Coach K’s succession error was bigger than choosing Scheyer over Amaker


Coach K sniffed completely in the search for his successor.

Coach K sniffed completely in the search for his successor.
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Hours before Coach K’s giddy 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 Krzyzewskidescribed 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 that if he came back as an assistant for a year, it would create an awkward situation with associate head coach Jon Scheyer.

Amaker was reportedly understandably heartbroken by the decision. In addition to being one of Coach K’s first 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 something of a “Juwan Howard return to Michigan” moment for Duke. But the Duke brand of basketball is bigger and more brutal than Michigan basketball. It’s Goldman Sachs from college basketball.

While this has evolved into bickering about Coach K missing the boat by promoting Jon Scheyer from within instead of bringing the more experienced Amaker back into the fold, it misses the boat completely. Coach K fell into a group mentality rather than broadening his horizons. Neither Amaker, Scheyer, or any of the tribes of Coach K’s coaching tree are most qualified to take over Duke basketball.

Coach K played for Bobby Ridder at Army after Knight played in 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 guy.

For every transfer from Jud Heathcote to Tom Izzo, there are even more flops like Matt Doherty, Kevin Ollie, Eddie Sutton or Holly Warlick. The jury is still out on Hubert Davis, UNC’s Tommy Amaker, but few Coach K assistants other than Johnny Dawkins, Amaker or Collins have built winning programs.

Ten years ago, the retirement of Pat Summitt prompted the University of Tennessee to enlist Summit’s lieutenant, Holly Warlick, to take her command. Warlick had never been a collegiate-level head coach before, but she was a former three-time All-American in Summit’s early years. After a few Elite Eights in her first few seasons, the quality deteriorated until the Vols suffered the first weekend casualties for three straight years. A more sly quest for coaching led Tennessee to hire Missouri State program maker Kellie Harper. She had Tennessee race back to a potential No. 1 seed in three years before injuries gave them a setback.

Coach K’s philosophy of succession comes from his background in the military, where the lines of succession are ingrained at the core of his leadership ranks.

“In the ministry you continuously look for follow-up”, he explained in June on his farewell press. “When you take charge, that person helps you. This is called continuity: 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 in Indiana is misplaced.

Tim O’Toole, who left Krzyzewski’s staff in 1997, was the last assistant to Coach K not to play for him at Duke. O’Connor’s book takes a closer look at how O’Toole convinced Duke to recruit non-traditional Duke prospects from diverse backgrounds. Imagine Duke recruited while searching for coaches, giving special priority to athletes with Duke alumni relatives over the phenomenal talent they bring in from across the country.

Duke can target any proven top coach on the market. Coach K, who believes that the best possible coach is already on the Blue Devils’ bench, smacks of pride and arrogance. North Carolina and Duke are not part of a faceless military chain of command. Getting outside his ranks is the best way to attract an elite candidate to keep Duke’s elite program on its current course.

Scheyer’s role in recruiting Duke’s one-off classes is well documented, however. 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 considered skilled recruiters.

We know next to nothing about his ability to make appropriate in-game adjustments, pressure a coach, manage minutes, execute game plans, take timeouts, or recruit alone. Alabama’s Nate Oats has shown the ability to change programs at Buffalo and Duke. Imagine if he got the advantage that Duke could offer. Brad Stevens may still have the coaching bug in him. Duke fans remember him. Mark Few’s longtime assistant Tommy Lloyd is already working to turn Arizona back into a top-5 team. Dan Hurley is arguably one of the best sideline tacticians in the college world and has the added advantage of being Bobby Hurley’s brother.

Instead, Duke hindered their search for coaching, and history tells us it will hinder their program in the long run.

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