With Coach K stepping down, is Jon Scheyer the coach-in-waiting at Duke by default?

·6-min read

The man who is expected to take over for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke is a 33-year-old with no head coaching experience.

He hadn’t begun grade school when Krzyzewski captured his first national title. He wasn’t even born yet when Krzyzewski reached his first Final Four.

Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer likely inherits the challenge of keeping the Blue Devils near their customary elite level after Krzyzkewsi steps down following a 2021-22 farewell tour. It will be up to Scheyer to keep the Blue Devils consistently in the NCAA tournament and the ACC title hunt and frequently in contention for Final Fours.

Scheyer has displayed the potential to be an outstanding head coach someday, yet Duke’s plan to anoint him as coach-in-waiting raises several questions. Has Scheyer actually earned Krzyzewski’s unwavering faith in seven seasons as an assistant coach? Or is Scheyer only Duke’s choice by default because Krzyzewski’s withered coaching tree hasn’t produced a sufficiently qualified heir apparent?

The 10 Division I head coaches who once played or worked for Coach K produced a combined 85-106 record last season. Not one reached the NCAA tournament. Only Elon’s Mike Schrage finished above .500.

  • Marquette ran out of patience with Steve Wojciechowski in March after seven seasons without an NCAA tournament victory. Wojciechowski took over a program with ample support and winning tradition yet his teams went 59-68 in league play, culminating with this past season’s ninth-place finish, ahead of only Butler and DePaul.

  • In his third season at Pittsburgh, Jeff Capel went 10-12 with losses in 10 of his final 12 games. Worse yet, two of Capel’s three leading scorers bolted in February and four more scholarship players also left the program, sending the onetime ace recruiter scrambling to find replacements via the transfer portal.

  • Chris Collins is 19-58 in Big Ten play at Northwestern since the Wildcats’ breakthrough 2017 NCAA tournament appearance. This past season, the Wildcats at one point went nearly two month without a victory, dropping 13 straight conference games between late December and late February.

  • Bobby Hurley appeared to be building momentum at Arizona State, but his injury-plagued Sun Devils were a disappointment this past season. A team ranked 18th in the preseason AP Top 25 finished with a sub-.500 record and won only one game against opponents in the top 100 of the NET rankings.

  • Of Johnny Dawkins’ 13 seasons as a head coach at Stanford and UCF, 11 have failed to produce an NCAA tournament bid. This past season, Dawkins finished below .500 in a pedestrian American Athletic Conference for a second straight year.

  • Tommy Amaker has built long-struggling Harvard into a winning program and a destination for top-100 recruits, but he famously flopped in his previous two head coaching jobs. He reached the NCAA tournament just one time in 10 years at Seton Hall and Michigan.

At one point or another, those six coaches each emerged as contenders to follow Krzyzewski, but their lack of consistency damaged their candidacies. They each played for Krzyzewski. All but Hurley coached alongside him. But none produced sustained success after leaving Duke and venturing out on their own.

Instead of remaining at Duke into his late 70s and buying those coaches a few more seasons to prove themselves, Krzyzewski reportedly will take one more run at a sixth national title and then step aside at the end of the 2021-22 season. The timing makes sense given his age and the way the sport of college basketball is rapidly changing.

30 October 2015: Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski (left) with assistant Jon Scheyer (right). The Duke University Blue Devils hosted the Florida Southern College Moccasins at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina in a 2015-16 NCAA Men's Basketball Exhibition game. Duke won the game 112-68. (Photograph by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire) (Photo by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jon Scheyer (right) has emerged as the heir apparent to Mike Krzyzewski, who announced this upcoming season will be his last at Duke. (Andy Mead/Getty Images)

Krzyzewski, 74, 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.

What’s more, college basketball in a few years may scarcely resemble the sport of Krzyzewski’s heyday. The advent of the transfer portal and the loosening of transfer restrictions has forced college basketball coaches to build their rosters on the fly. And changes related to “Name, Image and Likeness” laws promise to shatter the longstanding NCAA model and create new headaches for coaches.

While a job of Duke’s caliber would have attracted interest from established coaches across the country, the consensus in college basketball circles has long been that Krzyzewski preferred 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.”

As long as Duke’s search focused on coaches with longstanding ties to its program, there was always going to be a certain level of restriction in finding a qualified candidate. Unlike Wojciechowski, Capel, Dawkins, Hurley, Collins and Tommy Amaker, Scheyer hasn’t yet been tarnished by ups and downs after leaving Duke and venturing on his own.

It’s difficult to evaluate how good a coach Scheyer is given the shadow that Krzyzewski casts, but he has amassed some impressive credentials at a young age. He led Duke to a national championship as a player. He rapidly became Krzyzewski’s most trusted assistant coach. He has played a role in bringing a handful of elite recruits to Duke and has also drawn praise for talent evaluation, communication and player development skills.

In a Duke release, Krzyzewski called Scheyer a "rising star" and said that "Duke Basketball could not be in better hands in the future." Outgoing Duke athletic director Kevin White echoed that, adding that Krzyzewski is "impossible to replace" but Scheyer is "without a doubt the absolute perfect leader to assume this 'high wire' challenge."

"Jon truly embodies all the characteristics of a strong and determined leader," White said, "for he is highly empathetic, unequivocally task oriented, instinctively adaptable, flexible and situational, and roughly 'six standard deviations' beyond passionate, especially relative to the tremendous aspirations of Duke's student-athletes."

While many of Krzyzewski’s other former top lieutenants have stumbled after landing good jobs, Scheyer steps into a significantly better — and tougher — situation.

On one hand, Duke is a national power with a historic gym, top-notch facilities and support that is second-to-none. It’s situated in a talent-rich, basketball-crazed region, yet it has the clout to recruit anywhere in the country.

On the other hand, approaching the level set by Krzyzewski will be impossibly difficult. The winningest coach in college basketball history has won 1,097 games, captured five national championships and turned Duke into college basketball’s biggest brand.

It will help Scheyer that Duke appears poised to rebound from a rare down season. The 2021 recruiting class that Scheyer helped secure includes Paolo Banchero, A.J. Griffin and Trevor Keels, each of whom are Rivals top-20 prospects.

Only a few years ago, when Capel was recruiting McDonald’s All-Americans to Duke by the bushel and Collins and Wojciechowski were winning, it would have been difficult to envision Scheyer as Krzyzewski’s heir apparent.

Now, as other candidates have fallen by the wayside, Scheyer is suddenly the most logical choice left to try to make sure Duke remains a perennial national power.

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