Duke, North Carolina and the most precarious of college basketball ...
On March 27, 2022, Bubba Cunningham was standing in a small circle in the darkened back corridors of the Wells Fargo Center. Two reporters had pulled him aside, hoping for his perspective on what North Carolina — what coach Hubert Davis — had just done. The Tar Heels, in their first season after the retirement of legend Roy Williams, had easily handled Cinderella Saint Peter’s in the Elite Eight; the following weekend, they would play old rival Duke in the Final Four.
For much of the year, the handoff between Williams and his preferred successor had been rocky. Williams heard all of the complaints. The Tar Heels were a bubble team without meaningful marquee victories; fans with high expectations felt immediate nagging doubt. Then North Carolina turned it around, discovered itself, strung together long stretches of good basketball, toppled Duke at Duke on Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game, and stormed into the NCAA Tournament as a talented No. 8 seed on a mission. Davis had tweaked and tinkered and gotten them humming. He reached the Final Four in Year 1. Already Carolina’s succession plan — its first shot at replacing an icon for the second time in its history — looked like a rousing success.
Williams was over the moon. “I wanted somebody to take my place that loved the university and the basketball program the way Roy Williams did,” he said. Cunningham was understandably just as giddy. Williams had pushed hard for Davis’s hire, but Cunningham had made the ultimate call, and the sustained health of the men’s basketball program is any North Carolina athletic director’s top responsibility. Thanks to the previous month, Cunningham could happily reiterate what he had also seen in Davis: He was the continuation of the UNC hoops tradition. By now, the rest of the world had seen it too. “You could tell he was passionate about Carolina,” Cunningham said. “He has been mentored by and watched great coaches all his life. That’s really helpful when you’re trying to build your own program. He knows exactly how he wants to build his program. And he’s doing it.”
Eleven months later, North Carolina, with four of five returning starters from last year’s team, is more at risk of missing the tournament than it ever was a season ago. The preseason Associated Press No. 1 is statistically worse in nearly every way; the Tar Heels have matched last season’s loss total (10) in a fraction of the time, have just lost four of their last five, and haven’t notched a Quadrant 1 win. “This would’ve never even crossed my mind,” star forward Armando Bacot told reporters Monday night. “On a level of worried? I’m 100 percent worried.”
Armando Bacot: “It’s just tough. Has been all year. You know, this is not how any of us wanted it to go.”
— Brendan Marks (@BrendanRMarks) February 14, 2023
It is one thing to be worried about sneaking into the tournament field. Carolina fans — and Duke fans — might have more existential concerns. Up the road, the Blue Devils are tentatively picking their way through their first post-Mike Krzyzewski season, with two fewer losses than Carolina and far better current tournament participation odds but no shortage of growing pains, either. Duke ranks 35th in adjusted efficiency; if the season ended today, this would be just the second time the Blue Devils finished outside the top 20 in the KenPom.com rankings since 1997.
The big picture is more the point: For the first time in most living hoops fans’ memories, Duke is not being formally led by the person synonymous with the program’s success. The short-term vagaries of tournament seeding seem minimal in comparison to the suddenly wide-open possibility spaces for both programs. “There’s an incredible respect for what goes into success, and there’s not an arrogance that we’re just Duke and we’ll just assume this is always going to continue,” former Duke star Grant Hill says. Nor was Carolina’s transition to its next decade of dominance permanently paved last March.
With minimal exception, under K and Roy — and under Dean Smith and K — Duke and UNC were almost always been national title contenders, the bluest of blue bloods. Will they always be what they’ve always been? What will sustain them? In the future of men’s college basketball, are Duke and UNC too big to fail? Is anyone?
When Jim Calhoun arrived at Connecticut in 1986, he inherited what had been, for most of its history to date, a minor Yankee Conference power. Calhoun’s remit: establish UConn as a competitive member of the Big East, the kind of program that did more than make up the numbers while Georgetown and Syracuse played for national titles.
