By AL FEATHERSTON
Mike Krzyzewski is the patron saint of struggling coaches.
If you don't know - and if you don't, any new coach having a tough time will remind you - Coach K got off to a rough start at Duke. After a so-so 17-13 record in his first season in Durham, Krzyzewski went 10-17 and 11-17 in his second and third years.
And now look, the struggling coaches will say, he's the best coach in college basketball!
Last fall, when working on a story about Coach K's pursuit of Bob Knight's records for all-time wins, I talked to a number of ACC coaches about the Blue Devil coach. Several of the ACC's new coaches brought up Krzyzewski's rough start.
"He didn't have instant success in the ACC, which makes what he's done even more incredible," first-year Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. "You have to give credit to Tom Butters for giving him the opportunity to implement his philosophy, not in the short run, but in the long run. There was patience and understanding that what Coach K was building was very, very special."
Brad Brownell, who knew he was facing a tough second-season at Clemson, added: "If you wouldn't have given Coach K five years, we wouldn't have Coach K. What he's been able to do at Duke is incredible."
Does that sound like a subtle plea for the Clemson people to give him five years?
Of course, Krzyzewski is the exception, not the norm. His situation reminds me of a scene from a movie that used to receive frequent midnight showings when I was at Duke: Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in Bedazzled. Cook tells a suicidal Moore than he's Lucifer, come to offer him seven wishes in return for his soul:
Moore: "You are a freaking nutcase!"
Cook: "That's what they said about Jesus Christ, Freud and Galileo."
Moore: "They said it about a lot of nutcases too."
When Jeff Bzdelik comes under fire for his second terrible season in a row at Wake Forest, his defenders are quick to point to Mike Krzyzewski's early struggles at Duke and to suggest that their coach deserves the same patience as the Blue Devils' Hall of Fame coach.
They have a point.
But Bzdelik's critics could with equal validity point to Jack McCloskey, who got the Wake Forest job in 1966-67 and promptly went 9-18 and 5-21. McCloskey got more time, keeping the Wake job for six years. In that time, he had one winning season in ACC play (and that was 8-6). When he was fired after an 8-18 season in 1972, McCloskey had a career record of 70-89 (32-50 in the ACC).
You can't help thinking that the Deacons would have been better off if they'd pulled the trigger on McCloskey after two years instead of suffering through six years.
Why shouldn't Jack McCloskey be viewed as the forerunner to Bzdelik instead of Mike Krzyzewski? The truth is that in the history of ACC - and NCAA - basketball, there have been a LOT more Jack McCloskeys than Mike Krzyzewskis.
Let's see, N.C. State gave Sidney Lowe five years and never got better than a 6-10 ACC record. Florida State gave Steve Robinson five years and he managed one winning season - his first. Paul Hewitt got 11 seasons at Georgia Tech - largely on the strength of his 2004 Final Four run - but in his long tenure in Atlanta, the Jackets posted just one winning season in ACC play (and that one was 9-7). Then there's Seth Greenberg at Virginia Tech. He's currently in his ninth season in Blacksburg and while he's actually posted a few decent ACC records, his teams have made the NCAA Tournament exactly one time in eight years - and they didn't make it this season.
At what point is a fan base justified on giving up on a coach?
Frank Haith got seven years at Miami and he never had a winning season in ACC play. Then again, he's had great success in his first season at Missouri, so did the 'Canes get rid of him too soon?
You can see the dilemma facing an athletic director with a struggling coach. You don't want to fire Mike Krzyzewski too soon â¦ but you don't want to fire Jack McCloskey too late.
However, I think there is just one current ACC athletic director who faces that decision. Eight of the league's schools have turned over coaches in the last three years and it's too early to pull the trigger on any of those guys. Krzyzewski at Duke and Roy Williams at UNC are Hall of Fame coaches who have earned the right to dictate their own timetable for retirement. And Leonard Hamilton of Florida State - another good argument for patience - has slowly constructed a consistent winner in Tallahassee. The FSU program is probably in the best shape it's been in since Hugh Durham was breaking so many rules that even Jerry Tarkanian was complaining that he was a cheater (true story - before the 1972 Final Four, Tark the Shark complained that it was an outrage that such a renegade program as FSU was allowed to compete for the national title).
That leaves Greenberg and his continued mediocrity in Blacksburg. He'd be long gone at a school that valued basketball. His continued presence at Virginia Tech is a testament of that school's sole focus on football and its low expectations in basketball.
