College basketball landscape forcing coaches to adapt or go

Longtime basketball coaches who have recently retired include, from left, North Carolina's Roy Williams, Davidson's Bob McKillop, Villanova's Jay Wright and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.

Longtime basketball coaches who have recently retired include, from left, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Davidson’s Bob McKillop, Villanova’s Jay Wright and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.

AP, News & Observer file photos

Mark Turgeon and Chris Mack had the kind of college basketball jobs at Maryland and Louisville, respectively, that you don’t walk away from. Yet both made the rare move of leaving Power 5 conference men’s basketball jobs in season.

Jay Wright, who led Villanova to two of the past six national titles, announced his retirement still at the peak of his career at the age of 60.

Those examples come on the heels of Hall of Famers in North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski stepping down in consecutive seasons plus longtime Davidson coach Bob McKillop.

There’s a changing landscape coaching in college basketball induced by a perfect storm of the pandemic, name image and likeness (NIL) and the transfer portal.

“There’s no question, you can’t deny that it’s as much change as we’ve probably ever had,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “And it’s kind of been all at once.”

Bennett said some coaches could have felt it was “time” but added coaches face a different kind of crucible now.

Williams noted throughout his final season at UNC in 2020-21 that keeping his team isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the constant testing and the uncertainty that often surrounded games was one of the most difficult seasons he’d endured in a coaching career that covered five decades.

It took a toll on coaches in every sport, especially those like basketball that had its championship canceled in the spring of 2020. But NC State coach Kevin Keatts said it appeared to hit basketball harder with the accompanying changes to the sport.

“Coming out of pandemic, you’d think you would get back to normal, but then you added some different pieces too that weren’t there in the past,” Keatts said. “And so I think it’s up to us as coaches to adapt to the situation. You’re gonna have to adapt, or you’re gonna have to get out. Because I don’t think it’s going back.”

Florida Atlantic coach Dusty Mays said he’s spoken to several coaching colleagues in their 50s who indicated they were leaning toward leaving the profession because it no longer coincides with how they envisioned coaching.

The transfer portal has changed the way most coaches view roster management and recruiting. Because roster sizes are limited to 13 scholarship players, any defection can have a much bigger impact than it does say for a football team.

It has led many coaches to abandon how they approached building a team and to no longer have an emphasis on recruiting high school players. They look to the portal first.

NIL is still new, but the uneven application of it that varies from state-to-state has many coaches worried where it is going. Concerns about its impact in the locker room appear to be largely unfounded, but there have been many coach complaints about potential recruits asking for deals upfront.

“Now the task is kind of starting to trump the mission,” Charlotte coach Ron Sanchez said. “And I think for all of us who really value what we do, we’re educators first. We’re coaching young men, not coaches of just basketball. And I think that’s what you’re starting to see is that the shift is happening; it seems like it’s not as important now to make sure young guys are graduating.”

Sanchez called it a “monsoon of change” and said the key was learning, “how to reinvent how you’ve been doing things.”

That’s not all bad according to Arkansas coach Eric Musselman.

Musselman speaks as a coach with an NBA background who decided to get into college coaching. In the NBA, he said changes were constant, be it free agency or trades altering rosters or rule changes like of playing zones and defensive three seconds.

Musselman doesn’t have the angst of a college basketball coaching lifer accused of one or two transfers in four years.

“Everything’s evolving.” Musselman said. “College basketball was just so stagnant in so many different ways for so many years.”

Evolve appears to be the buzz word now.

Marquette coach Shaka Smart said the coaching profession is “evolving faster than it ever has.” But he doesn’t know if the impact of the past three years can truly be processed now.

“Really, it won’t be until like, I don’t know five-10 years from now and everyone looks back and says, ‘Wow, like that was different,’ ” Smart said. “There’s certain challenges that are there now that weren’t there before. But you know what, it’s still a ton of fun. And the great thing about it is when that ball goes up in the air November 7, then all of a sudden coaching becomes the same as it always was, trying to get a group to play as one.”

This story was originally published July 31, 2022 6:15 AM.

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CL Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as the beat writer on Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he earned an APSE award, he’s had stops at ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website, clbrownhoops.com.

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