Coach K’s retirement announcement last week should not come as a shock. The man has been leading Duke basketball for more than four decades. He is, himself, an institution whose name is synonymous with the school and program.
There’s certainly lots of pressure on Jon Scheyer, Coach K’s successor, to carry on from one of the most successful coaching careers at one of the most successful college basketball programs ever. Of note, Krzyzewski won his first championship in 1991 and his last in 2015; his first ACC Tournament title in 1986 and last in 2019 — with a whole lot in between. There’s something to be said for that level of consistency.
It often seems that coaches consider retirement when they start to lose their grip. Coach K is unique in his ability to continue to recruit once-in-a-generation talent more than once in a generation (Zion wasn’t that long ago). Yes, Duke failed to make the NCAA Tournament this year for the first time in forever, but a season like this one — where so much else is an anomaly — means there will be a perfectly reasonable asterisk next to it for Duke basketball and many other programs.
We also have to marvel at what a drama-free exit we saw at Duke, with Coach K getting a whole year to train his replacement — a luxury most programs simply cannot afford.
Let’s back up for a second to emphasize the point: 41 seasons at the helm of Duke. Many reading this (as well as the person writing this column) have never known a time when Mike Krzyzewski was not head coach at Duke.
There’s no doubt that Coach K’s tenure on its own (even without all the conference and national titles) is a feat in and of itself. However, as any fan of college hoops knows, Krzyzewski is not alone in his lengthy time as head coach. In fact, these long-tenured coaches seem to be almost as ubiquitous as the premier programs of which they are part. If you thought Coach K had been around for a long time,
- Jim Boeheim has been at the helm at Syracuse since 1976
- Tom Izzo got the head coaching gig at Michigan State in 1995
- Mark Few was named head coach at Gonzaga in 1999
And that type of tenure is not limited to blue chip programs alone. Greg Kampe, for example, has been at Oakland (MI) since 1984, Bob McKillop at Davidson since 1989 and Fran O’Hanlon at Lafayette since 1995.
Why doesn’t this type of tenure extend to football? Kirk Ferentz, who came to Iowa in 1999, is the only current FBS coach to join his current program before the turn of the century (there are nine such coaches in college basketball). Gary Patterson, who got the head coaching gig at TCU in 2000, is also something of an anomaly.
There’s just a handful of coaches who have coached for more than a decade in the FBS (just a dozen coached their first season before 2010) The modern game of college football has a short memory — and coaches who haven’t done anything for you lately don’t often stick around.
Yes, we do have to acknowledge that there are more Division I college hoops programs (357) than college football (130), so there will naturally be more coaches who have coached longer on the basketball side of the house. (On the flip side of the tenure discussion, this season, nearly 16% of Division I college basketball programs are getting a new head coach (56 total), compared to 13% of FBS football programs.)
Sure, there are legendary coaches at the college football level, but even the likes of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler and Bear Bryant are not synonymous with their programs in the way that, I imagine, Coach K will be even a generation from now.
Part of that is there seems to be almost a generational component to tenure. The reality is that, while Hayes coached for just short of three decades in Columbus, Schembechler for 21 years and Bryant in between, we simply don’t see that type of tenure anymore (again, Ferentz is the only coach who’s been around since the 1990s and evidently Iowa likes stability since his predecessor, Hayden Fry, was at the helm for 20+ years).
But why have we seen these coaches die out for the most part in football, while they’ve remained in basketball? Well, for starters, it’s a lot more common to have a young college basketball head coach than a young college football head coach. As of 2020, 39 of 130 FBS coaches were under 45
A lot of it comes down to career path. In football, there is a clear progression: successful assistants move on to roles at more renowned college programs or might make the early decision to hop to the pros. By nature of the sport, there are fewer games, which means fewer reps for coaches to learn and experiment and, as a result, a longer learning curve.
Innovative coaches still have to pay their dues in college (or professional) football. Seemingly without exception, even the most meteoric rises in the coaching ranks run through seasons spent as position coaches and coordinators before a head coaching role is even considered. Sean McVay, the youngest coach in the NFL at 35 years old, still spent a decade as an assistant. Lincoln Riley, who was just 34 when he took over for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, but similarly spent significant time hopping around Texas Tech and East Carolina in other roles.
On the flip side, you see superstar coaches in college basketball in their early 30s with much more regularity. Brad Stevens, for context, is CURRENTLY 44 years old. He spent six years as an assistant at Butler before getting the head coaching role in 2007 — when he was 30. Loyola Chicago, meanwhile, just hired 29-year-old Drew Valentine to lead the program.
How is it possible for a 29-year-old to lead a basketball program with legitimate Sweet Sixteen expectations? Well, hoops has a smaller staff, which means more opportunities to literally be close to the head coach and learn the role. Further, compared to football, a longer season with more frequent games means a condensed learning curve and more prompt role readiness.
We have started to see the script flipping in football to a degree, with more younger coaches getting opportunities. In addition to the aforementioned Riley, Ohio State’s very own Ryan Day took over for Urban Meyer full time at 40.
However, all that’s a discussion on the start of one’s career. There’s also the note that, in basketball, there are a lot of coaches who simply stick around. We do see some jumping to the NBA (Brad Stevens) and there is the obvious push and pull between premier programs and non-majors.
The biggest factor in longevity, however, is likely that parity and conference dynamics benefit increased tenure in college basketball more than they do in college football. College hoops has more parity, by nature of the game, season structure and tournament format, that behoves a more egalitarian ecosystem..
For example, it will never matter that Gonzaga is not in a Power Five conference, because in any given year, a champion can come from anywhere in college basketball. Additionally, basketball is less resource intensive than football and requires fewer players, so any school could theoretically field a team in a given year. They will always be able to recruit good players.
Teams in small conferences can boast conference championships and Final Four appearances much more than 124 or so of the 130 college football programs can about conference titles and Playoff appearances.
Coach K has built the same kind of machine we saw Urban Meyer execute to perfection at Ohio State and Nick Saban at Alabama (let’s be real, Coach K built the OG machine). Gaining outstanding recruits, winning championships, sending top picks to the NBA — all while managing the changing college basketball landscape with shifting eligibility rules.
The difference? Even a solid career for Meyer at Ohio State didn’t even approach a decade. Saban, meanwhile, is one of the longest tenured head coaches in college football, having started at Toledo in 1990 before heading to Michigan State in 1995 after a time in the NFL. However, he’s only been at Alabama since 2007. Saban is 69 years old. His contract runs through 2026. Retirement after that point is a very real possibility.
Perhaps the generation of football coaches we’ve seen rising — including Day and Riley — will be able to buck this trend, and bring this longevity to the college football game.