He managed much more than that. By 1990, Calhoun had elevated the UConn men to the status of national power; the Huskies won the Big East regular season and conference tournament titles. Gampel Pavilion opened on campus, replacing the old Field House that Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt wouldn’t let UConn even use for conference contests. Once Calhoun got it rolling, he never looked back. By the middle of the decade, Calhoun was competing not just against Big East powers but the best programs in college basketball — competing on all fronts, not just on the floor but for talent, for branding, for resources, for everything. “The way we looked at it, on a program level, was if Duke flew to games, or to recruiting, we had to fly,” Calhoun said. “You start out needing to grow up as a program in terms of physical space, just the buildings, and then things build out around you gradually as you have more and more success.”
By the time the program reached its first real apex in the late 1990s, UConn’s closest competition were some of Krzyzewski’s best Duke teams. The rises were similar, were created by similar personalities, yielded similar results. They had coached against each other when Calhoun was at Northeastern and Krzyzewski was at Army. Both coaches led their elite programs to previously unforeseen heights, and both coaches sustained and expanded those programs through sheer force of will, through raw singularity of focus. Calhoun grew up working-class in Braintee, Mass.; he lost his father to a heart attack at 15, earned a basketball scholarship two years later, and gave it up to cut stone to support his mom and siblings. Krzyzewski grew up working-class in Chicago, enlisted in the Army, played for Bob Knight, was forged by the experience. “Mike is a great guy, and we’re very good friends, et cetera,” Calhoun said. “But Mike is a very tough guy. And his teams were always incredibly tough and incredibly hard to beat.”
Both men are their program’s paterfamilias. Both men won constantly, yes, but both also created a culture from whole cloth, made themselves synonymous with a place and thus hard to imagine without them. How do you preserve what you’ve built? How do you prepare for the end of your tenure before you’ve really ended it? Calhoun raised money, helped build new facilities, and when it was time to decide on the future of the program, took a look at what had worked at other places in the past, tried to replicate the spirit of it.
“You look at North Carolina,” Calhoun said, referring to Dean Smith’s retirement, when Smith was succeeded by his longtime assistant Bill Guthridge, who was succeeded by Matt Doherty, a young coach who struggled before Williams returned from Kansas and restored the program to its prior glory. “OK, it didn’t work right away. It wasn’t totally seamless. But they stuck with Carolina guys, people who really know what Carolina is all about, and they got there.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the cautionary tale, was Indiana, which fired Bob Knight without a succession plan — or any plan, really, as Knight’s firing was disciplinary and sudden, and tore the Indiana basketball family apart — and had been in the relative wilderness since.
Calhoun’s plan for Connecticut was to look like Carolina. Hand the reins to someone who knew what Connecticut was all about, who had played for him, whom he trusted someone he thought was just as tough as him. When he announced his decision to step down he pushed for former UConn captain Kevin Ollie to replace him, and maneuvered to ensure Ollie would get his chance. Ollie won a national title in his second season, UConn’s fourth since Calhoun brought it into modern life. Four years later, Ollie had made one more NCAA Tournament; he was fired in 2018, the school citing an ongoing NCAA investigation as cause. His replacement, Dan Hurley, is a stylistic fit, but he is not one of Calhoun’s former players — and while the Huskies are having their best season since his arrival, he is still looking for his first NCAA Tournament win.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” Calhoun said. “No matter what you do, it’s not going to be a failsafe. That failsafe went wrong, for whatever reason.” Calhoun tried to replicate Carolina’s circuitous handoff from Smith to Williams. It didn’t work. “The personality, transferring it down from one person to the other, the way that worked out was pretty perfect. But it’s very hard to replicate.”
Krzyzewski would have taken note. Perhaps the greatest men’s Division I coach of all time was also always one of the most adaptable, unafraid to integrate new tactics and strategies from his peers. It was around the time of Smith’s retirement that Krzyzewski started the Legacy Fund, a separate high-value basketball fundraising entity within Duke’s already significant athletics fundraising apparatus (the Iron Dukes). As the News & Observer’s Luke DeCock reported last year, the fund was designed with the explicit future economic interest of the men’s hoops program in mind. A $1 million donation was required. Managed with his (and his family’s) heavy involvement, it would insulate him and his eventual successor from financial worries, and create a long-lasting network of wealthy individuals of supporting Duke men’s hoops — Marcus Aurelius handing off a thriving Roman economy, his face on all the coins.
