I. The End of The Krzyzewski era and examples to learn from.
The wind-down of the Krzyzewski era continues as the administrative wheels begin to move. Deep in the bowels of Duke, the electronic paperwork is moving and Coach K’s retirement is presumably now official.
Or maybe it is at the end of the month. Whatever, he’s now seen as former coach and Jon Scheyer is moving into a new role that, for many Duke fans, is hard to even imagine: a post-K Duke.
What does that even mean?
Given what we’ve seen of Mike Krzyzewski for decades, we are certain that he has looked at and studied similar situations. There’s Bear Bryant and Alabama, UCLA and John Wooden, UNC and Dean Smith and of course his own mentor, Bob Knight and Indiana. You could probably toss in Kentucky and Adolph Rupp as well. We don’t know for sure about Hubert Davis taking over for Roy Williams because we’re just one year in.
All of them are instructive in different ways.
In Alabama’s case, there have been some real ups and downs post-Bryant. Bryan was hired by Alabama 1958 and stayed until he retired in 1982, joking that he would probably die a month after he quit coaching (which turned out to be spookily accurate).
He was followed by eight coaches in 25 years although Mike Price never coached a game due to issues in his personal life and Joe Kines only coached one.
Nick Saban took over in 2007 and has matched Bryant with six national titles but look how long it took them to get back to sustainable excellence.
At Kentucky, Joe B. Hall took over and won the national title in 1978, beating Duke. Duke is still celebrated as a young team of immense spirit, but what about that UK squad? The fans were very unhappy about not winning a title in years and the players were well aware. Someone joked they couldn’t go back to Kentucky if they lost in the tournament and there was an element of truth in the joke. That team won and was relieved as much as it was elated.
At UCLA, after the Bruins won in 1975, following a loss to NC State in 1974, a fan told Wooden that winning made up for UCLA “letting fans down” the year before.
After nine straight national titles! You wonder what he must have thought of that fan.
Indiana has been a mess since Bob Knight left the scene with only sporadic success. Since then, they’ve gone through Mike Davis, Kelvin Sampson, Dan Dakich quite briefly as interim, Tom Crean, Archie Miller and Mike Woodson. Except for Woodson, who just finished his first year, only Sampson won as much as 59 percent of his games (.741), but he was forced out over NCAA violations.
And of course our local example is UNC.
And we don’t want to to be like UNC.
II. How Dean Smith blew it.
No one questions Smith’s coaching brilliance or his ability to create the famous UNC “family,” but he didn't handle his retirement very well.
First, he stepped down in the fall, just about a week before practice was to start. That left UNC with little choice other than to hire Bill Guthridge.
A career assistant, Guthridge kept things up for three years, getting UNC to a Final Four in his first and last season, but by the end, UNC had started to decline.
A lot of people won’t remember this but we do because it was so odd at the time: when John Swofford left UNC to become the ACC commissioner, his replacement was either going to be Dick Baddour or Matt Kupec. The Poop Sheet, which at the time was a great source of ACC gossip, reported that when the two were interviewed by a committee of UNC muckety-mucks, Smith was so aggressive with Kupec that he barely let him finish his thoughts.
Kupec took the hint and Baddour was hired but Smith may have known something about Kupec, who was later involved in a stupid sub-scandal in UNC’s massive series of scandals relating to paper classes, academic fraud and the like.
When Gut stepped down, Smith was determined to keep the job in the family, even if it meant hiring Matt Doherty over his outside-the-family preference, Rick Majerus.
Anyone could understand the desire to keep it in the family but Doherty said he was hired by Smith, not by Baddour.
Perhaps UNC could have used another candidate for AD in 1997, but by hiring a pliable AD, Smith inadvertently helped laid the groundwork for disaster: not only did Doherty nearly destroy the program but all the other bad things that happened either happened on Baddour’s watch or were started under men he hired.
We are quite certain that Mike Krzyzewski, who remains incredibly sharp, is fully aware of this. He’s probably also aware of how often Duke and UNC parallel each other with Duke making an internal hire of Nina King as AD just before Coach K announced his own impending retirement last spring as one recent example and K’s lead assistant replacing him as another. The sequence is very reminiscent of what happened at UNC.
But with the coaches, there is a key difference.
Guthridge took over at 60 and would have been happy to have retired as a career assistant. Scheyer is just 34 and was widely regarded as one of the more brilliant young assistants in the country. If Duke didn't hire him, he could have had almost any job he wanted.
III. Jon Scheyer
We’ve talked to various people about Scheyer over the last year and the universal response has been: he’s brilliant.
One person said that while he was apparently more or less an average student at Duke, that he has an unusual brilliance for basketball. He actually called him a savant. Another person compared his basketball intelligence to that of former Butler and Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
And we have one tantalizing bit of evidence to support that: remember the UNC game when Duke won on a late tip-in by Wendell Moore? Remember the intentionally missed free throw by Tre Jones?
Scheyer set that up well ahead of time. He talked to Jones about how to miss a free throw intentionally, where it would come off and how to set the whole thing up.
That is pretty good evidence of a brilliant mind for the game.
But it doesn’t cover everything. We don’t know, for instance, how his players will relate to him as the head coach and we don’t know if he has the capacity to inspire his players to fight every night as Mike Krzyzewski did. That’s probably a singular gift that Coach K has and as we have said before, genius is not transferrable. We don’t know if anyone can have that insane competitive desire, much less maintain it for decades.
But we’re sure he’s learned and we’re sure that Krzyzewski has spent the last couple of years preparing him, trying to make sure that he has everything he needs to succeed.
