It wasn’t hard to spot Roy Williams during his first year of retirement.
He has visited arenas across the country for games, including every step of North Carolina’s wild ride to the NCAA championship game against Kansas, a matchup of two programs he once coached. But he was cheering from ticketed seats instead of the sideline, a still-strange sight that helps illustrate the massive changes by hitting men’s college basketball.
Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and Jay Wright at Villanova have joined Williams in retirement in roughly 13 months, three Hall of Famers with 10 national championships and more than a century of coaching wisdom now out of the game. Players can now make endorsement deals for money and the transfer portal seemingly hums all the time now, adding more layers for coaches to manage in an already unrelenting 24/7 job.
Soon it will be up to the next generation of coaches – many of them former players – to steer a new game forward through the chaos.
“I don’t think we should say, ‘Woe is me, college basketball’ because the three of us left,” Williams said in an interview with The Associated Press. “There are some great young coaches out there that are going to adapt to all these changes. They’re going to adapt to the different landscape. Everybody’s going to have to.”
Williams (71 years old), Krzyzewski (75) and Wright (60) combined for more than 2,700 career victories. Beyond eye-popping numbers, their long tenures of sustained success gave them clout to publicly advocate for the game or raise concerns – such as Krzyzewski questioning the NCAA’s overall direction during this month’s Final Four in New Orleans.
There are still members of that old guard. There’s 77-year-old Jim Boeheim preparing for his 47th year at Syracuse, while Hall of Famers like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Kansas’ Bill Self and Kentucky’s John Calipari all have national titles as well.
But those ranks are sure to contract in the coming years.
“Any job, you can’t do it forever,” said former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, an ESPN college basketball analyst. “There’s a time that you look in the mirror and you say, ‘Do I have the same passion, the same energy to do the job at the level?’ Because you’ve got to treat every single day like it’s the first day of your job.
“Having this tremendous responsibility of being a head coach at any level quite honestly is not for everyone. And it might be for you, but then at some point, it might not be for you.”
That sure seems to describe Wright, who said last week he “started to feel like I didn’t have the edge that I’ve always had.”
Williams, for his part, still loved coaching but every mistake gnawed at him over his last two seasons. I have stewed over them at news conferences, at one point suggesting his athletic director should consider firing him. And there was the sinking feeling that he was failing his players from him.
“For me, that’s what it was,” said Williams, who retired with a soul-baring news conference in April 2021. “It had nothing to do with (NIL). It had nothing to do with the transfer portal. Now I knew it was going to change college athletics and college basketball recruiting, I knew it would change it a great deal. But it had nothing to do with mine.“
Those decisions now represent opportunities for the game’s next wave of coaches.
Loyola Chicago’s Drew Valentine, Division I’s youngest coach at 30 years old, views the retirements of Williams, Krzyzewski and Wright as “more like a crazy coincidence” than an indictment of today’s changing game. He sees peers prepared to fill the void.
“I think we’re part of this outspoken generation that is willing and able to share our opinions on multiple platforms,” Valentine told the AP. “I think it’s just figuring out the right way to go about it is what our generation is going to have to figure out.”
He also sees enough former players leading programs to know that playing experience is an asset, too.
There’s 34-year-old Jon Scheyer taking over as Krzyzewski’s designated successor as a first-time head coach who played for the Blue Devils’ 2010 NCAA title winner. Kyle Neptune, 37, followed Wright after playing at Lehigh and spending one season as Fordham’s coach. Cincinnati’s Wes Miller, 39, already has 11 college seasons under his belt.
There are also North Carolina’s Hubert Davis (51), Michigan’s Juwan Howard (49) and Seton Hall’s Shaheen Holloway (45) — all early in their careers as head coaches at programs where they starred as college players.
They each guided teams to strong NCAA Tournament runs, with Holloway helping Saint Peter’s become the first 15-seed to reach a regional final, Howard’s Wolverines reaching the Sweet 16 and Davis’ first year as Williams’ successor ending with the Tar Heels reaching the title game before falling to the Jayhawks.
Davis and Howard, in particular, have long NBA playing careers to draw from in preparing their teams. That’s different from Williams, Krzyzewski and Wright, for example—none played pro ball.
“I think this player now, in this generation, they really look up to people who have experienced what they have experienced,” said Valentine, a former Oakland player. “If you have the ability to relate on some of those levels, I think you have the ability to be more successful. ”
Greenberg looks at factors like those as examples of how college basketball isn’t crumbling. Besides, the sport has evolved and thrived through massive shifts before — freshman eligibility in 1972-73, the implementation of a 45-second shot clock in 1985-86 followed by the addition of the 3-point line a year later, even the NBA’s age limit leading to the “one-and-done” era.
“The game is not going anywhere,” Greenberg said. “It will evolve, new sets of coaches and leaders will emerge. … Something will evolve from this, and then there’ll be something else after that. I mean, things don’t stay the same.”
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronbeardap
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
JOIN THE CONVERSATION