Coach K on the clock?

UNC’s coaching change raises questions about Duke’s succession plan

Pitt coach and former Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel, center, and current Blue Devils associate head coach Jon Scheyer, right, and both considered candidates to replace Mike Krzyzewski when he decides to retire. (Gretchen Ertl / AP Photo)

While the North Carolina sports world — and most of college basketball — was reeling with the news of Roy Williams’ sudden retirement last Thursday, another college program with a long basketball history made a decision that could impact the area in the future.

The DePaul Blue Demons, who in mid-March fired head coach Dave Leitao following five straight last-place finishes in the Big East, hired Oregon assistant Tony Stubblefield.

DePaul was secretive about its coaching search, but it was widely reported that Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer interviewed for the job and was considered a finalist for the position, which was less than 30 miles from his hometown outside of Chicago.

In the aftermath of Williams’ retirement and UNC’s subsequent hiring of former Tar Heel player and Williams assistant Hubert Davis to replace him, the move keeps a key piece in place for the other inevitable major coaching news that will come out of the Triangle … eventually.

At some point in the relatively near future, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski will join Williams in retirement, bringing an end to what has become a popular parlor game among sports fans in the state — who will replace Roy and K when the time comes?

The time has come for Williams and grows closer by the day for Krzyzewski.

Coach K is 74, and his Blue Devils are coming off their worst season in decades. Next season promises to be an improvement. Krzyzewski has commitments from a trio of five-star recruits and should have a solid core of returning veteran players to pair them with, a mixture of skilled youth and experienced contributors that Duke hasn’t had since the 2015 championship team.

Could one last strong season from the Blue Devils be Coach K’s mic drop, allowing him to leave on a successful note and turn over a program that’s in good shape to the next Duke coach?

The last time UNC and Duke both made coaching changes within two years of each other, both schools opted for assistant coaches with no previous head coaching experience. Duke hired longtime NC State assistant Vic Bubas to coach the Blue Devils starting with the 1960 season. The following year, North Carolina promoted Frank McGuire assistant Dean Smith to replace the Hall of Fame coach.

Both hires worked out well. Bubas led Duke to three Final Fours and four ACC Tournament titles over the next decade. Smith coached for the next 36 years, winning two NCAA titles to go with 11 Final Fours and 13 ACC Tournament crowns.

Carolina has already handed the coaching baton to a longtime assistant, and Duke could be getting into position to do the same. Scheyer, who stepped in to earn a win as interim coach this season when Krzyzewski was in COVID quarantine, is considered the heir apparent. In an offseason where Duke lost an assistant to a head coaching job — Nate James earned the vacancy at Austin Peay — keeping Scheyer in Durham appears to be a major coup for the peaceful transition of power.

Scheyer will have plenty of competition for the job, however. Much like the UNC coaching search, a Duke vacancy would attract some of the biggest names in the sport both inside the Duke Brotherhood and out.

Jeff Capel, the key recruiter of many of Duke’s most successful one-and-dones during his eight years on Krzyzewski’s staff, is having success at Pitt. He was considered the heir apparent until his surprising departure to take the job with the Panthers. If Duke administration wants someone with head coaching experience, Capel would be the most likely target.

Steve Wojciechowski is also an option with coaching experience. He had a .574 record in seven years at Marquette but was fired after this season. He’s a candidate to replace James on Duke’s staff for the upcoming season — although current Duke director of operations Nolan Smith will likely get the spot.

Chris Collins (Northwestern) is another young, successful former Duke player and assistant who will get an interview, as is Bobby Hurley (Arizona State).

If the school looks to bring in a Prince Charles to help lead a brief transition before turning things over to the younger generation, Johnny Dawkins (UCF), Tommy Amaker (Harvard) and Mike Brey (Notre Dame) are strong candidates.

The next tier of candidates would include James, Kenny Blakeney (Howard), Greg Paulus (Niagara) and Quin Snyder (Utah Jazz), who had a controversial end to his college coaching career in Missouri.

Among coaches without obvious Duke connections, Brad Stevens is considered the top choice. The Celtics nearly took the 2010 title from Krzyzewski when Stevens was coaching Butler.

Further complicating the coaching search that has yet to start is the fact the person leading it likely hasn’t been hired yet. Athletic director Kevin White will retire in August and the search committee to find his replacement was just assembled last month.

The new hire will have a test early in his or her tenure — finding the right person to fill one of the most sought-after jobs in the sport.