During his freshman year at Duke, Grant Hill caught a pass from a teammate in practice and held the basketball high above his head. It was an instinctive move by Hill, who’d arrived — like many of Duke’s recruits under Mike Krzyzewski — as a raw high school All-American with a lot to learn.
Before he could make his next move, however, Krzyzewski stopped the practice to correct him.
“I put the ball above my head, which they did down the road at Carolina, and he said, ‘Look, don’t do that,'” said Hill, who helped Krzyzewski win his first two national titles in 1991 and 1992. “He said, ‘All you can do when you put the ball above your head is pass. You can do things I can’t teach, so be a player. Play.’ You know, giving you that kind of freedom, confidence … it’s what I needed as a young player.'”
Hill would eventually come to understand the nuances of Krzyzewski’s methods and the details of a culture that fueled five national championships and arguably the most dominant coaching tenure in the history of college basketball. That chapter will end after the 2021-22 season when Krzyzewski retires and associate head coach Jon Scheyer, 33, moves into the head-coaching role. It will be the most significant transition in college basketball since John Wooden retired at UCLA in 1975.
Scheyer is the hand-picked successor of a head coach who has more wins — 1,170 — than any coach at any level in college basketball history. But those who have dared to follow legendary coaches have historically faced unique challenges. It would be foolish to expect Scheyer to duplicate Krzyzewski’s success, but fan bases accustomed to winning big sometimes anticipate a level of competitiveness that’s not always possible or sustainable.
Is Scheyer ready? Is it even possible to be ready?
“Jon has done everything, and in the last few years, we’ve taken it up to another level,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s one of the smartest coaches in the country, to be quite frank. Nobody knows that as much as I know it.”
Three years after winning his second national title, Krzyzewski — who’d already missed two weeks because of complications from a preseason back surgery prior to the start of the 1994-95 campaign — announced he would miss the rest of the season for health reasons. The news sent a Duke team that had already been reeling after losing its first six games in the ACC into a tailspin. The Blue Devils lost 15 of their final 19 games that season and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a decade.
Pitt head coach Jeff Capel, who averaged 12.5 points per game on that team, said the group lost focus with Krzyzewski sidelined.
“Him not being there, the program wasn’t ready to be able to be successful without him,” Capel said. “We didn’t know how to win without him. We lost our confidence. We lost our heartbeat.”
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Krzyzewski’s temporary absence that year — he returned the following season — highlighted the value of his presence to the program. Should a similar crisis befall the 2022-23 Blue Devils, Coach K won’t be coming to the rescue as he did in 1995. It will instead be Scheyer’s crisis, and the few who have stepped into such a historic void have not always done so with success.
Andre McCarter played for John Wooden and was a key member on Gene Bartow’s first UCLA squad after Wooden’s retirement in 1975-76. McCarter said it was clear Wooden’s successor felt the pressure, even though he led that group to the Final Four, where it lost to Bob Knight’s undefeated Indiana squad. In his first season, Bartow’s team lost to Oregon by 20 points at Pauley Pavilion, snapping a 98-game home winning streak. The loss led local TV newscasts, McCarter said.
“It’s like you have a job making donuts and you make good donuts,” McCarter said. “And then you get the call to be the head of Krispy Kreme. It was a lot to [ask of Bartow].”
Murry Bartow was an eighth-grader when his family moved to Los Angeles from their previous stop at Illinois. Gene Bartow, who died in 2012, left UCLA after two seasons to become UAB’s head coach and its first athletic director. Murry said his father wanted to help build the athletic department at UAB, but his experience in the wake of Wooden’s departure had also affected his love for coaching — even though he had Wooden’s support throughout his time with the school.
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“He loved coaching and loved trying to win games and just really enjoyed the coaching part of it, and when he got to UCLA, he just wasn’t having a lot of fun,” said Murry, who succeeded his father as head coach at UAB in 1996.
In the decade that followed Wooden’s retirement in 1975, UCLA had four different head coaches (Bartow, Gary Cunningham, Larry Brown and Larry Farmer). None stayed longer than three seasons. Only Bartow and Brown reached the Final Four, and none won the national title that had become the fan base’s expectation under Wooden.
Coaches at other blueblood programs have felt a similar strain.
When Joe B. Hall, who followed Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, abruptly retired seven years after winning the 1978 national title, he told reporters, “I decided to let somebody else feel the pressure, that’s the high-pressure way of life at Kentucky.”
Hall had been an assistant under Rupp before he became the program’s head coach. But the ties to the program did not immediately impress a fan base that wanted him to extend Rupp’s legacy and compete for championships.
