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When the Day Comes, Who Will Follow Coach K at Duke?

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April 6, 2015. Mike Krzyzewski was standing among his players on the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, listening to the initial notes of “One Shining Moment.” His Duke team had just completed a five-point win over Wisconsin to capture the fifth national championship during his tenure, and it was time for the celebration to begin in earnest. The traditional clip montage from the NCAA Tournament brought out smiles and laughter from his players as Krzyzewski took it all in.

This was not a surprise. No, not at all.

Duke, with three superstar freshmen leading the way — Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones — began the season ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press top 25 poll. The Blue Devils rose to No. 2 for a five-week stretch in the middle of the season and then again ascended to that spot in the beginning of March. Save for the Kentucky team that blitzed through the regular season and first four games of the NCAA Tournament without a loss, an argument could’ve been made that Duke was the most talented team in the country.

So, cutting down the nets for the fifth time in his career couldn’t have come as that big of a shock to Krzyzewski. He has built Duke into a powerhouse, a modern-day college basketball dynasty that competes year in and year out for top recruits, titles and national attention. In sports, though, we like to see the best of the best end on a high note, riding off into the sunset without a sour memory tainting their legacy.

It was natural to wonder if Krzyzewski, 68 years old as he watched the confetti fall from the top of the stadium, would look around him and think: “How could this get any better?”

The ‘R’ words. They are always thrown around when Krzyzewski finishes one season and sets his sights toward another. He will be 69 in the middle of the 2015-16 season and has accomplished seemingly everything that a basketball coach could possibly set out to accomplish in a career. This season will be his 36th as the head coach of the Blue Devils and his 41st in coaching.

At some point, won’t Mike Krzyzewski have to … retire?

At some point, won’t Mike Krzyzewski have to … be replaced?

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They are questions that produce different answers from Krzyzewski and those around him. This past season alone, Krzyzewski gave two different answers on the retirement subject in a three-month span.

Following his 1,000th career victory on Jan. 25 over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden, Krzyzewski said: “There’s an end in sight. I’m going to be 68 next month, and it’ll end sooner than later, but hopefully not real soon.”

The morning after winning that fifth national title, Krzyzewski said in a radio interview: “I’m not close. I’ll be back next year, and I would think for a few more years.”

Will he or won’t he? Each year that Krzyzewski returns to the Duke bench — with a talent-rich roster, a high national ranking and a legit chance for another national championship — the question will continue to linger. But so will this one: Whenever Coach K decides that the time is right to leave Duke, who will be his successor?

It’s college basketball’s (multi) million-dollar question.

Inheriting the Throne

First things first: The coach who takes over for Mike Krzyzewski will have his work cut out for him.

In his 35 seasons at Duke, Krzyzewski has amassed a legacy that will go untouched by the coach who succeeds him. He has won 945 games (while losing just 251), produced a 378–152 record in Atlantic Coast Conference play, won 13 ACC Tournament championships and 12 regular-season conference championships. He’s been named the Naismith National Coach of the Year three times and produced 54 NBA Draft picks.

His postseason success is virtually unparalleled; he’s advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 31 straight seasons in which he coached the entire campaign. (He missed the final two months of the ’94-95 season with a back injury.)

Not to mention his head coaching duties with USA Basketball, where he will aim for a third straight goal medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

But most important, he turned Duke back into Duke.

“Durham was not a pleasant place to be in 1983,” ESPN analyst and former Duke player Jay Bilas told Yahoo! Sports in January, alluding to the long-since-forgotten alumni petition to fire Krzyzewski.

Related: Duke Team Preveiw

Now, though, Duke is one of the crown jewels of the college basketball coaching world. But it is a very insular environment, with Krzyzewski almost exclusively turning to former players to be assistant coaches and nurturing them until they are fully entrenched alongside him or ready to begin their own careers. Everything is done and kept in the family. So much so that many Duke assistants have felt the need to finally venture out on their own in order to escape K’s long shadow.

“It’s really safe,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, a former Duke assistant for eight seasons, said in an interview during the 2014-15 season. “And you can get into a comfort zone. As a head coach, you’ve got to fight that. But even after my fifth, sixth, seventh year there, I thought, ‘Man, maybe I’ve stayed here too long.’”

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And that was from one of the few Krzyzewski assistants who did not play at Duke.

That makes the succession all the more complicated. There are numerous worthy candidates with Duke pedigrees who have served under Krzyzewski — Harvard’s Tommy Amaker, Northwestern’s Chris Collins, Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins and Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski.

But while the Duke job post-Krzyzewski remains a coveted position, there is a concern among his former pupils about being typecast as a “just a Duke guy.”