BREAKDOWN DOWN THE NEW GUYS
Last spring, I talked to an ACC official about the league's recent decline in basketball. He attributed it to a decline in the quality of the head coaches.
This official cited a combination of bad luck (the untimely death of Skip Prosser was a huge setback at Wake Forest) and bad decisions (Sidney Lowe was a popular former player at N.C. State, but he had absolutely no collegiate coaching experience). He liked Paul Hewitt, but suggested the ex-Georgia Tech coach had struggled more with the NCAA's one-and-done issue than any other coach. He didn't say so, but we both knew that Al Skinner - once a superb coach at Boston College - had lost his energy and was just coasting in his last years at Chestnut Hills. We disagreed about Gary Williams - another superb coach in his prime - who seemed to me to have lost his fire after finally winning the national title in 2002.
His thinking - and I agree - is that the ACC has upgraded its coaching in the last three years. That's not to say that every single change was an upgrade, but the sum total of the eight recent changes seems to be a clear upgrade.
The problem is that it's difficult to turn a bad situation around overnight. There is usually going to be a transition period. So the benefits of the changes haven't show up - yet.
But they are coming.
Let's survey the eight newcomers and see how they are doing:
IN HIS THIRD YEAR
TONY BENNETT, Virginia
Bennett is the most obvious success story - but also the guy with the most time to work his magic.
Virginia basketball went downhill fast under Dave Leitao. He actually had considerable success in his second season - guiding the Cavs to a share of the ACC regular season title and the NCAA Tournament. But that success was accomplished with a terrific upperclass backcourt that he inherited from Pete Gillen, When Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds graduated, the Virginia program fell fast - 5-11 and 4-12 in the ACC the next two seasons.
Worse were the revelations that Leitao was an abusive coach (like Matt Doherty at UNC), who alienated many of his own players.
Bennett, the son of a legendary coach, was a solid hire. In his first two seasons at Washington State, he won 52 games and reached the NCAA Sweet 16.
He found success in Charlottesville this season after 15-16 and 16-15 years (a combined 12-19 in the ACC).
Bennett has had to overcome considerable obstacles to turn the Cavs into a top 25 team. The most talented player he inherited from Dave Leitao (Sylvan Landesberg) quit after one contentious season. Several of his own recruits - Billy Baron, James Johnson, K.T. Harrell - left earlier this season. His best player, forward Mike Scott, was lost to an injury early in his second season. Midway though this year, starting center Assane Sene was lost with an ankle injury. Later, sophomore wing Joe Harris - the best player Bennett has recruited at Virginia - suffered a broken bone in his left hand and had to play wearing an awkward protective device.
Yet through all that, Virginia finished 22-10 and played in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007.
Clearly, Bennett has earned the support of the Virginia administration. But - just to demonstrate how difficult an AD's job is - there are a few concerns about Bennett's long-term success.
First, it must be recognized that most of his success this season had been due to players he inherited from Leitao - Scott, especially, but also Sene and guards Sammy Zeglinski and Jontel Evans. All except Evans will be gone next year.
Then there are the transfers. It is one thing when players recruited by another coach leave, but quite another where your own recruits bail out. Guys like Harrell and Baron would really have helped this year's team. And before his transfer, all the Virginia people I know told me what a great power forward prospect Johnson was - how he was the heir apparent to Scott.
Could the transfers be a matter of tempo?
When Bennett won at Washington State, he did it by playing one of the slowest tempos in the country. His team played (and won) a lot of slow-moving, defensive oriented games. But when he was hired at Virginia, he insisted that he wanted to play a quick, up tempo game - as soon as he got the players.
Well, it is three years later and Bennett is still playing the slow, defensive game that was so successful for him at Washington State. In fact, according to Ken Pomeroy's figures, Virginia is playing the fifth slowest tempo in college basketball.
That's fine as far as it goes. There are no rules about how fast you have to play. Most fans would rather win slow than lose fast. The problem is that it's hard to find top-quality prospects who want to play in that kind of system. There's a reason that the guys who sign all the McDonald's All-Americans play fast tempos - that's what the great majority of kids want to play.
Honestly, I don't know if tempo has anything to do with all the defections Bennett has had in Charlottesville. He's recruited well this year, but with the graduation of Scott, Sene and Zeglinski, a lot is going to be demanded from his incoming class - especially up front. Bennett has signed a couple of very well-regarded wings (6-6 Justin Anderson and 6-8 Evan Nolte), but the only frontcourt help on the list is 6-11 Mike Tobey, who is not generally rated a top 100 prospect.
