thanks to his unwavering competitive edge, a tireless attention to detail, a family-first approach and a remarkable compassion and care of his players, coaches, and staff. He has set a standard that every coach at every level should strive to achieve.”
It was just 11 years ago that Scheyer was leading the Blue Devils to the national title as a player. Now, with seven years experience as a Duke assistant, he steps into arguably the biggest shoes to fill of any coach in the history of college athletics.
That’s how big of a shadow Coach K has cast during his tenure. It’s more than the 1,170 coaching victories that make him college basketball’s all-time leader. It’s more than the 12 Final Fours that tie him with John Wooden for the most ever. It’s more than the five national titles at Duke or three gold medals won while coaching the U.S. men’s basketball team at the Olympics.
His personality and success have put Duke as the epicenter of college basketball. There’s no middle ground. You either love or hate the Blue Devils, with most of the school’s many rivals falling in the latter category.
The curious decision to pick Scheyer wasn’t just in his lack of experience. It’s also that it cast aside several other options with significantly more seasoning.
Mike Brey, who was an assistant on Duke’s first two national title teams in 1991 and 1992, has made 14 tournament appearance in his 26 years as a head coach, the last 21 with Notre Dame.
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Tommy Amaker, former player in the 1980s, has been a coach for 24 years with stops at Seton Hall and Michigan before his current job at Harvard.
Johnny Dawkins. a college teammate of Amaker’s, is entering his sixth season at Central Florida after eight years at Stanford.
Jeff Capel, who has spent 12 years as a head coach spread among Virginia Commonwealth, Oklahoma and currently Pittsburgh, previously spent seven seasons as a Krzyzewski assistant before taking the Panthers job after the 2018 season. Capel had stepped in as interim coach for Coach K when the latter was sidelined with illnesses in 2016 and 2017.
There’s also former star point guard Bobby Hurley, who has led both Buffalo and Arizona State to the tournament.
If Duke wanted to look to the NBA, former player Quin Snyder led the Utah Jazz this season to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
And that’s just inside the Duke family. There also is one obvious possibility if they wanted to buck conventional wisdom and go outside the box.
Brad Stevens had been mentioned as a possible successor since his time at Butler. He surprised many by leaving for the Boston Celtics in 2013. The thought has always been that Duke is the one job that would entice him back to college basketball. It’s been noted many times Krzyzewski holds Stevens in high regard. It was a home run hire.
However, it was announced Stevens was leaving the bench to become the Celtics director of basketball operations earlier Wednesday, so it seemed unlikely he would leave so quickly.
But Duke gaveScheyer the keys to a program that has become synonymous with college basketball. Perhaps the school was guided by the symmetry in its decision to hire Krzyzewski in 1980.
Then 33, he had been at Army for five seasons with just one NIT appearance among his postseason accomplishments. The Black Knights had just gone 9-17.
The move inspired tremendous skepticism. While Duke wasn’t the Duke we know today, the Blue Devils were an established ACC power. They had gone to the national title game in 1978 and were in the Elite Eight before Bill Foster’s departure to South Carolina created the vacancy.
Scheyer also is 33 and will face the same skepticism. His playing and coaching experience gives him knowledge of the program and the expectations. But it is different recruiting and coaching next to one of the best to ever do it and then having to call the shots yourself.
Given all the options in play, there’s a feeling that Duke could have done better. That the program deserved someone with a bigger pedigree. Those were also the feelings when Krzyzewski was hired.
Scheyer, however, faces much greater scrutiny and has less rope than his mentor. The Blue Devils didn’t make the tournament in Coach K’s first three seasons and there were calls for his firing with his record at 38-47. They made the tournament the next year. And the rest of his tenure, as they say, was history,
Now it’s up to Scheyer to make his own history. It’s an incredible unknown for such a known quantity of a program.
On the bright side, there are options if things don’t go well.
Follow colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith
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