Next man up: The ACC is hoping its younger coaches can keep the conference on top

With Roy Williams retired, Mike Krzyzewski in his final year, and three other conference coaches in their 70s, the faces of the league are changing

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, left, is one of four 70-something ACC coaches this season, while NC State coach Kevin Keatts, right, aims to take a leading role as the league's older coaches slowly head into retirement. (Nick Lisi / AP Photo)

The ACC built its reputation as the nation’s preeminent college basketball conference on the foundation of talented and charismatic coaches such as NC State’s Everett Case, North Carolina’s Frank McGuire, Duke’s Vic Bubas and Bones McKinney of Wake Forest.

The league only got better as those pioneers passed the torch to the likes of Dean Smith, Lefty Driesell and eventually an energetic young guy with an impossible to pronounce, let alone spell, name.

Mike Krzyzewski would go on to spend the next four decades at Duke, winning more games than any college coach in history while claiming five national championships. Along with fellow Hall of Famer Roy Williams at UNC, he also helped raise the already intense rivalry between the Tar Heels and his Blue Devils to unprecedented new heights.

But now as Krzyzewski prepares for his final season before following Williams off into retirement, and with fellow septuagenarians Jim Boeheim, Leonard Hamilton and Jim Larrañaga also nearing the end of their careers, the question must be asked: Is there anyone among the next generation of coaches capable of stepping forward to replace those departing legends as the ACC looks to maintain its lofty status well into the foreseeable future?

“It’s just a matter of time that there’s going to be people retiring, that’s just normal,” said Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner, who staked his claim as a leader of the new breed by guiding his Yellow Jackets to the ACC Tournament championship last March.

“I think the ACC is going to be strong, and whether Coach K or Coach Williams is there, or now (their replacements) Coach (Hubert) Davis or Coach (Jon) Scheyer, we’re still going to do our part. The key now is how do you sustain? You’ve got to get it done.”

Because both Davis and Scheyer are longtime assistants hand-picked and groomed by their mentors to take over their respective programs, expectations are high that their transitions will be smooth and successful despite their lack of head coaching experience.

Each is off to an impressive start on the recruiting trail.

But as Matt Doherty and Pete Gaudet have proven, simply being the coach of either the Tar Heels or Blue Devils is no guarantee of greatness. And even if things do work out, it might take a while for either or both Davis and Scheyer to adjust to their new responsibilities.

That would potentially provide an opening for others around the league to make a name for themselves.

Among those that figure to benefit most is NC State’s Kevin Keatts, a charismatic young coach who can finally step out of the considerable shadow Krzyzewski and Williams have cast over the Triangle and the ACC.

Even if he’s not consciously trying to do it.

“As far as the opportunity, we look for opportunity from the day that I got here,” Keatts said. “We’re NC State. We don’t try to be Duke. We don’t try to be Carolina. They have their own programs, and we fight for us.

“I like the brand that we’re building. We’re getting there. We’re putting some pieces on the floor that can be effective every night. I like the direction our program is going in.”

Joining Keatts and Pastner as the more established heirs to the ACC coaching legacy are Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Louisville’s Chris Mack, Virginia Tech’s Mike Young, Pittsburgh’s Jeff Capel and Clemson’s Brad Brownell.

But which one is the most likely to emerge as the new face of the league?

“Probably right now, the natural one is Coach Bennett,” Pastner said. “He has won a national championship and as long as nothing goes sideways, he’s probably going to go into the Hall of Fame and he might win another championship along the way.”

While Bennett might be the obvious choice to everyone, including his peers, he still has a hard time thinking of himself in those terms.

“I’m 52,” the former Charlotte Hornets shooting guard said, pointing to the increasing invasion of gray across his perfectly manicured head of hair. “I used to say that I’m not even a middle-aged coach, but I’m going into my 13th year as the head coach at Virginia. There are still guys that are older than me, but I guess I am more experienced.”

Experience, however, can be gained in many different ways — as UNC’s Davis is quick to point out.

“Yes, I’ve not been a head coach at the University of North Carolina before,” he said. “But in terms of having these types of expectations, being on TV, being in the limelight, I’ve been there. We’re OK.”

Given its history, the ACC will be just fine too.

“It’s no different than when Coach K and those guys that were in the league early on and built it into what it is,” Georgia Tech’s Pastner said. “There might be some younger guys now, but we’ll all have to figure it out and make the league even better.”