Continuity of assistants a major factor in Duke's perennial success
PHILADELPHIA -- Perhaps the best way to quantify Duke's generation of dominance in college basketball is through NCAA seeding: In the past 17 years, the Blue Devils have made the tournament 17 times, receiving a No. 1 or No. 2 seed 15 times.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski's presence represents the obvious constant, but an underrated factor in Duke's supremacy has been the continuity of the staff.
Duke assistants Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski have a combined 27 years of experience under Krzyzewski -- Wojo 14 years and Collins 13 -- an unusually long stretch for assistants at an annually successful high-major program. Consider assistant coach turnover at programs like Louisville, Florida and Pittsburgh and the longevity of Duke's assistants is appreciated.
"Continuity is kind of king in this profession," said Duke Athletic Director Kevin White.
With the Chicago Tribune reporting that Collins will interview for the open Northwestern job, the question again looms as to why Duke's assistant coaches stick around so long. Johnny Dawkins spent 11 years at Duke before taking the Stanford job five seasons ago. Collins and Wojciechowski, who both hold the title of associate head coach, have flirted with opportunities but have never left.
"All of us have aspirations to be head coaches," Collins said. "It has to be something that we all believe in because we do have such a good job."
Jeff Capel, the staff newbie at just two years, recalls hearing people criticize Collins and Wojciechowski because they haven't taken head coaching jobs. Collins turns 39 in April. Wojo is 36.
"Those guys have gotten knocked because they haven't left," Capel said. "I know when I was a head coach, I heard that. It's easy to say on the outside when you don't know. This is a great job. You don't leave this job just for any job."
So what makes working for Krzyzewski so appealing? Krzyzewski changed philosophies in the mid-1990s after his health issues, ending his days of micromanaging and giving his assistant autonomy. That ranges from recruiting to practice, as the Duke view is that they have three head coaches working under Krzyzewski.
"They're involved at the very highest level of college basketball," Krzyzewski said. "They're not going to leave unless they can go and try and pursue that. They're not looking for a job. They're looking to maintain that. If Chris Collins is involved with Northwestern, then he's not going there unless he feels he can get it done."
Not surprisingly, Collins declined comment about the Northwestern job. But he did speak expansively about the allure of staying at Duke. It's not a coincidence that Collins, Wojciechowski and Capel are all former Duke players. Coach K's three lead assistants have all been Duke graduates since 1998.
"We're very involved in every aspect of the program," Collins said. "Whether it be game prep or running practice. We always have a free voice, within a practice, within a meeting, to say what we feel. Everyone has ownership in that regard."
"[Coach K] gives you a lot of freedom," Capel added. "There are some head coaches that don't let the assistant coaches talk."
So much of the Duke coaching dynamic revolves around what Krzyzewski's endgame is. While other veteran coaches like Jim Boeheim, Steve Fisher, Larry Brown and Mark Few have coaches-in-waiting, Krzyzewski has resisted laying out a succession plan.
"If I know when I'm going to retire," he said. "I should retire now. Then I won't be me through that. I tell them that, too. I don't know what I'm going to do in that regard."
The outside perception -- from media to whispers around gyms on the recruiting trail -- is that Wojciechowski will some day take over for Krzyzewski. But no one knows for sure.
"Honestly," said Capel, "we never talk about it."
White said that he lights a candle for Krzyzewski's longevity every time he goes to mass. He believes that Krzyzewski could coach for 10 more years and gave a vague answer to a specific question about Wojciechowski replacing Krzyzewski.
"I couldn't have been any more candid with you," White said. "We're just looking forward to re-handing it off to Mike every year. I'm just looking for Krzyzewski. That's the only one I'm looking for."
The success of former Krzyzewski assistants who left to take over programs is mixed. Mike Brey has been the most successful, as he's turned Notre Dame into an annual NCAA tournament team. Tommy Amaker has revived his career at Harvard after failing to make the NCAA tournament during his six seasons at Michigan. Dawkins is 39-51 in Pac-12 play during his five years at Stanford and has failed to make the NCAA tournament. Bob Bender made two NCAA tournaments in nine years at Washington.
Others have flopped, including Quin Snyder who led Missouri to the Elite 8 in 2002 and then resigned in 2006 amid rampant NCAA issues and losing. David Henderson (Delaware), Tim O'Toole (Fairfield) and Mike Dement (SMU and UNC Greensboro) all struggled.
Krzyzewski has seen plenty of former assistants move on and said part of the reason that he hadn't named a successor was he didn't want to impede the career path of one of his assistants.
"I'm more of an instinctive guy anyway," he said. "You have to let things happen. In saying that, I want my guys to know that anytime if they feel they have a shot, they have no obligation to our program."
One added resume builder for Collins and Krzyzewski will be their USA Basketball experience. They played key roles, both on-court and scouting, for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Collins said he first felt ready to be a head coach after the 2008 experience in Beijing.
"That was a big boost to me, feeling I was at a stage where I was ready to do it," he said.
With Northwestern interested, maybe the timing will be right for Collins to leave Duke. But he also knows how good he has it coaching under Krzyzewski and competing for a national title nearly every year.
"It's not like you're actively looking, but you keep your eye on what's going on," he said. "For me, any opportunity that comes my way I always listen to what's there."