When Mike Krzyzewski announced his retirement in June of 2021, while it was inevitable, it still came as something of a shock. The driven Coach K retiring? Not possible.
In retrospect, he may have waited a year longer than he intended. Who would have wanted to end a legendary career right after Covid, when Duke finished 13-11? That season would have left a bad taste in anyone’s mouth. Better to go one more and re-establish what had been built.
It was the second time he did that of course. In 1995, suffering a back injury, Coach K took a leave of absence and offered to resign. AD Tom Butters refused to accept that though and so Krzyzewski sat out the season suffering not just from back pain but exhaustion. He found out the hard way that he was not Superman.
The next time we saw him the lights were down at the annual banquet and when they came back up he was at the podium, on crutches. And in Duke’s first game in Cameron in the following season, he got a technical mere minutes into the game. The man wasted no time in reasserting Duke standards.
He won three more national championships after that dark season and constantly found ways to keep Duke at the top of the college basketball world. It was a magnificent second act, if you will, and even into his ‘70s, he had immense energy. Look at his USA Basketball career! Three gold medals, and he was swimming in a very different pond. The man is immensely gifted.
None of this was obvious early on, at least not from a distance. He seemed awkward when he was introduced at Duke, and coming from Army, with a 9-17 record, seemed crazy to many people. The Duke Chronicle’s headine: This Is Not A Joke.
But Butters had a great instinct for coaching hires. He signed a brash young Steve Spurrier when he was widely derided in the football world. He hired Gail Goestenkors as a young unknown. And obviously he was right about Coach K.
And now the question is: is Krzyzewski right about Scheyer?
The early evidence suggests yes. Scheyer is young and quite thin. We mention that because it reinforces the sense of youth. He looks almost the same as he did as a player. Next to Krzyzewski, he looks like a young boy. He’s not of course, but he looks it.
However, he’s widely respected and seen as a potentially great coach. We’ve heard the word savant applied more than once. His basketball IQ is said to be quite high. We got a glimpse of it when he spent time with Tre Jones explaining that at some point he’d need to miss a free throw and how the ball would probably bounce off, time that paid off with Duke’s insane win at UNC during Jones’s sophomore season - the game with two buzzer beaters.
The transition was meticulously planned and while it seemed like a surprise to most of us, in reality it had been underway long before we had any idea. We’re quite certain that, both before and after the transition was announced, K and Scheyer spent many hours squirreled away, going over things that K wanted to impart or emphasize. He’s handing over an empire and you don’t do that without thinking it through. Look at how Genghis Khan did it vs. Alexander the Great. The Mongol was an empire builder but also a brilliant and innovative administrator. His empire survived his death.
On the other hand, Alexander’s empire was in grave danger when he died at 32 with no successor named and no plan and was subsequently divided.
We’re not saying Coach K was necessarily studying the history of empirical successions, but coaching successions? You bet he was.
The man has studied failure closely and learned great lessons.
We’re sure he looked at UCLA’s post-Wooden woes and how Final Fours were not enough.
He is fully aware of how UNC handled the Dean Smith retirement, not to mention post-Bob Knight Indiana, where bitterness and anger split the fan base. Of course he looked at those situations and how they were handled.
So he carefully planned a transition that was mocked by some as a Farewell Tour, a chance for him to burnish his reputation for posterity.
What nonsense. Krzyzewski obviously has a healthy ego. Given his accomplishments, how could he not? Or put it this way: how could he have accomplished what he did without a healthy ego?
But he also thinks ahead and always has. Last season was as much about that as anything. He does not want his life’s work to turn to dust when he leaves. It wasn’t a narcissistic celebration. It was about preservation.
But can that be done?
Alabama football has had some down periods, but it has endured. Arizona basketball had some rocky moments but has stayed relevant. Kentucky basketball has endured. And after some false steps, at least partly because the late Dean Smith tried to control things from behind the scenes, UNC found its footing under Roy Willams (we’ll be nice and not mention the horrible scandals here).
So it is possible that what Krzyzewski built could follow a similar trajectory. And Duke has some newer advantages too.
Among his many accomplishments, Krzyzewski branded the hell out of Duke Basketball. It has a global identity now and is known in the Baltics, China, the Philippines and Latin America. It is even widely, if begrudgingly, respected in Chapel Hill. We’re not saying they like it. You can be jealous, but you can’t deny greatness when it lives next door.
And partly because of that, NIL is likely to work in Duke’s favor.
So what about the new guy?
In his introductory presser, Scheyer started off seeming young and nervous, which was totally understandable. It was bound to be intimidating. By the end of the press conference though, he seemed very much in command. It was a bit startling, honestly, like watching a time-lapse video of a plant going from seed to seedling. He seems to grow before our eyes.
People used to talk about Steve Jobs and the Reality Distortion Field. Coach K has that too. He could fend off negatives with a bit of a joke or reframe it more to his liking and could thus set and control expectations. He was so good at that for so long that most people didn’t even realize he was doing it. But think about it: he was taking in information, processing it live in front of a crowd of potentially hostile reporters and his replies always moved things the way he wanted them to go.
He has brilliant communication skills.
Jon Scheyer is not Mike Krzyzewski. He doesn’t yet have Coach K’s ability to control his language and thus his presentation yet. Remember how Coach K didn’t use a whistle because he wanted his players to respond to his voice?
Scheyer is using a whistle. He also showed a bit of vulnerability with some of his comments during last week’s Media Day.
It’s not better or worse though. It’s just different. And of course, he’s just at the dawn of his career. He’ll get better at the peripheral stuff.
And as brilliant as Coach K was, people always said that he was not a great X’s and O’s coach and that’s probably fair. You can imagine Early K sneering at El Deano’s elaborate ideas and schemes and saying, well how about if I just hit you in your big honking nose? Gonna outsmart that, Einstein?
What Krzyzewski demanded, as Jeff Capel noted not too long ago, was that his teams fight. And they did. When was the last time a Krzyzewski team didn’t show up and fight? Go ahead; we’ll wait.
Okay, that’s long enough. Let’s move on.
There’s no doubt that Scheyer is competitive. He was part of a wonderful Duke team in 2010 and, when asked to move to point, led that team brilliantly. We used to marvel at how long he would go between mistakes, at least obvious ones that fans might see.
He famously ripped off 21 points in 75 seconds in high school, nearly leading his team to a phenomenal comeback that fell just short.
For an insight into how his players see him, look at what former Blue Devil DJ Steward said: “He’s super competitive. Like no matter what, like, if he’s losing, he’s going to be mad. But if he’s winning, oh man, he’s going to be talking, like, he’s going to talk smack. He’s going to bring it up for the next few days. Scheyer is a great person. He’s a competitive person, for sure.”
But he’s not Coach K and no one should expect him to be. In the end, he might be closer to another savant, Brad Stevens, who applied his immense intelligence, basketball and otherwise at Butler, and got the Bulldogs to two national championship games in a row. Out of the Horizon League!
Whatever Scheyer is, ultimately we expect that he’ll be very good. And he’ll certainly have players: Scheyer has built two superb classes already.
Before he has coached a single game, Scheyer has outrecruited, well, everyone. It’s pretty stunning. And we’ll talk about that more in Part II of our Duke Preview.