“Wojo was worried about it,” says Brey, who offered advice to the former top Blue Devils assistant before he took the Marquette job in 2014. “He had turned down Dayton, and after six months began thinking, ‘Uh-oh, no one is ever going to come back to me because I’m turning them down.’”

Chris Carrawell, who served in a number of roles on Krzyzewski’s staff in his post-Duke playing days and now is an assistant for the Golden Eagles under Wojciechowski, goes even further.

“Truthfully, guys are a little scared about the job,” Carrawell says of the head coaching position at Duke. “What Coach has done there, it can never be duplicated. But if you’re a Duke guy and you take over that job, you’re always going to be held to him and that standard.”

Who’s Got Next?

Those who have their finger on the pulse of the college basketball world continue to wonder which coach will be the right fit for Duke after Krzyzewski leaves.

Will Duke stick with Krzyzewski’s way of business and keep it in the Blue Devil family? Will Krzyzewski be allowed to name his own successor? Will it be a big name? A small name? A no-name? A college guy or an NBA one?

Krzyzewski and Duke continue to remain mum about the topic, which only fuels the speculation about who it might be — and under what circumstances it might happen. There are several ways to handle a succession plan in college basketball.

At Connecticut, Kevin Ollie was named the Huskies’ interim head coach after Jim Calhoun abruptly retired near the end of the summer in 2012. At Syracuse, Jim Boeheim announced he would stay three years before retiring despite NCAA sanctions; that led the school to officially designate Mike Hopkins, his longtime right-hand man, as the Orange’s coach-in-waiting. When SMU lured Larry Brown out of retirement in 2012 to be its head coach, it was done so with the agreement that Tim Jankovich — at the time the head coach at Illinois State — would join the Mustangs’ staff as the coach-in-waiting.

In basketball circles, three names repeatedly come up when the topic of Krzyzewski’s successor is broached — Wojciechowski, Collins and current Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel. Wojciechowski was especially close with Krzyzewski during his playing career and joined Duke’s staff a year after graduating, staying there until 2014. Plus, at 39, Wojciechowski is already older than his former coach was when Krzyzewski was hired at Duke.

In his first season in Milwaukee, Wojciechowski earned praise — despite a poor record — from a tactical standpoint, and he has done an outstanding job on the recruiting trail.

Collins was also a right-hand-man for Krzyzewski for 13 seasons, finally leaving the nest in 2013 to take over at Northwestern. But while Collins would presumably be on the short list, his candidacy seems iffy. An Illinois native and former Mr. Basketball in the state, Collins appears to be in Evanston for the long haul.

“In my case, I got to the point where I wanted to be a head coach,” he says about leaving Duke.

Related: ACC Predictions

There are other names, too. Former All-America point guard Bobby Hurley, a member of Krzyzewski’s back-to-back title teams in 1991 and 1992, saw his stock rise this past season in his second year at Buffalo. Hurley, the son of legendary New Jersey high school coach Bob Hurley, took the Bulls to the NCAA Tournament and nearly knocked off West Virginia in the second round.

Hurley is viewed as having the perfect blend for a Krzyzewski successor: Duke background, NBA experience, assistant coaching experience outside of Durham and success as a head coach. But Hurley is still considered green, even as he bolted Buffalo to take over at Arizona State in the offseason.

That leaves a candidate who originally didn’t seem to be a logical choice — Capel. He has been a head coach twice — at VCU and then at Oklahoma — but his tenure with the Sooners did not end well. OU went 43–51 in the three seasons in which Blake Griffin was not on the roster, and Capel was dismissed after the 2010-11 season due in part to some NCAA issues related to the recruitment of Tiny Gallon.

When Krzyzewski brought him on staff two months later, it was believed to be little more than helping out a former Dukie.

Instead, Capel has become integral to Krzyzewski’s continued longevity — and perhaps set himself up as the heir apparent. Capel is still young (40) and has emerged as Duke’s lead recruiter (he helped secure commitments from Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones). He’s also gained Krzyzewski’s trust, having been given scouting duties for every game during the 2014-15 season. And it’s clear he wants to be a head coach again. Capel was wooed by Arizona State after last season but opted to remain by Coach K’s side in Durham.

What did that mean for the future at Duke? At a press conference back in Durham following the team’s championship, Krzyzewski gave an answer that — finally — just might have tipped his hand.

“Jeff is savvy, and he is a hell of a coach,” Krzyzewski said. “But I mean, Jeff is a head coach. He’ll get something great. He is doing something great right now.”

But when does it become something more?

-By Brendan Prunty