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Duke Basketball: The Transition From Coach K To Jon Scheyer

After four decades, the torch will be handed off

Livingstone v Duke
DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 04: Assistant Coach Jon Scheyer (L) shares a laugh with Brandon Ingram #14 of the Duke Blue Devils during their game against the Livingstone Blue Bears at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 4, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke defeated Livingstone 119-54.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Gary Cunningham. Joe B. Hall. Bill Guthridge. What do all these guys have in common?

All three were very highly regarded lead assistants who followed legends.

Cunningham followed John Wooden at UCLA, Hall followed Adolph Rupp at Kentucky and Guthridge followed Dean Smith at UNC.

Generally speaking, they were all bland, older assistants who were utterly lacking in public charm and charisma.

Hall did win a championship at Kentucky - he beat Duke in 1978 - but it was the grimmest title in college basketball history.

That team took little joy in its success because the pressure on them to win was so intense. It may have come as more of a relief than anything else.

And Hall was very successful: he had a title, three Final Fours, a runner-up team and an NIT championship.

But he wasn’t Rupp and the fans never forgave him for that.

Gary Cunningham was successful too. He made the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight...and quit after two years.

And our old friend Gut, a good and decent man? He made two Final Fours, and his winning percentage was nearly as good as Smith’s.

Gone in three years.

Replacing a legend is hard. Even Roy Williams, who came after Guthridge and the highly entertaining Matt Doherty train wreck, suffered in comparison to Smith...despite winning more national titles (three) in less time than it took for Smith two win two.

In fairness, we’ve made this point too. Ol’ Roy was a great coach but he wasn’t as subtle as was Smith. We think he’s said as much too.

But the point stands: it ain’t easy.

And Duke and UNC, two programs so tightly intertwined that the players go to the same barbers and the coach’s kids had the same piano teachers in the ‘90s, have, within two months, both turned to assistants to replace legends.

And it won't be easy for Hubert Davis or Jon Scheyer, but it’s not exactly analogous.

Both incoming coaches are younger and really haven't been head coaches, other than Scheyer filling in for Coach K this past season.

We say Davis is younger but that’s because he looks so youthful. He’s actually 51 but has a boyish appeal and appears much younger. He’s also immensely hard to dislike.

In Scheyer’s case he’s much younger, just 33. How young is he? While we were writing this, a friend texted and said he was glad Scheyer got the job because that meant his mom would be back in town more and she was “hot”.

So Scheyer is definitely going to be a fresh face, and maybe his mom too.

It’s an interesting moment in the rivalry. Since the 1960s, whenever a coaching transition took place, one of the schools had a coach who reliably had a Top Ten team or was about to. Vic Bubas had Duke rolling when Smith took over in 1961 and made the Final Four two years later. Smith got there for the first time in 1967.

When Guthridge took over 30 seasons later, Coach K had been in Durham for 17 years and Duke was a major power. His program was strong when Matt Doherty and then Roy Williams took over, and will be when Hubert Davis takes on Duke this coming season (think about that: Mike Krzyzewski will end his career having competed against five UNC coaches).

After that? Who knows? It’s impossible to say how Davis will do at UNC though we suspect he’ll be a solid coach and probably a lights-out recruiter. But will UNC be ranked when Scheyer takes over?

Duke and UNC have both promoted from within before of course. Smith took over after the scandal-plagued Frank McGuire was forced out. Smith turned out okay.

In Duke’s case, it didn't turn out quite as well and actually it wasn’t quite a direct promotion.

Bucky Waters was a popular young assistant to Bubas before taking the West Virginia job in 1965, something we forgot when we said he was promoted from within. But he was in the family, so to speak, and was a popular choice.

He had two decent years at Duke before things started to go wrong. A number of players transferred and Waters, who was a bit hard-nosed, kind of got on the wrong side of the cultural arguments of the day. His mentality and approach were out of sync with that era and ultimately the students turned on him and he resigned after four seasons.

