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Column: Coach K’s replacement will define next Duke AD’s legacy

Coach K outlasted Kevin White's tenure as Duke's athletic director, but it's unlikely he'll outlast White's successor.
Coach K outlasted Kevin White's tenure as Duke's athletic director, but it's unlikely he'll outlast White's successor.

I’m writing this column less than two hours after Kevin White announced his upcoming retirement from his role as Duke’s athletic director.

We don’t even have a list of candidates for his successor yet, with the press release simply stating that a national search would begin “soon."

But we do know this—whoever does end up as Duke’s next athletic director will more or less be remembered by one decision: the hiring of Coach K’s replacement.

Of course, athletic directors serve a lot of important functions outside of hiring coaches, as White exemplified during a 13-year tenure in Durham that included greatly expanded athletic facilities and exemplary academic performance from the school’s student-athletes.

Furthermore, it’s unfair to remember someone based on one single hire. But when it comes to the legacy of White’s successor to the general public, that one decision will overshadow the rest, not only because of the impact it’ll obviously have on the future of Duke basketball but also because of its impact on the program’s brand.

Duke is commonly known as one of the six traditional blue blood programs in college basketball, alongside North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA and Indiana. However, the Blue Devils are the only program within that group to win all of its national championships under one head coach.

Yes, Duke’s history as a college basketball power goes back far before Mike Krzyzewski was hired in 1980. Duke plays inside Cameron Indoor Stadium for a reason—named after former head coach Eddie Cameron—and both Vic Bubas and Bill Foster led the Blue Devils to national championship game appearances.

But the Duke basketball we all know today has largely been the product of Krzyzewski and his tenure as head coach, with all five of the program’s national titles coming under his watch. Whenever Krzyzewski decides to retire, the hiring of his replacement will be monumental in proving Duke basketball can truly transcend that one name.

And more likely than not, Duke’s next athletic director will be the one making that hire.

That isn’t a guarantee, however. Nearly 13 years ago, when White’s predecessor Joe Alleva announced he would be taking the athletic director position at LSU, The Chronicle emphasized the importance of Krzyzewski’s retirement—whether it be “soon or 10 years down the road”—in the search for Alleva’s replacement.

We now know that at the time that article was written, Krzyzewski’s retirement would be neither soon nor 10 years down the road, and that White never had to worry about finding a new men’s basketball head coach. Will some future Chronicle writer 10+ years from now be linking my column and saying the same thing?

The answer is unlikely. 

Krzyzewski will turn 74 years old next month, making him just the fourth coach ever to lead a college basketball team at that age. The other three are former Temple head coach John Chaney, who retired at 74, as well as current Coastal Carolina head coach Cliff Ellis (75) and Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim (76). 

Thus, the odds are slim that Krzyzewski outlasts Duke’s next athletic director. The school’s shortest tenured AD was Carl James from 1972 until 1977, when he left to become the executive director of the Sugar Bowl. The next shortest is Alleva’s 10-year stay from 1998 to 2008.

So when all’s said and done, this next athletic director will more than likely take on the responsibility of leading the charge in hiring the new face of Duke men’s basketball. Krzyzewski will undoubtedly have a say in the decision, and there’s a solid chance his eventual successor will have either played or coached under him at Duke, but it will ultimately be the athletic director’s hire to make.

And they better make it count.

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