Among Duke Blue Devils fans, Coach K is understandably viewed as a living legend. He, after all, spent more than 40 years in Durham, won five NCAA titles, and put the men’s basketball program on the map.
I understand that and, as my previous work will show you, feel a personal kinship with Krzyzewski. The purpose of this post isn’t to be flippant about his legacy or prematurely put Jon Scheyer on his level. With that being said, though, we need to talk about the new bench boss and how he’s already pushed beyond Coach K’s willingness to adapt.
While the former coach might not seem like the most modern guy — he was born in 1947 and did attend West Point — he did show a willingness to adapt over the years.
Consider, for example, the idea of players leaving college before graduation. It was a major story when Elton Brand decided to enter the 1999 NBA draft; as Deadspin noted in 2015, the big man even received emails from angry alums expressing anger that he’d damage the school’s legacy. While Krzyzewski didn’t seem to take too much issue with the decision — in one of his many books, Beyond Basketball, Coach K used Brand’s decision to return to school as a sophomore and the leave after that season as the example for “trust” his trust chapter — Duke still largely eschewed one-and-done players.
Eventually, though, things changed. Kyrie Irving came to campus and left after one injury-interrupted season. The likes of Jahlil Okafor and Brandon Ingram. More recently, Zion Williamson and Paolo Banchero have enjoyed a one-year layover in Durham.
Coach K, for all of his apparent rigidity, adapted. He knew that if winning was the ultimate goal, he couldn’t ignore the best talent. Even if that strategy only yielded one championship, it kept the program among the NCAA’s elite.
“You’ve got to just keep going at it and trying to recruit the guys you think would be good for Duke,” he said in a 2014 USA Today story. “If you really fall in love with a certain kid who you want, whether he’s there for one year or four, really go after him and hopefully you get him. We’ve gotten a few of those that we’ve really wanted.”
While recruiting one-and-done players is the most obvious example, there are plenty of additional instances of Krzyzewski calling an audible or tweaking a plan. Long-time observers will note how he largely calmed down over the years, at least insofar as ripping his jacket off and berating officials. While only he knows if that was a tactical choice or an age-based evolution, he did change. There have also been instances, whether from his early years at Duke or in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, where he’d tweak a defensive game plan in response to his players’ request.
Now, let’s compare that to Scheyer. While we have a limited sample size to work from, it seems like the new head coach is prepared to do more than adapt: He’s ready to blaze a new trail for both himself and Duke.
Thus far, Scheyer’s main statements of intent have focused on the name, image, and likeness (NIL) space. After saying that he viewed the new basketball landscape as an opportunity rather than a problem, he brought Rachel Baker to Durham as the program’s first general manager.
Yes, you read that correctly. A college team now has a general manager. While that might rub those who cling to the notion of amateurism the wrong way, it shows that Scheyer isn’t going to sit on his hands. If there’s an opportunity to help the Blue Devils improve, in this case, by actively using NIL money to their advantage, the new coach will grab it.
That willingness to push the boat out is especially impressive for a first-time head coach and, perhaps more importantly for those in Durham, bodes well for the future of the program.
If you’re a long-time sports fan, you’ll know that being the one to replace a legendary coach can be a poisoned chalice. That replacement is usually destined to do the dirty work of making changes and facing media scrutiny to clear the decks for a secondary successor.
Scheyer’s willingness to grab the bull by the horns and make legitimate, program-altering decisions, however, suggests something different. Not only does he have the conviction to make these calls, but the university is prepared to back him up. Looking at the choice to hire Baker, for example. Duke isn’t going to shell out the (presumably) large chunk of change it took to bring her to campus if they thought Scheyer and his ideas would be consigned to the trash heap after a year.
On the surface, that might seem like a massive show of faith in an unproven head coach. With that being said, though, it also seemed unbelievable when Tom Butters handed Mike Krzyzewski a contract extension during the 1984 campaign. That move, of course, went on to change the history of Duke Basketball.
While there’s still a long way to go, we could look back on Scheyer’s appointment in the same way.