And institutionally, he really does. Duke is in a vastly different place than it was in 1980. There was no practice gym, no advanced training, no analytics, no Nike contract, no Dickie V or ESPN to talk about Duke constantly. There was no Schwartz-Butters Athletic Center, no Krzyzewskiville.
The parking lot where part of Krzyzewskiville is now, in front of Cameron and in the shadow of Schwartz-Butters wasn’t even paved, something which infuriated K’s predecessor, Bill Foster.
Institutionally, Duke is set up to succeed in the long-term, something Krzyzewski thought about decades ago, when he said he wouldn’t leave his successor with a bare cupboard like he had inherited.
Our major concern about the transition is one Coach K has discussed often and that’s human nature. He built Duke Basketball into a behemoth. Now he’s giving the keys to his protege. Will he be able to resist the temptation to meddle? To tell Scheyer he (thinks) he’s screwing Duke Basketball up?
We think he’s smart enough to not do that. He’s looked at all of this enough and the program is so well built that even if Scheyer were to fail, someone else could step in and do quite well. Duke has everything it needs to succeed.
As long as the fans allow it. And this is what we really want to talk about.
IV. How we can help Coach Scheyer
Whoever Duke opens with next fall, there’s going to be a rush of warmth for Scheyer. He’s the anointed one, the Golden Child. He did great things at Duke and people expect more great things. And so do we.
Inevitably though, there will be times when Duke struggles. There may be injuries or transfers. As we saw this past season, something like a DWI could abruptly change things. Rasheed Sulaimon left Duke with allegations of sexual assault in his wake.
You can’t predict those things.
As UNC showed us this past season, unless you’re Josh Pastner, you also can’t know when a team will get it, or if it ever does.
We talked in another post today about the disgusted UNC fan who screamed “come on, Hubert!” when UNC was struggling mid-season.
We often tell people to go check out ICMeltdown on Twitter to see how UNC fans react when things go poorly and you should. It’s hilarious.
But you should also keep that UCLA fan in mind, the guy who wasn’t happy with nine titles. He didn't think UCLA had the right to disappoint him. And also keep BBN and Indiana fans in mind, because both bases have the potential to wreck their programs. Indiana’s arguably did and it has still not recovered.
Duke fans, we think, are different, or at least the core part of the base is. Some of the casual fans are only interested in success and would leave the minute Duke struggled. No one really cares about that type of fan.
Duke fandom emanates from Cameron and from the passions we see there. It’s where everything starts and where Duke gets phenomenal support and has for decades. Even when Duke has struggled, the Crazies were great. They’ve always supported the team brilliantly.
That’s our difference. We’re not like UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana and Carolina, where fans will turn on their teams and coaches. Or at least we don’t think we are. Our role is to support them, even, and especially when they struggle. You all know this: there have been games when Cameron turned the tide. That didn’t happen because we’re spoiled or entitled. It happened because of the passion that Basketball Paradise generates.
When he coaches and, inevitably, has a setback, our job is to support Scheyer, not to rip or humiliate him. Remember how viciously Wake fans turned on Jeff Bzdelik? He was dreadful, true. But they were ready to destroy the program in order to save it. Free education is great. We should learn from their stupidity.
We can’t emphasize this enough: if you pull for Duke, be supportive. Be positive and most of all this upcoming season, because the guy will be under immense pressure. It shouldn’t come from us. Nothing but love should come from us, and that’s doubly - triply - true online. For the love of God, no matter what else you take from this, don’t go online next season and trash your coach. It’s just a bad look for everyone, not least of all yourself.
V. Cult of Personality
We’ll wrap up with this. All great coaches end up with a sort of cult of personality. People used to call in to Smith’s radio show and just fawn over him and it clearly embarrassed him. Wooden was such a towering figure that no one has truly been able to succeed at UCLA since he left. Knight was a divisive figure at Indiana, but his people were fiercely loyal to him and still are.
And there’s one other guy we should have thought of but didn’t: John Thompson.
Thompson did miracles at Georgetown and defined that program from top to bottom. It still has his powerful personality built into its DNA.
In fact, it’s proven very difficult to escape his shadow.
His immediate successor failed. His son failed, or at least was forced out. And Patrick Ewing, who was hired largely because he was so intimately connected with Thompson’s aura, has broadly failed and last season failed spectacularly, going 0-19 in the Big East and 6-25 overall. The Hoys didn’t win a game after beating Howard on December 15th.
Whatever else happens in the Scheyer era, which we hope lasts a very long time, we cannot force him to be Coach K because he’s not and can’t be. What he is a young, very promising coach who has the potential to grow into greatness.
In the last year, we saw a couple of pictures of Scheyer and the other Duke assistants on recruiting trips and they were...well, it had an aura somewhat like the early Beatles. They were young, brilliant, and ready to conquer the world. They looked thrilled and eager to get going.
Not to knock Coach K, who we all have immense respect for, but he’s done it for so long that some of it must have seemed rote by the end, particularly recruiting trips.
What we saw in those pictures was the one thing Mike Krzyzewski, for all his brilliance and accomplishments, once had but can never have again: youthful exuberance.
Duke fans stand on the threshold of a new era. We think we’ve got a very special coach who may need some room to grow into his job. If we give him that, if we nurture him and help keep the pressure at bay, we think he has a chance to be truly great.
If, on the other hand, we emulate what we’ve seen at Kentucky, UCLA, Indiana and UNC and demand joyless perfection and disallow even mild stumbles, we can almost guarantee failure.
So let’s be Duke. Let’s hold up our part of what makes Duke so different. Let’s all be positive and supportive, not just in the good times but most of all if things are difficult.
Let’s help Jon Scheyer be the coach we all know he was born to be.
Let’s. Go. Duke.