Hours before Coach K’s dizzy spell sent him to the locker room in Duke’s win over Wake Forest, excerpts from Ian O’Connor’s upcoming book, Coach K: The Rise and Reign of Mike Krzyzewski” detailed a brief power struggle within Duke last year over Coach K’s plans to name his replacement. O’Connor’s insider book claims that Duke president Vincent Price’s preference for a successor was to hire Harvard coach Tommy Amaker as the coach-in-waiting. Instead, Coach K called Amaker and told him if he came back as an assistant for one year, it would make for an awkward situation with associate head coach Jon Scheyer.
Amaker reportedly was understandably left heartbroken by the decision. In addition to being one of Coach K’s earliest recruits, he was the point guard who led a Coach K team to its first NCAA Tournament berth and first national title game. Amaker’s return could have been a “Juwan Howard returning to Michigan” type of moment for Duke. But Duke basketball’s brand is larger and more cutthroat than Michigan basketball. It’s college basketball’s Goldman Sachs.
While this has devolved into bickering over Coach K missing the boat by promoting Jon Scheyer from within instead of bringing the more accomplished Amaker back into the fold, it misses the boat entirely. Coach K fell into an in-group mentality instead of broadening his scope. Neither Amaker, Scheyer, or any of the stems from Coach K’s coaching tree are the most qualified to take over Duke basketball.
Coach K played for Bobby Knight at Army after Knight played at Ohio State. Dean Smith graduated from Kansas, and John Calipari hugged the bench at UNC Wilmington before playing D-II hoops at Clarion. Mick Cronin is not a UCLA man.
For every Jud Heathcote-to-Tom Izzo handoff, there are several more flops like Matt Doherty, Kevin Ollie, Eddie Sutton, or Holly Warlick. The jury is still out on Hubert Davis, the Tommy Amaker of UNC, but few of Coach K’s assistants aside from Johnny Dawkins, Amaker, or Collins have built winning programs.
A decade ago, Pat Summitt’s retirement prompted the University of Tennessee to tap Summit’s Lieutenant, Holly Warlick, to assume her command. Warlick had never been a head coach before at the collegiate level, but she was a former 3-time All-American in Summit’s early years. After a few Elite Eight’s in her first few seasons, the quality nosedived until the Vols were first-weekend casualty three consecutive years. A more shrewd coaching search led to Tennessee hiring Missouri State’s program-builder Kellie Harper. She had Tennessee racing back to a potential No. 1 seed in three years before injuries dealt them a setback.
Coach K’s philosophy on succession stems from his background at Army, where lines of succession are baked into the core of its leadership ranks.
“In the service, you are constantly looking at succession,” he explained in June at his retirement announcement presser. “When you take over for somebody in command, that person helps you. Continuity is what it’s called — continuity of excellence. That has a lot to do with succession.”
His desire to find the next Coach K after having Bobby Knight as a coach and mentor at Army and then Indiana is misguided.
Tim O’Toole, who left Krzyzewski’s staff in 1997, was the last Coach K assistant who didn’t play for him at Duke. O’Connor’s book delves into how O’Toole convinced Duke to recruit non-traditional Duke prospects from different backgrounds. Imagine if Duke recruited as he searches for coaches, giving a special priority to athletes with Duke alumni relatives over the phenom talent they rake in from all over the country.
Duke could target any proven top-tier coach on the market. Coach K believing that the best possible coach is already on the Blue Devils bench, reeks of pride and arrogance. North Carolina and Duke aren’t part of a faceless military command structure. Reaching outside his ranks is the best way to attract an elite candidate to keep Duke’s elite program on its current trajectory.
Scheyer’s role in recruiting Duke’s one-and-done classes has been well-documented, but. Coach K’s shadow hovered over every player Scheyer visited as an assistant. Before leaving the Krzyzewski cocoon, Steve Wojciechowski and Jeff Capel were also regarded as skilled recruiters.
We know virtually nothing about his ability to make the correct in-game adjustments, a coach under pressure, manage minutes, execute game plans, timeouts or recruit on his own. Alabama’s Nate Oats has shown the ability to morph programs at Buffalo and Duke. Imagine if he were given the advantage Duke could provide. Brad Stevens may have the coaching bug still in him. Duke fans remember him. Mark Few’s long-time assistant Tommy Lloyd is already terraforming Arizona back into a top-5 team. Dan Hurley might be one of the best sideline tacticians in college hoops and has the added benefit of being Bobby Hurley’s brother.
Instead, Duke handicapped their coaching search, and history tells us that it will kneecap their program in the long run.