NSJ 2021 Newcomers of the Year: 4 people filling big shoes

Nina King, Jon Scheyer, Hubert Davis and Mike Elko are all replacing legends

Nina King, Duke's new athletic director, will be breaking in a new men's basketball and fotball coach in her first year on the job. (Ethan Hyman / The News & Observer via AP)

Most years, the NSJ’s choice as the top newcomer is a freshman phenom at a college in the state or a rookie that arrived with an impact on a pro team.

But 2021 hasn’t been like most years, especially at North Carolina and Duke. A year ago, the two schools had Hall of Fame basketball coaches who were among the most experienced in the ACC, the elder statesman of the ACC’s football coaches in the league, and one of the league’s longest-tenured athletic directors.

Within six months, all four of them had to be replaced, in a titanic upheaval that saw a new generation of leaders thrust onto the scene at the highest levels of college athletics.

So, the North State Journal Newcomer of the Year for 2021 is a four-way tie between the people — three men and a woman — who are tasked with filling the big shoes left behind by the legends.

It’s not the first time the three Triangle schools have seen so much change all at once. In the combined history of UNC, Duke and NC State, at least four of the highest-profile positions (athletic director, football coach and men’s basketball coach) have gone vacant in a year at least 10 times. In the last 90 years, however, it’s only happened twice.

In 1980, Monte Kiffin took over the ACC champion NC State football team from Bo Rein. Mike Krzyzewski was hired to coach Duke basketball. Jim Valvano was brought in as the Wolfpack basketball coach, and John Swofford took over as UNC athletic director.

Seventeen years later, in 1997, Swofford left his position to become ACC commissioner and Dick Baddour replaced him as UNC AD. That same year, Carolina had to replace a football coach when Mack Brown left for Texas and assistant Carl Torbush was promoted. Dean Smith also retired, replaced by assistant Bill Guthridge. Tom Butters stepped down as Duke athletic director, eventually replaced by Joe Alleva. Herb Sendek was a few months into his first year as NC State basketball coach, as well.

The past year, extending into 2022, promises to be as significant and historic as the previous two years that saw as much tumult. Here’s a look at who’s stepping into the big shoes.

Duke trailblazer

Nina King was named the eighth athletic director in Duke history and the first woman to hold the job. She’s just the third African American woman athletic director in all of Division I college sports.

King replaced Kevin White, who retired after 13 years on the job. She came to Duke with White and served on his leadership team for the entire time he was at the school.

She didn’t have the luxury of slowly stepping into her new job. Since she was announced as White’s successor, King has had to participate in two coaching searches — for football and basketball, the latter coming before she had officially started in her new role.

Hubert Davis, left, and Jon Scheyer, right, will be the faces of the UNC-Duke rivalry they have participated in as both players and assistants before replacing legends at their alma maters. (AP Photos)

Following the GOAT

Following the first season in 16 that Duke has missed the NCAA Tournament, Krzyzewski announced that this current season would be his last. A Hall of Famer and college basketball’s all-time leader in coaching wins, Krzyzewski has been head coach of the Blue Devils since 1980.

For years, Coach K’s successor has been the source of endless speculation. The answer was one seat to Krzyzewski’s right on the Duke bench. Former Blue Devil player and current associate head coach Jon Scheyer was named coach-in-waiting. He’ll take over the program once this season comes to an end.

Scheyer has already hit the ground running on the recruiting trail, assembling the country’s top class for 2022 with a quartet of five-stars and three of the top seven players in the class. He’s also added a 2023 five-star commitment for good measure.

Passing the baton

A few miles away, UNC had already transitioned from its Hall of Fame hoops coach a few weeks before Coach K announced his plans. Roy Williams kissed the logo on center court following the last game of the season at the Dean Dome and shortly after the season ended announced his plans to retire.

New Duke football coach Mike Elko waves to the crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium after being introduced during a break in the Blue Devils’ basketball game on Dec. 14. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

Williams also gave up his seat to an assistant coach and former player. Hubert Davis was named as head coach, just the fourth former Tar Heel player to coach the team and the first black head coach.

Davis offers a link to Carolina’s past while still providing a change of direction to a program that has been dominated by two legendary coaches.

Leaving it better than you found it

In 2008, David Cutcliffe took over the worst football program in FBS. He rebuilt Duke football, taking the Blue Devils to six bowl games and winning an ACC divisional title. Now, former Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko will try to take Duke football to the next level as he takes over for Cutcliffe following a string of unsuccessful seasons.