“Obviously, there were expectations to win, which were ingrained by Coach Rupp over all these years,” said Bob Guyette, who played for Hall during his first three years as Kentucky’s head coach.
More than a decade later, after Rick Pitino left Kentucky for the Boston Celtics, successor Tubby Smith would win a national championship in his first season as head coach at Lexington. But he left nine years later without ever gaining the fan base’s full support. “You better have thick skin or else,” Smith told reporters, amid criticism of his program.
Bill Guthridge won nearly 74% of his games after succeeding Dean Smith at North Carolina, but Matt Doherty, a former North Carolina player and the program’s head coach after Guthridge retired, resigned after three seasons. He finished with a 23-25 record in the ACC.
Kevin Ollie won a national title at UConn two years after Jim Calhoun retired, but his tenure ended in 2018 following a 14-18 season and an NCAA investigation.
“It’s like you have a job making donuts and you make good donuts. And then you get the call to be the head of Krispy Kreme.”
Andre McCarter, 1975-76 UCLA Bruins
Will Scheyer’s endorsement from Krzyzewski and his familiarity with the only college program he has known help him avoid the fate of his legend-replacing predecessors?
“Having somebody from within, somebody who has been there in recent years, I think it can certainly help,” Hill said. “But it’s also difficult to replace an icon. That’s something that’s never easy to do.”
“Obviously, Jon couldn’t say no when he was offered the job,” said Murry Bartow. “He had to say yes. He had to take it. But he walks into a very, very tough situation when you’re following one of the best that’s ever done it.”
When a local reporter called asking for a comment on Duke’s new head coach, Vince Taylor didn’t know how to respond. It was 1980, so the Duke sophomore couldn’t Google his name. He had only one question for the reporter: “Who?” That became a headline in the following morning’s newspaper, and it also summed up the mystery that surrounded the arrival of a young coach from Army.
In his first year, Taylor said, Krzyzewski worked hard to prove he belonged.
“He was a really outspoken and tough, driven coach,” said Taylor, now an assistant at UCF. “And he knew he had to develop a culture quickly because he was only 33, 34 years old. That’s why I think he kind of went toward Scheyer, because he reminded him of himself.”
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The culture was backed by a mentality that demanded that even future Duke stars such as Grant Hill and his teammates dive on the floor for every loose ball because “the ball belongs to us,” Krzyzewski would tell his team. If players didn’t talk enough in practice, they’d sometimes get kicked out. Timid in pickup games? They would hear about it from the veterans charged with maintaining their coach’s philosophy even when he wasn’t there. And if his team demonstrated a lack of toughness, Krzyzewski would put his players through a rigorous drill to remind them of his expectations.
“When he was mad, sometimes he’d get us in two lines and there’d be a ‘take the charge’ drill,” Hill said. “The offensive player had to go full speed, going up for a layup. And the defensive player had to slide in there. It didn’t happen a lot. But that embodied what he was all about and what he expected from his guys.”
Given his connection to the program, Scheyer has come to understand this expectation. Scheyer arrived at Duke in 2006 as a high school All-American from the Chicago area, starting 32 of his first 33 games for a Blue Devils squad that stumbled late in the 2006-07 season, losing to VCU in the first round. A year later, Duke was a 2-seed that lost to West Virginia in the second round. By the time Scheyer’s 2008-09 squad, also a 2-seed, got bounced by Villanova in the Sweet 16, it had also accrued an unsightly 1-5 record against rival North Carolina — the national champion that year — in his first three years at Duke. But his team’s run to the national championship a year later rewarded the resilience Scheyer and his teammates had displayed.
Three years after beating Butler for the title, Scheyer joined Krzyzewski’s staff. Those who’ve worked with Scheyer and coached him said he understands the magnitude of the role he will soon inherit. Plus, he’s surrounded by a collection of former Duke players who believe in his potential.
“I think Jon has a chance to be very successful,” said UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins, who coached Scheyer when he was on Krzyzewski’s staff. “Just like [Krzyzewski] believes in him, I think we all do. Duke’s a brotherhood, and I think he’s going to get everyone’s support and everyone’s going to rally around him as [Krzyzewski’s] successor and want to see him be very successful.
When Capel entered coaching, he tried to employ the traits and principles he’d learned from his father and longtime coach, Jeff Capel II, and Krzyzewski. Capel said he would give Scheyer the same advice Krzyzewski gave him when he secured his first job as a head coach: be yourself. The execution of that goal, he said, is not always easy.
“Jon knows the culture,” Capel said. “His four years were hard. He’s gotta be himself. There will never be another Coach K. I think it’s a failure to even try.”