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Column: What can UNC’s coaching search teach us about Duke men’s basketball’s future?

Roy Williams' sudden retirement sent shockwaves throughout the college basketball world.
Roy Williams' sudden retirement sent shockwaves throughout the college basketball world.

It’s hard to imagine Duke men’s basketball without Mike Krzyzewski at the helm, but that bizarre reality feels even more inevitable by the day, as North Carolina head coach Roy Williams’ recent retirement indicates.

Before the latter’s retirement, Krzyzewski, 74, and Williams, 70, were already two of the five oldest coaches in ACC men’s basketball history. Next February, Krzyzewski will turn 75, and would become just the second-ever person to coach at that age, following in the footsteps of 76-year-old Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim.

Coach K is no stranger to making history, but the question now looms larger for the Blue Devils: What’s next after his inevitable retirement? And what can we learn about the sudden retirement of Williams and the Tar Heels’ subsequent hiring of former star player and longtime assistant coach Hubert Davis?

The decision on who will succeed Krzyzewski will be monumental not just for the future of the men’s basketball team, but also for the University as a whole. With current athletic director Kevin White set to retire, it is clear that Duke Athletics is at a crossroads. As our Evan Kolin pointed out when White announced his retirement, Duke’s next athletic director will largely be defined by who they select to replace Krzyzewski. Luckily for that person, there are a plethora of potential options to take over, but trying to fill the shoes of the winningest coach in college basketball history is a tall task.

Let’s take a step back and look again at the timeline of what occurred a few miles down the road in Chapel Hill over the last week. On Thursday morning, the Tar Heels announced that Williams was retiring effective immediately. Though there had been some rumblings about the longstanding leader of the Tar Heels’ future, this was a major shock throughout the college basketball world. North Carolina quickly went to work in finding a replacement, reportedly interviewing assistants Davis and Steve Robinson as well as former Tar Heel players turned head coaches Wes Miller and Jerry Stackhouse, who lead UNC-Greensboro and Vanderbilt, respectively. 

Despite having no head coaching experience, Davis quickly emerged as the logical choice to carry on Williams’ legacy. Already a legend for his playing days in Chapel Hill, the 50-year-old spent the last nine years learning under Williams, gaining a reputation as a great recruiter. 

To act like Duke will blindly follow North Carolina’s model on how to replace its own legendary coach is silly, but we can certainly learn a lot from Davis’ hiring. For one, hiring somebody who is already on staff is certainly ideal, as returning players and incoming recruits’ familiarity with the replacement should prevent a flurry of transfers and decommits. 

So, if the Blue Devils were to directly follow the Tar Heels, we should first consider the assistant coaches currently on staff in Durham: Chris Carrawell, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith. Like Davis, all three of these coaches starred on the court at Duke before returning for a role on the coaching staff. At this point, Scheyer seems like the only viable candidate—the 33-year-old is the only one of the trio with the associate head coach title, Carrawell has only been on Duke’s staff since 2018 and Smith has yet to even be named an official assistant coach, currently holding the position of director of operations and player development.

Scheyer’s resume for the Duke job is very similar to Davis’ for the North Carolina position. After a standout Blue Devil career as a player, Scheyer has spent the last seven seasons learning under Krzyzewski and has proven himself to be an elite recruiter. 

But Scheyer is no slam dunk of a candidate. He has never served as a head coach, and, combined with his age, he may be considered too green to take over the Duke job. 

The Blue Devils will most likely look at options beyond those currently on staff as well, and fortunately for them there are still a wide variety of choices with strong Durham ties. A whopping nine men who coached or played under Krzyzewski at Duke are currently Division I head coaches: UCF’s Johnny Dawkins, Harvard’s Tommy Amaker, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley, Howard’s Kenny Blakeney, Northwestern’s Chris Collins, Pittsburgh’s Jeff Capel, Niagara’s Greg Paulus and most recently Austin Peay’s Nate James. In addition to those names, former Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski and current Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder both played and coached under Krzyzewski. 

That gives us 14 coaches with strong Duke ties that have a chance to succeed Krzyzewski. Sure, it’s fun to act like revered coaches such as Villanova’s Jay Wright or the Boston Celtics’ Brad Stevens will leave their current posts for the Cameron Indoor Stadium sidelines, but both of them have shown little interest in other attractive openings, namely the Philadelphia 76ers for Wright and Indiana University for Stevens. 

A lot can change between now and whenever Krzyzewski announces his retirement, but I feel like we can easily whittle our list of 14 down. Snyder’s Jazz team has the best record in the NBA this season, and it feels silly to act like he would leave one of the most appealing NBA jobs for a college position. James, Paulus and Blakeney have a combined four seasons as head coaches under their belt at smaller programs, making them all extremely unlikely to win the Duke job. As I said before, Carrawell and Smith are also longshots to leapfrog Scheyer or a more established option.

So, we are down to eight names now: Dawkins, Amaker, Brey, Hurley, Collins, Capel, Wojciechowski and Scheyer. You could certainly make an argument for any of these guys to take over the Blue Devils, as, with the exception of Scheyer, each coach has achieved legitimate success at major programs. 

Still, it’s hard for me to shake the similarities between Davis and Scheyer. If a long-time assistant with on-court pedigree known for his leadership and recruiting prowess is good enough for North Carolina, why wouldn’t it be good enough for Duke?

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