Looking into the future: Who would replace Mike Krzyzewski at Duke?

Jeff Eisenberg
·6 min read

The likelihood that Duke misses the NCAA tournament isn’t the only reason this has been a disappointing season for the Blue Devils.

The coaches considered potential successors to Mike Krzyzewski are each floundering, too.

One month removed from Krzyzewski's 74th birthday, his coaching tree has yet to produce an obvious heir apparent. Duke would undoubtedly prefer to hire a Krzyzewski disciple to replace him when he's ready to retire, but none of the leading candidates are showing they're ready for the job.

So far this season, the 10 Division I head coaches who previously played or worked for Coach K have a combined 73-94 record. Not one has a winning record, let alone a realistic hope of landing an NCAA tournament bid.

  • In his third season at Pittsburgh, Jeff Capel’s Panthers are 10-10 with losses in eight of their past 10 games. Worse yet, two of Capel’s three leading scorers bolted last week and the onetime ace recruiter hasn’t reeled in a strong class to replace them yet.

  • Steve Wojciechowski has yet to win an NCAA tournament game in seven seasons at Marquette and continues to struggle to replicate the success his predecessors achieved there. The Golden Eagles are 12-13 this season and ahead of only DePaul in the Big East standings.

  • Chris Collins is 17-58 in Big Ten play at Northwestern since the Wildcats’ breakthrough 2017 NCAA tournament appearance. This season, Northwestern hadn’t won a game since late December before upsetting Minnesota on Feb. 25.

  • Bobby Hurley appeared to be building momentum at Arizona State, but the injury-plagued Sun Devils have been a disappointment this season. A team ranked 18th in the preseason AP Top 25 has a sub-.500 record and is 0-10 against opponents in the top 100 of the NET rankings.

  • Johnny Dawkins is about to complete his 11th season without an NCAA tournament bid in 13 years as a head coach at Stanford and UCF. This will be the second straight year that Dawkins finishes below .500 in a pedestrian American Athletic Conference.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, center, and assistant coaches Jeff Capel, left, and Steve Wojciechowski, right, watch the final minute of an NCAA college basketball game against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Wake Forest won 82-72. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Mike Krzyzewski, center, has surrounded himself with former players as assistant coaches, like Jeff Capel, left, and Steve Wojciechowski, right. (AP)

At one point or another, those five coaches each emerged as contenders to follow Krzyzewski, but their recent struggles raise the question whether any of them would be up to the challenge. They’ve each played for Krzyzewski. All but Hurley has coached alongside him. None have produced sustained success after leaving Duke and venturing out on their own.

There’s still time for one of those coaches to separate from the pack, but Krzyzewski cannot coach Duke forever. He has coached Duke for 41 seasons. Only Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Coastal Carolina’s Cliff Ellis and former Temple coach John Chaney have ever led a Division I college basketball team at age 74.

Anytime Krzyzewski has been asked how much longer he intends to coach, he has played coy. He told ESPN’s Rece Davis last month, “Whenever it happens, it’s going to happen. I can’t be focused on that. I’m focused on this team.”

Of course, a job of Duke’s caliber will attract interest from up-and-coming coaches from across the country, but the consensus in college basketball circles is that Krzyzewski would prefer his successor to be a former Blue Devils player. There’s a reason, after all, that Krzyzewski has hired only ex-Duke players as assistant coaches since 1997. And that Krzyzewski has dubbed the Duke basketball fraternity “the Brotherhood.”

Complicating matters is that longtime Duke athletic director Kevin White almost certainly won’t be hiring Krzyzewski’s replacement. White announced earlier this year that he intends to retire in August, leaving the Duke basketball succession plan in the hands of a yet-to-be-named newcomer.

Whoever that new athletic director is, the fate of Duke basketball post-Krzyzewski will define his or her legacy. Duke must try to make a more seamless transition than UCLA did after John Wooden, than Indiana did after Bob Knight or than North Carolina did between Dean Smith and Roy Williams.

While Duke would be foolish not to at least place a call to the likes of Brad Stevens or Billy Donovan, chances are its search will focus on coaches with longstanding ties to the program. And that means choosing between Capel, Wojciechowski, Collins, Hurley, Dawkins and a few other flawed options.

Notre Dame’s Mike Brey is by far the most successful former Coach K assistant, but he will be 62 later this month. Would Duke consider a coach that age, especially one who hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2017?

Harvard’s Tommy Amaker has transformed the Crimson into a winning program and a destination for top 100 recruits, but he famously flopped in his previous two head coaching jobs. Does Ivy League success outweigh one NCAA bid in 10 years at Seton Hall and Michigan?

Duke associate head coach Jon Scheyer led the Blue Devils to a national title as a player and has built a strong reputation alongside Krzyzewski, but he has never run a program of his own. Would Duke trust someone so inexperienced with such a big job?

Utah Jazz coach Quin Synder is the early favorite to win NBA Coach of the Year -[this season, but his lone stint as a college head coach ended in scandal and dysfunction. Would Duke risk hiring a coach with recruiting violations on his track record? And would Snyder consider trading an NBA head coaching job for the headaches of college recruiting if such an offer came?

The best-case scenario for Duke would be for Krzyzewski to coach into his mid-to-late 70s, giving the branches of his tree a few more years to flourish.

Maybe by then Capel can recapture the recruiting mojo he displayed at Duke when he landed Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones in the same class. Or maybe Wojciechowski can start to build some momentum and return Marquette to its former glory.

If there’s one former Duke player who would not back down from the challenge of following a legend, it’s the fiery Hurley. That was Brey’s pick on Jeff Goodman’s podcast last year when asked who he’d choose to follow Coach K.

“He’s tough enough mentally to handle it,” Brey said.

Ultimately, Duke needs someone from Coach K’s tree to emerge, someone to make its choice easier.

Otherwise someday the Blue Devils may have to choose between going outside the Brotherhood to find Coach K’s replacement or hiring someone unqualified for the job.

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