When it comes to filling the most prestigious coaching jobs in NCAA men’s college basketball, the prevailing ethos has turned upside down:
Tired: Hiring proven Division I head men.
Wired: Hiring up-and-comers with little to no head coaching experience.
The stunning news Wednesday that Villanova head man Jay Wright was, at age 60, retiring as Wildcats coach accelerated the changing of the guard at the highest level of men’s college hoops coaching.
In the past 13 months, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and now Wright have hung up their whistles. That has removed a combined 2,747 coaching wins, 26 Final Four trips and 10 NCAA titles from the coaching fraternity.
More such turnover among marquee coaches must inevitably happen soon, too, for no reason other than father time.
Among the remaining coaching staples of this generation, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim is 77, Iona’s Rick Pitino is 69, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is 67, Kentucky’s John Calipari is 63, and reigning national champion and Kansas head man Bill Self is 59.
Other prominent coaches on the long side of the tooth include Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, 73; Miami’s Jim Larranaga, 72; Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, 67; and Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, 62.
As the wheels of churn gain speed, what’s been fascinating is the route Duke, North Carolina and Villanova have taken to fill three of the most prestigious jobs in basketball.
It is also interesting to speculate on what the paths those three college hoops titans have taken might suggest about the next Kentucky coaching search — whenever that may occur.
Villanova’s choice to replace Wright is Fordham head man Kyle Neptune, 37, a longtime, former ‘Nova assistant. Taking over for a coach with two NCAA championships and four Final Fours, Neptune brings a 16-16 record from his single, solitary season at Fordham.
Yet that one season of head-coaching experience is more than the men who replaced Krzyzewski at Duke and Williams at UNC had.
Before inheriting the North Carolina head-coaching position this past season from a coach with three NCAA titles and nine Final Four trips on his résumé, the sole experience Tar Heels assistant and former guard Hubert Davis, 51, had as a head man was with the UNC JV team.
That’s more than incoming Duke head man Jon Scheyer, 34, the former Blue Devils forward and assistant, brings. This coming season, he will follow the winningest coach in men’s college hoops history and his five national championships and 13 Final Four trips without previously having held a head-coaching job.
What explains the relative lack of pedigree of coaches being chosen to hold some of the best coaching jobs in men’s college hoops?
In general, the opportunity to earn big money is so wide-spread among power-conference coaches now it is harder for even the most elite programs to woo away established head men.
It’s also true every coaching scenario comes with factors unique to particular schools.
North Carolina has a long tradition of staying within the Tar Heels “family tree” in hiring coaches. It is apparent that Krzyzewski wanted (ordered?) Duke to hire Scheyer. Villanova saw Neptune as the best choice to maintain the unique culture Wright built.
Though the sample size is small, the early returns produced by Davis and Scheyer have been impressive.
North Carolina got off to a slow start in 2021-22, absorbing beat downs from Kentucky (98-69 loss), Tennessee (89-72 loss) and Duke (87-67 loss in Chapel Hill) along the way.
However, UNC (29-10) found its mojo late and ended its season by winning 11 of its final 13 games as Davis coached the Heels to the NCAA title game. Included in the late run were two of the sweetest wins ever recorded by North Carolina — a 94-81 win over Duke in Krzyzewski’s final game in Cameron Indoor Arena and an 81-77 victory over Coach K and the Blue Devils in the Final Four.
Scheyer’s hot start is on the recruiting trail — where he has secured commitments for next season from three of the top five, four of the top 20, and five of the top 100 prospects in the Rivals 150 for the class of 2022.
Calipari, by contract, has the option to opt out of the Kentucky head coaching job and into an almost $1 million-a-year position as a university fund raiser/goodwill ambassador after the 2023-24 season.
UK has not hired a men’s hoops head man without prior college head-coaching experience since 1930 — when it lured a coach away from Freeport High School in Illinois.
Adolph Rupp went on to win 876 games and four NCAA titles at UK — but that era holds scant relevance to the present.
I still think the UK coaching job is so big and so unique it needs someone with prior experience at a high level as a head man to handle it.
But do the current hiring trends at other traditionally elite men’s college hoops programs suggest Kentucky should, for the first time since 1930, look beyond those with college head-coaching experience in its next search?