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Coach K was bigger than Duke, and replacing him is a nearly impossible task

Jon Scheyer, right, will join the ranks of those who have followed college basketball legends. (Gerry Broome/AP)

Here’s the problem with succeeding Mike Krzyzewski as the head coach of the Duke men’s basketball program: You have no chance.

This is nothing against Jon Scheyer, who will take over the Blue Devils after Krzyzewski’s retirement following the 2021-22 season and is, presumably, a fine coach, if never before a head one. This is the reality: After a legend leaves, finding sustained success under the next guy or even the guy after the next guy — matching a standard that is inherently unmatchable — is nearly impossible. Mike Davis had no chance at Indiana. Matt Doherty had no chance at North Carolina. Craig Esherick had no chance at Georgetown. Holly Warlick had no chance with the Tennessee women.

Roy Williams at Kansas? Okay, fine. But he’s the exception.

Maybe Scheyer’s the next exception and the next four decades of Duke basketball will somehow mirror the past four — which would mean five national titles, a dozen Final Fours and 15 ACC tournament championships. Best of luck.

“Jay Bilas said it’s the hardest job in the history of sports,” Scheyer said at his introductory news conference Friday. “So I appreciate Jay saying that.”

In college sports, regime change is inherently difficult. None of the players are under contract, and the best don’t stay for two years, let alone four. The foundation of athletic talent is inherently unstable and transient. So the head coach becomes everything — the face, the attitude, the heart, lungs and bones of the program.

The head coach in men’s basketball or football is almost invariably the highest-paid — and best-known — employee at a university with a robust athletics program. There’s a reason the cameras so frequently pan to the sideline during NCAA tournament games while the cameras remain more focused on the floor during NBA playoff games. They’re just highlighting whom the viewer is most familiar with and cares most about — the players in the pros, the coaches in college. And when the head coach leaves, it becomes so easy for his former rivals to say to recruits: “Psssst. You don’t know anything about this new guy.”

John Feinstein: Mike Krzyzewski made college basketball history by never making excuses

At Duke, the Coach K brand trumps the brand of the school itself. Krzyzewski almost transcended his position and the university, becoming one of those long-tenured coaches who served as the conscience of college basketball. Plus, with three gold medal-winning teams at the Olympics, he became a towering figure in the international game. The Blue Devils practice in the Krzyzewski Center for Athletic and Academic Excellence. They play their home games on Coach K Court.

There’s no way Scheyer — there’s no way anyone — can expect such a legacy. Scheyer played for Krzyzewski. He won a national title as a guard under Krzyzewski. He has coached under Krzyzewski and only under Krzyzewski. And now Krzyzewski will loom over him — not intentionally but inevitably — because the Duke fan base will expect Coach K-like results from someone who can’t be, who shouldn’t try to be, Coach K.

“I’ve been told many times in the last 48 hours, by the way, that you’re not supposed to be the guy that follows the guy. You’re supposed to be the guy that follows the guy that follows the guy,” Scheyer said Friday. “… I’m anxious for the opportunity to show what we can do, of course, but I’m not going to pay attention to the outside noise, the expectations. I understand that comes with this job. I’m not running from it. I’m not hiding from it, but I realize that’s a part of it.”

This isn’t at all specific to Duke. What will Syracuse be after Jim Boeheim? Michigan State after Tom Izzo? Gonzaga after Mark Few? North Carolina after Williams, with former Tar Heel Hubert Davis already in place for the upcoming season? The Connecticut women after Geno Auriemma?

There are no guarantees. The proudest programs in college basketball have spent time wandering in the wilderness after legends left.

Kentucky went from 41 years of Adolph Rupp to 13 years of Joe B. Hall, and both won national championships, about as smooth as these transitions can be — albeit in a vastly different era, back in the 1970s, when the NBA didn’t loom as large and the pulls on a college coach weren’t as varied.

But in the years since, the Wildcats ended up on probation with Eddie Sutton and suffered two years of confusion under Billy Gillispie. Kentucky is demonstrative of the outlandish expectations that are baked into these jobs: Tubby Smith succeeded the championship-winning Rick Pitino, won a national title and was essentially run out of Lexington after his next nine teams all made the NCAA tournament but failed to reach the Final Four.

UCLA went from 27 years — and 10 national titles — under John Wooden to almost inherent instability. None of the Bruins’ next three coaches lasted more than three years. UCLA’s lone national title since — in 1995, under Jim Harrick — was sandwiched between first-round NCAA losses. Wooden once won seven championships in a row. Since he retired in 1975, the Bruins have been to seven Final Fours. Different landscape, sure. But, with 11 missed NCAA tournaments during that time, different results as well.

Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski will retire after the 2021-22 college basketball season

The examples are everywhere. When Mike Davis replaced Bob Knight, removed after 29 years at Indiana, he made the national title game in his second year — then didn’t reach the tourney’s second weekend in the next four years and was let go. The Hoosiers just hired their fifth coach in the 15 years since. John Thompson Jr. made Georgetown an iconic program in the 1980s, and Esherick — his assistant and successor — made only one NCAA tournament in his 5½ seasons at the helm. Pat Summitt won eight national titles and went to 18 Final Fours leading the Tennessee women, so when Warlick merely reached three regional finals in seven seasons, she was a failure by comparison.

North Carolina’s example might be most pertinent to Duke’s, not in small part because their arenas sit less than 11 miles apart and the basketball programs form arguably the best rivalry in college sports.

In the fall of 1997, Dean Smith stepped aside from the Tar Heels after 36 years, two national titles and, at the time, more victories than any Division I coach. The timing of Smith’s decision made it all but impossible to hand the reins to anyone other than Bill Guthridge, his longtime assistant. This wasn’t a long-term solution. It was a reward. Guthridge held the job for just three years before he retired.

When Williams, a North Carolina alum and former Smith assistant, elected to stay at Kansas — where he had built on a program Larry Brown coached to a national title — UNC decided to stay within the “family,” as Duke did with Scheyer. It hired Doherty, a forward on Smith’s 1982 national title winner who had spent a year as the head coach at Notre Dame.

In that first season, with Guthridge and Smith’s old players, Doherty had the Tar Heels ranked No. 1 in the nation. I covered that team, and there was a frenzy.

“It’s fragile,” Doherty told me at the time.

He knew what he had. He knew how hard the job would be. He made mistakes. That first team lost in the NCAA’s second round. In 2002-03, the Tar Heels went 8-20 and missed the tournament for the first time in 28 years. Doherty was out after the following season — replaced by Williams, who finally couldn’t turn down his alma mater.

Next spring, Krzyzewski will coach his final regular season game at home against archrival North Carolina, who will be coached not by Williams but by Davis. After that, it will be left to Jon Scheyer and Hubert Davis to carry the rivalry — not to mention their programs and the sport — into the future. Wish them both luck. These look like dream jobs. But replacing an icon can make a coach toss, turn — and worse.

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