Beyond the actual weight of financial power, though, the creation of the fund 25 years ago displays how long Krzyzewski has been thinking about what Duke would look like when he retired. Would the whole machine fall apart the minute he let go of the controls? Krzyzewski’s year-long tour with Jon Scheyer in wait last season — which struck many around the game as self-aggrandizing — was also supposed to smooth the transition. His centering of the “Duke Brotherhood” branding in his final farewell comments felt like an answer to the cohesion of the Carolina family. “The conversations I’ve had with him in the past decade, it was obviously on his mind,” Hill, a Legacy Fund donor, said. “It’s something he’s really strived to create.”
The question is how far that gets you. “You can do everything right and obviously not continue on with the kind of success he’s had,” Hill said. “You’ve been on a journey with a guy who is an icon in the game. He’s one of a kind and very, very difficult to replace. But I don’t know, it just feels like the infrastructure, the culture, the expectations, it’s all set up there. It’s one of the places where you say, ‘You can win there.'”
That is probably the best prediction one could offer for Duke’s long-term future. There is every chance Scheyer crushes it. (“He’s a really good young coach,” Virginia’s Tony Bennett said last Saturday. “You can just see it.”) But there is also the off chance that it doesn’t work. The hope for Duke is that it will be Carolina: If one culture hire doesn’t work out, another will, and if all else fails you’re a big enough place to attract the very best young coach the game has to offer, family ties or not. In the meantime, Krzyzewski is still an ambassador at the program, still deeply involved. His influence will hardly vanish overnight.
Still, there are plenty of cautionary tales. Indiana in basketball, which some Kentucky fans — particularly those who remember Knight’s less dominant later seasons in Bloomington — are currently convinced they are becoming. There is Syracuse, which has declined under the same pair of hands. There is Georgetown, where culture-obsessed hires have led to disaster. Hill also cited Florida State football post-Bobby Bowden, or Nebraska football, powerhouses of his own era. “It’s not something you like to think about,” he said.
And then there is the example of UNC, which has done this once already, but was fortunate, too, in that its ideal eventual hire was already a proven winner at one of the other ancient blue bloods in Kansas. The Jayhawks went from Williams to Bill Self and have remained an annual power, too, while Williams revived North Carolina, won three national titles, and ensured the status anxiety of the late 1990s and early aughts vanished for the better part of two decades.
There is no Williams figure out there right now. It is also too early to discount the idea that Davis — so lauded a year ago, just a year removed from many Carolina fans sure they’d managed the toughest thing in college sports again — is that guy. But for all the drama of this disappointing season, UNC die-hards will rest somewhat easy knowing they have gone through this process in living memory and come through it eventually. Williams has been on both ends of it.
“Way back it was Frank McGuire,” Williams said last March. “Guys wanted to play for him because they trusted him. Then guys wanted to play at Carolina because he’d made it great, and they wanted to play for Dean Smith, because they trusted him. And then the next guys came along. Nobody’s done it as long as Carolina. The family part that everybody talks about, nobody’s been able to duplicate it specifically.”
Duke is about to try it — to test itself beyond its iconic, singular father figure — for the first time.
Can a program ever be more than a vector for sheer force of personality? Can it survive on institutional momentum? How can you insure what you’ve built survives you? How will these uncertain futures meet with what college athletics will look like in five, 10, or 20 years? And if Duke and North Carolina can’t stay in power forever and ever, what does the ACC look like? What does the sport? The answer to these questions has never been more open-ended than right now.
“Going from one hand to the other,” Calhoun said. “That’s the tough intangible. It’s an alchemy thing. You can’t touch it, you can’t feel it, but it’s there — and all of that competitiveness, that personality, that individual, trying to transfer that. It’s really difficult.”
(Top photo of Duke’s Mark Mitchell, left, and UNC’s Leaky Black: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)