So while Bennett is doing a great job this season, the long-term prospects of his program are harder to figure. It's a curious thing about recent Virginia coaches. Pete Gillen has his best two seasons in his second and third years in Charlottesville. His record declined in each of his next four seasons. Leitao, as noted, had his best success in Year Two, then he too declined.
Bennett appears to have had a breakthrough season in his third year at Virginia. But we'll have to see if it's a real breakthrough that he can build on or the same kind of illusion that Gillen had in 2000 and 2001 or that Leitao had in 2007.
THE SECOND-YEAR GUYS
BRAD BROWNELL, Clemson
Six of the eight newcomers are replacing coaches who were fired. Brownell is one of the two exceptions - he's replacing Oliver Purnell, who left on his own to become head coach at DePaul. This wasn't anything like the get-out-of-town-while-the-getting-is-good scenario that saw Frank Haith bolt Miami for Missouri or Herb Sendek leave N.C. State for Arizona State.
Purnell had done an excellent job in his seven years at the ACC's toughest basketball job. He inherited a program that was a shambles under Larry Shyatt and after one losing season, quickly lifted the Tigers to six postseason trips in a row - the last three to the NCAA Tournament.
Purnell left Brownell a solid core of players and with that veteran group, the first-year Tiger coach continued Purnell's streak of 20-plus win NCAA teams. In fact, he went Purnell better - actually winning an NCAA game (something the former coach has never done in his career).
Unfortunately, what he hasn't done is to continue to re-supply the talent pool at Clemson.
Losing Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant - 2011's top two scorers -- left the Tigers without enough firepower to compete with the ACC's best teams. And it's a bad sign for the long-term health of the program that three 2012 starters are seniors, including the top two scorers (point guard Andre Young and wing Tanner Smith).
There was not a sophomore on the roster and the three freshmen who saw double figure minutes averaged 4.2, 4.0 and 3.7 points a game. A lot is going to depend on Devin Coleman, Rod Hall, T.J. Sapp and K.J. McDaniels developing into quality ACC players â¦ but if they can't do any more for this year's offensively challenged Clemson team, it's hard to project them as stars next year.
Brownell does have a very balanced five-man recruiting class signed. Unfortunately, none rank among the RSCI's top 100 prospects, so unless Brownell has found a diamond in the rough, the Tigers are facing another rough year in 2013, when nine of his top 11 players will be freshmen and sophomores.
However, there are soon good signs. Despite a clear talent gap with most of the ACC, Brownell's Tigers were surprisingly competitive this season in the league. Of their first six ACC losses, three were by two points, one by three points and one was by four points. They did hammer Florida State by 20 points and win at Wake Forest for the first time in a quarter century.
The team's 8-8 ACC finish was amazing under the circumstances.
Clearly, Brownell can get the most out of his talent. His job in the future is to figure out a way to get some more talent.
STEVE DONAHUE,Â Boston College
Blaming Donahue for this season's 9-22 nightmare is like blaming Bzdelik for his 8-24 disaster in 2012. In both cases, the previous coach had failed to leave any kind of nucleus for his successor.
Well, to be fair, Al Skinner did leave Donahue with a nice core of veteran players. Unfortunately, they were all seniors, except for NBA-bound junior Reggie Jackson. It's to Donahue's credit that he got more from that group (21-13, 9-7 ACC) than Skinner did with an even more talented group in 2011 (15-16, 6-10).
At last year's ACC Tournament, Donahue told reporters that he was viewing this season as the real start of his tenure at Boston College. He knew that he would have to restock the program - which didn't have a single junior or senior and just two little-used sophomores - from scratch.
Now, here's where the Krzyzewski analogy really seems appropriate. When Coach K replaced Bill Foster after an ACC championship season in 1980, he inherited a team with three quality players - senior forwards Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard and junior Vince Taylor. In light of what he had, his 17-13 NIT season was pretty good.
But after Banks and Dennard graduated, Krzyzewski had to start over from scratch. He actually misfired with his first recruiting class (wasting Taylor's senior season), but landed his foundation class in 1982. In their first year, Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas and company struggled to an 11-17 finish. But they anchored a team with 24 wins a year later and were all starters on a team that won 37 games, finished No. 1 in the AP poll, won the ACC and played for the national championship in 1986.
Donahue's foundation class is playing its freshman dues this season. He brought in nine freshmen (seven on scholarship and two recruited walk-ons) and six have started at times this season. Usually he starts four, along with Oregon transfer Matt Humphrey.
