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Saturday, July 03, 2004

The Coach K Succession Sweepstakes (What Ifs)

If Coach K were to leave Duke for the millions that the Lakers are tossing at him to make him the highest paid coach in all of professional sports (talk about putting an attractive target on your back), the speculation as to who his successor would be has run only to people in the "Duke" family. (Which is ironic given that a member of the North Carolina family, Mitch Kupchak, has offered the Hollywood mentoring job to a Dukie.) But is that wise?

When Coach K got the job, Duke needed a good successor to a successful coach, Bill Foster, who took the Blue Devils to the championship game with Mike Gminski, Gene Banks and Jim Spanarkel. On Bob Knight's recommendation, they hired the Army coach, a Knight protege, Coach K. At the time, the selection was somewhat curious. It wasn't as though Coach K had done at Army what, for example, Joe Scott recently did at Air Force (turn an absolute doormat into the champion of a top-10 league and get an NCAA bid to boot), but he was young, his pedigree was strong, and the Duke administration thought it saw something in the young coach. How right they turned out to be.

Today, because the program is so established, it would appear that the Duke administration has its hands tied a bit. It's doubtful, from a public relations and alumni standpoint, that they'll do anything nearly as bold as go outside the family for a relative unknown when inside the family they have some interesting choices. The professional pundits had narrowed the group to three: current Duke Associate Head Coach Johnny Dawkins, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey and Michigan coach Tommy Amaker.

All three would make good choices for Duke. Dawkins has been Coach K's right-hand man, and for a precedent in the ACC for the success of right-hand men, you don't have to look any further than a short drive down Tobbaco Road to Chapel Hill, where long-time assistant Bill Guthridge took the Tar Heels to a Final Four after Dean Smith left. Mike Brey has recruited well at Notre Dame and done very well as a basketball coach at a football school. He probably would do better at a school with less rigorous admissions standards and where basketball is the top priority. Tommy Amaker has to be third in this group, if only because he didn't fare as well as forecasted at Seton Hall, and he's in the process of turning the Michigan program around. In short, it's a good, if not outstanding, group.

But what if the Dookies were to venture beyond the family? To a young, hard-working coach that has the fire and the vision? Could they find Coach K again? Where would they look? To Xavier's Thad Matta? To Princeton's Joe Scott (don't laugh, but he worked a miracle at Air Force and has both vision and fire), although Scott just returned to his alma mater from Air Force? To Gonzaga's Mark Few? Any of those coaches would do well at Cameron, and the Dookies shouldn't turn up their noses at any of them. And they are better known nationally than Coach K was 25 years ago. After all, who really had heard of Coach K in 1980, when he arrived in Durham?

No one, that's who. But now the Duke trademark is the hottest in college basketball, the revered name. Perhaps in 1980, when the media wasn't omnipresent, when there weren't satellite dishes and the internet was just in someone's imagination, the Duke administration could get away with hiring an unknown, even if at the time they had one of the finest college basketball programs in the land. The lens through which the program was viewed was not as intense, the lights not as bright.

Today, though, brand maintenance is a very important thing, and, well, you can't just put anyone on the Blue Devils' bench. But the outsiders aren't just anyone, they are accomplished coaches, and they could bring the same fire to Durham that Coach K did almost a quarter of a century ago. And, they can do so without the burden of the expectations that being a member of the Duke family would bring. That's not to say that there wouldn't be very high expectations, just that in a nuanced way the expectations would be different.

One thing is for sure, and that is whoever replaces Coach K will be in a tough spot. UCLA had a devil of a time replacing John Wooden, and Alabama had a tough time replacing Bear Bryant (sorry for the mixed metaphor). It's tough to replace a legend, so perhaps the best way to do so is not to look for someone stamped out of the legend's mold, but someone who can start a legend all his own.

When Duke hired Coach K in 1980 it wasn't looking for the next Bill Foster or Vic Bubas for that matter, it was looking for a coach who could win with class. Little did the Duke administration know that they were hiring the next college basketball coaching legend. Perhaps if they apply the same mindset to this hiring (should Coach K leave), they'll find a gem where they least expect it.


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