Actually, there’s your in-house promotion: Neil McGeachy replaced him on an interim basis for one season but it doesn’t count for the purposes of this discussion.

So: Cunningham two years. Gut three years. Waters four years. Joe B. Hall thirteen years and some of them quite miserable.

Does Scheyer have a chance?

We’d say yes..with a few caveats.

First, everyone needs to understand that he’s not going to be a clone of Mike Krzyzewski, and he shouldn’t be. Was Coach K a clone of his mentor, Bob Knight?

Thankfully, no. He’s been his own man throughout.

Scheyer came to Duke in 2006, graduated in 2010 and played a bit of pro ball before coming back in 2014 as an assistant.

He has a brilliant mind and not just for basketball. If you don’t respect his intelligence, you’re an idiot. He’s immensely capable and would succeed in any field.

He also has a good bit of personal charisma and has proven to be just as good of a recruiter as Jeff Capel was before he left for Pitt.

He’s had almost 20 years to absorb things at Duke from professors he had to knowing where to eat. He knows just about everything there is to know about Duke’s program, which is a much bigger train than most people realize and pulls a lot more freight. He's had the chance to learn all aspects of Duke’s powerful program.

And that’s good, because unlike when Guthridge took over at UNC, change is sweeping through the sport. Scheyer won’t be a caretaker. He’ll be an innovator and risk-taker because he’ll have to be. And he’ll get one last year of actively learning from the GOAT before Coach K steps aside and hands the program over to him.

So we think in many ways Scheyer is precisely the right guy and given what we’ve seen of Krzyzewski over the years, we’re sure he has systematically looked at situations that guys like Cunningham, Hall and Guthridge walked into and will do everything possible to help Scheyer succeed and to avoid those pitfalls. We’re sure he’s thought about this for years.

It’s not just Coach K though, or Duke as an institution that Scheyer will need support from.

He’s going to need it from fans too.

Remember this: Coach K was the same age Scheyer is now when he came to Duke, and for a few years, his life was miserable, largely because some people were impatient and doubtful that he could succeed.

In fact, there was even a group called the “Concerned Iron Dukes” who wanted him gone and one local sportswriter told people that he was going to run him out of town.

In K’s first three years he finished 17-13, 10-17 and 11-17. In that third season, Virginia beat Duke by 43 points in the ACC Tournament.

That same year, despite immense pressure to get rid of Krzyzewski, then-AD Tom Butters extended his contract.

He believed in his coach and the payoff was incalculable.

Now we have to ask ourselves, as fans: do we believe in Jon Scheyer? For our part, we do, without reservation. The guy is going to be a superb coach.

We want to urge all Duke fans - the real fans, not the bandwagoneers who just go where the good party is - to support Scheyer without reservation or hesitation and especially when things are not going well.

And of course that will happen. It happens to everyone. It happened to Mike Krzyzewski in his early years, in 1995 and last year during the pandemic too. It hasn’t always been easy. In fact, one amazing thing about the man, aside from his ability to improve even in his 70s, is his resilience.

He’s been through a lot one way and another, with health and personal challenges, not to mention professional ones, and keeps clocking in and doing his job and doing it incredibly well despite the difficult moments and setbacks.

That’ll happen to Scheyer too. Someone will clean his clock at some point and people will wonder. He’ll lose out on a recruit or someone will transfer and people will wonder.

Let them. Don’t be them.

He should always feel that Duke fans are supportive and encouraging and for our part, we should take the opportunity to show how Duke is not UCLA, Kentucky or UNC. Duke is Duke and Cameron is Cameron largely because the fans will it to be so. Coach K has had an incredible run but part of what drew him to Duke is that, as he has said, Cameron has a soul.

That’s us, guys. We need to pass that gift on to Scheyer and make him feel like he belongs nowhere else.

We’d love it if some of us look up in 2062 and realize damn! Scheyer’s been at Duke as long as Krzyzewski was!