Mike Krzyzewski’s third-to-last press conference as the head coach at Duke also served as an appetizer to planned remarks from NCAA commissioner Mark Emmert later that afternoon. Krzyzewski, who in his career often doubled not just as a coach but as a steward for the future of the game, told reporters two questions he’d like to ask the commissioner.
“Where are we going? And who is going to be charged?”
It’s no secret that college basketball is at a crossroads of sorts. Not necessarily in terms of popularity—two of the three most-watched college basketball games in cable television history came during this year’s men’s Final Four and national championship—but virtually everything about the sport is changing right now. Name, image and likeness deals have quickly taken over recruiting and player retention, with Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe the new poster child after reportedly being set to earn at least $2 million next season. The transfer portal and the one-time transfer waiver have accelerated player movement at faster rates than ever, with more than 1,500 players likely to end up switching teams for the second consecutive offseason. It’s hard to find a coach who’ll say privately that NIL bidding wars and something like 25% of Division I players transferring every offseason is good for the future of the game.
Add in conference realignment, substantial administrative turnover, ballooning salaries and increased governmental scrutiny, and you have a sport in dire need of somebody to help steer the ship.
With Krzyzewski and Roy Williams both wrapping up their storied careers, men’s college basketball needed a new wave of coaches to step up and help lead the game into the future. The people who understand how all these changes impact college hoops the most are its coaches, and their voices through this period of turmoil for the sport (and college sports generally) are needed. The name that most consistently came up when talking to coaches about which voice should break through the rest: Jay Wright.
Wright is everything the sport needed in a new leader. He’s successful (two national championships) and universally respected by his peers, not just as a tactician or recruiter, but also as a person. He’s thoughtful, well-spoken and a progressive thinker. At 60, Wright may not be young by traditional standards, but he seemed more positioned to stick around awhile than some of the game’s elder statesmen, like Tom Izzo and Jim Boeheim.
That is, until he didn’t. Wright’s stunning retirement announcement Wednesday evening leaves college basketball with one less big name to help lead the sport into tomorrow. And without Krzyzewski, Williams or Wright in the game to speak their mind, it desperately needs a new wave of coaches to make their imprint on the future of the game.
Wright presented as an interesting leader for changing times because, in many ways, he was a throwback himself. Villanova was the consummate modern example of a place where no one player was bigger than the program itself. Under Wright, the Wildcats didn’t have a single one-and-done freshman (Omari Spellman redshirted his first year, then entered the draft after his redshirt freshman season), yet still produced draft picks consistently. They were built around freshmen rather than transfers, and several of those freshmen even redshirted their first season in the program. In the last five offseasons, Villanova has taken just two incoming transfers and had only three scholarship players transfer out. Both of those marks are among the lowest in college basketball in that time period, and because of it, the Villanova program felt bulletproof to the changes happening around the rest of the sport. The way Wright built Nova isn’t replicable everywhere, but it gave coaches across the country a blueprint for sustainable success in this tumultuous period.
So who’s going to be in charge now, as Krzyzewski asked? Or, at the very least, who are going to be the voices that the people in charge listen to?
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The first, and most obvious, names to consider are the seven active coaches who’ve won national championships. Those seven: Bill Self, Scott Drew, Tony Bennett, Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Jim Boeheim and Tom Izzo. We can likely eliminate Pitino from these discussions, considering he’s something of a pariah in terms of NCAA dealings. Boeheim and Izzo are certainly unafraid to speak their minds, but aren’t exactly the most progressive thinkers when it comes to modern player movement. They’d sooner lead the sport back to 2000 than toward 2040.
Kansas’s involvement in the 2017 college basketball scandal that led to the sport taking heat from the FBI makes Self a slightly less obvious standard-setter than the more buttoned-up Wright, but his voice will certainly be heard going forward.
“I don’t think that you’re going to see any one person step into a role like Coach K’s had or anything like that. But I think collectively we can do a good job of having a voice because our game is great, but our game needs changes, too,” Self said at the Final Four. “We need to keep evolving. And I think there’s numerous coaches out there, including myself, that need to have a voice and be active and responsible in helping those changes occur.”
One coach without a title who could help fill Wright’s void: North Carolina’s Hubert Davis. Like Wright, Davis is an engaging and charismatic speaker, and his star certainly grew during the Tar Heels’ March Madness run. His press conference monologues about coaching being an act of service made clear the type of mindset he approaches the game with. It may take time for Davis to start using his voice on the issues facing the game, but it will be a welcomed moment once he does.
“I’m not shy[ing] away from talking about it and being involved in it. But right now, this whole year, I have n’t had time to think, ”Davis said when asked about his place as one of the game’s leaders at the Final Four.
There’s room for other voices, too. But who? The answer is complicated. The likes of Arkansas’s Eric Musselman, Texas’s Chris Beard and Alabama’s Nate Oats have fully embraced NIL and the transfer portal and have been unafraid to speak their minds in the past. But will they command and unify the sport when, frankly, the financial resources their programs afford them makes the way they build rosters almost impossible to replicate? Perhaps there’s room for older, well-respected voices like Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Purdue’s Matt Painter and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, though they don’t have the résumés that someone like Wright had. Maybe younger Black coaches like Juwan Howard (Michigan) and Shaheen Holloway (Seton Hall) will provide a valuable perspective as former players now leading their alma maters.
But no coach in the sport would have been quite as valuable a leader as Wright. We’re talking about a coach who rebuffed interest from old-school blueblood programs and high-level NBA vacancies to keep building what became the best program in men’s college basketball of the last decade. He was, in many ways, the perfect modern college hoops coach. To have someone who assembled a program, both on and off the court, that anyone would be proud of and who turned away surely more lucrative job offers in the process walk out on his own terms, at this inflection point in how college basketball operates, is bad news for the sport.
College basketball needed more Jay Wright at this moment, not less. And with one less captain to help steer this seemingly rudderless ship, the chasm in leadership from the sport’s top coaches has just grown even larger.
More College Basketball Coverage:
• Jay Wright Did It His Way, Including Retirement
• Coaching Carousel Grades for 2022 Hires
• Inside Duke’s ‘Great Succession Plan’ With Scheyer
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism