Roy Williams is already gone, Coach K is headed out in a year, Jim Boeheim’s time on the sideline is ending soon, and Bob Huggins, Tom Izzo and John Calipari are all at least 60 years old.
Toss in the name, image and likeness era, the insanity of 1,600 scholarship players in the transfer portal and a couple of new avenues — G League Ignite and Overtime Elite — that have already begun to poach a significant portion of elite talent from the college ranks.
It’s completely accurate to say that college basketball is at a crossroads.
No, I’m not saying the sport is dying, or in danger of seeping into oblivion. College basketball was able to withstand the spurning of KG, LeBron, Kobe and T-Mac for the NBA, and it was just fine. It was able to deal with Billy Donovan and Brad Stevens leaving for the league.
And it hasn’t just been able to survive. For the most part, it’s thrived.
But I’m more worried now than I’ve ever been.
LeBron isn’t Mike Krzyzewski. He would have spent a single season playing for Ohio State, or whichever school he would have chosen. But Coach K has been in Durham for more than four decades, Boeheim has been the head coach at Syracuse for 45 years and Williams has been the face of two of college basketball’s most successful programs for the past 30-plus years.
Unlike in the NBA, where the players reign supreme, college basketball is all about the coaches. When you first think of Kentucky, it’s not Anthony Davis, John Wall or Devin Booker that come to mind. It’s Calipari. When you think of Duke, it’s Coach K and then maybe Jayson Tatum, Zion Williamson or Christian Laettner. Draymond Green spent four years in East Lansing; Izzo has been Michigan State’s head coach for 26 seasons.
There will be guys who take the place of Krzyzewski and Williams as the pioneers of college basketball. In the near future, it’ll be Izzo, Calipari, Jay Wright, Mark Few and Bill Self. But the sport just said goodbye to eight national championships and 21 Final Four appearances between K and Roy.
The active coaches with more than a single national title? Only Wright and Rick Pitino, who is coaching in regular-season obscurity with the Iona Gaels. Seven others have reached the Final Four on more than one occasion: Izzo, Boeheim, Calipari, Self, Few, Huggins and Kelvin Sampson.
Virginia’s Tony Bennett, 52, and Baylor’s Scott Drew, 50, have won the last two national titles, and now the departure of Williams and Krzyzewski certainly opens it up even more for younger coaches to be able to compete at the highest level.
If it were just the departure of two Hall of Fame coaches, I wouldn’t be overly concerned. There are plenty of talented coaches on the way up. Chris Beard took Texas Tech to the championship game, and now he’s got a job at Texas better-equipped to win a national title. Bennett has dominated K and Roy in the regular season, Drew has done an incredible job at Baylor and guys like Alabama’s Nate Oats, Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann, Michigan’s Juwan Howard, Purdue’s Matt Painter, the Hurley Brothers (Dan and Bobby), UCLA’s Mick Cronin and Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard are all 50 or under.
Coach K to retire after 2021-22 season
But the concern isn’t about the coaching star power taking a couple of recent hits. The NCAA appears ill-prepared to handle the onslaught of changes that have already begun to hit college basketball, which is no shock given NCAA president Mark Emmert’s arrogance and the organization’s track record. Krzyzewski, in his news conference, said that he isn’t retiring due to the changing landscape in the sport, and that coaches have had to adapt throughout his 40-plus year tenure.
True, but that was nothing like what’s about to come.
The NCAA has had months, if not years, to come up with a universal plan for NIL, and there’s still absolutely nothing in place with just a few weeks shy of a July 1 date in which a handful of states have approved some level of allowances for college athletes to be able to profit off their name, image and likeness. If they had been proactive instead of reactive, Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga — two of the top 2021 NBA Draft prospects — would have almost certainly gone the college route instead of taking the G League Ignite paycheck of about $500,000. It’s not just kids bypassing college for money out of high school, it’s also a rash of players leaving college with no guarantee of being drafted. It doesn’t seem all that long ago that players didn’t leave unless they were lottery picks. Now they leave for two-way contracts.
When I first started keeping track of the transfer list about 15 years ago, it fit on a few pages and included about 250 names. Now the list needs its own binder and features nearly 1,600 scholarship players, which means roster turnover and poaching will be at an all-time high.
K is turning 75 soon. Of course it’s age that is ultimately forcing him out. He said he wants to spend more time with his family, his grandchildren — and who can blame him? He’s given Duke and college basketball more time than anyone ever anticipated. But like his colleague from a few miles down the road in Chapel Hill, sources said he’s become frustrated with how the game has changed of late, how players are bolting from school to school at the first sign of adversity and how they have to handle athletes with kid gloves in fear of losing a top player.
And the NCAA hasn’t helped matters.
A handful of years ago, Krzyzewski told me that college basketball is missing a czar, someone appointed by the NCAA that could be in charge of the sport, and have the power to make necessary changes. When I asked K whether he has talked with Emmert about the idea, he just laughed.
“Mark Emmert doesn’t call me,” Krzyzewski said of the NCAA president.
Maybe Emmert should call K, Roy and the other elder statesmen of the game. I’m not saying they’ll have all the right answers, but they know where things are headed and it’s not in the right direction.