It is the youngest - least experienced team -- in ACC history.
There's also one big difference between K's foundation class in 1982 and the one Donahue brought in this year - Duke's '82 class was ranked as the best in the nation. Dawkins and Alarie were McDonald's All-Americans. Bilas, Weldon Williams and Bill Jackman were all top 50 recruits. David Henderson (who turned out to be the third-best player in the class) was a top 100 guy.
Donahue's class was not so highly regarded. It contains no McDonald's Americans and doesn't include a single top 100 prospect (not according to the RSCI). It's fair to ask whether the talent is enough to form a real foundation?
Before the season, Donahue was very confident in his ability to evaluate talent. He insisted that his recruits were good enough to succeed - eventually - in the ACC.
After watching the Eagles closely this season, I have to agree. Boston College might have won just four ACC games, but that's four more than most of us expected. In hindsight, the greatest surprise of the season was BC's homecourt victory over Florida State. With a little luck, the Eagles could have had five or six ACC wins - they led Virginia Tech most of the way in Blacksburg, losing on a last second shot; they were competitive to the final minute against N.C. State and at Georgia Tech.
There's obviously talent on this team. Dennis Clifford needs to get stronger, but he's going to be a big-time ACC big man. Lonnie Jackson has a nice 3-point stroke and is a good athlete. Jordan Daniels is a tiny jet at point guard. Ryan Anderson is an ACC-caliber forward. Patrick Heckman was the ACC's second-highest scoring freshman before laid low by mono.
When Donahue was at Cornell, he recruited a group of underappreciated players who took their lumps as freshmen. By the time they were juniors, they were dominating the Ivy League. As seniors, they marched to the Sweet 16.
Of course, that's the Ivy and this is the ACC. But Donahue has to be encouraged by the progress his kids have made over the course of the season.
In the long term, I'm not sure Boston College's prospects aren't better than Virginia's or Clemson's. Donahue's kids have to keep getting better and he's got to keep adding talent. But if I were a BC fan, I'd be extremely excited about the future.
JEFF BZDELIK, Wake Forest
It's hard not to feel sorry for Jeff Bzdelik. He inherited a program that had been stripped of its talent by graduation and early NBA entry. Then he gets to Winston-Salem and finds his roster populated by a bunch of knuckleheads. Throw in a few critical injuries and what you get is the worst season in modern ACC history.
The 2012 Deacs are better â¦ not great, not even good, but better.
You have to admire the way Bzdelik has cleaned the Deacon house. He's pushed a number of talented, but selfish players - center Tony Wood, forward Melvin Tabb, guard J.T. Terrell and forward Ari Stewart - out the door.
This year's team had less talent than the 2011 Deacs, but it got much better results -five more wins, six less losses and a jump from one to four ACC wins. Bzdelik developed two quality ACC players - junior guard C.J. Harris and sophomore forward Travis McKie. He figured out a way to get some value from 7-foot senior Ty Walker, an extraordinary shot blocker who didn't rebound well and had absolutely no offensive game.
Still, Bzdelik has a long way to go to turn Wake Forest into an upper echelon ACC team. It would help if sophomore big man Carson Desrosiers would show some progress or if sophomore point guard Tony Chennault would develop a bit of consistency.
Long-term, the success or failure of the Bzdelik regime is probably going to depend on his incoming freshman class. The Deacon coach signed six players last fall, including Codi-Miller McIntyre, a player that many prep basketball gurus rate among the best point guard prospects in the country.
If Miller-McIntyre can provide the floor leadership that Chennault has not delivered, Bzdelik will have a nice perimeter situation next year with the rookie at the point and the veterans Harris and McKie on the wings. The big question mark will be inside, where either Desrosiers finally grows up or freshmen Devin Thomas or Aaron Roundtree need to be impact guys.
I'd feel better about Wake Forest's future if Bzdelik had a better track record. His career record is 15 games under .500. It's true that he's inherited some tough situations, but he hasn't turned any of them into winners. He did have some success at Air Force, where he inherited a program on the rise, but after milking one NCAA and one NIT trip out of Joe Scott's players, he left the program in a shambles.
Worse, he's killed interest in Wake Forest basketball. Attendance at Lawrence Joel this season was at an all-time low -- the Deacons couldn't even sell out when UNC and Duke came to town.
Bzdelik is a coach I would watch closely if I were the Deacon AD. He deserves a chance to coach next year's team, but I'd be ready to pull the trigger if he doesn't show considerable progress.
TOMORROW: The four first-year coaches
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