What Duke Assistant Coach Syndrome taught us about athletic directors

Left: alum. Right: athletic director about to make a hire.

Left: a fan. Right: athletic director about to make a hire.

Hiring a coach is like throwing a paper airplane. You can persuade yourself that your design is the best, and you can even solicit the advice of self-proclaimed paper airplane experts. But at the moment of release you have no idea what will actually happen. And an athletic director’s job performance is more or less defined by one or two such throws, because every team’s most vocal fans possess unsurpassed omniscience on the subject of throwing paper airplanes.

In a situation fraught with this kind of uncertainty, the best that can be hoped for is some kind of rough and fleeting pre-flight consensus, one where players, fans, writers and university officials can all at least agree for the duration of the press conference that the new guy seems like a plausible choice. And one handy method for attaining that consensus over the past 15 years has been to hire a Duke assistant coach.

Granted, it’s exceedingly rare for a major-conference program to hire an assistant coach from a different school to head up their program. (Actually it’s rare even for programs to elevate their own assistants, James Johnson notwithstanding.) But on those infrequent occasions when it does occur, Duke has fairly cornered the market:

  • Chris Collins: Duke assistant hired by Northwestern, 2013
  • Johnny Dawkins: Duke assistant hired by Stanford, 2008
  • Frank Haith: Texas assistant hired by Miami, 2004
  • Tom Crean: Michigan State assistant hired by Marquette, 1999
  • Quin Snyder: Duke assistant hired by Missouri, 1999

This is a phenomenon that has now very likely run its course. Mike Krzyzewski’s two lead assistants now are Steve Wojciechowski and Jeff Capel. The latter has already had his first bite at a major-conference head-coaching gig (at Oklahoma), and the former is presumed in some circles to be Coach K’s heir apparent at Duke. But even with a trend that has reached its natural culmination we can still ask what, exactly, took place and why.

Maybe the fact that Duke assistants have tended to stick around played a role here, and, similarly, it’s possible that Krzyzewski delegates more duties to his long-serving assistants than other head coaches do, a fact which could make those assistants more attractive as candidates. But can such factors fully explain the lopsided market preference for Blue Devil assistants?

Duke’s an exemplary brand in college hoops, of course, but it is by no means an unparalleled one on the order of, say, UCLA in the late 60s and early 70s. Programs like Kansas, North Carolina, and Michigan State, to take some obvious examples, are most certainly on the same plane as the Blue Devils.

So why is it so very unthinkable that a KU or UNC assistant will be hired as the next head coach at Hot Seat U next spring? When success is held constant and we’re comparing blue chip to blue chip, is it possible that Duke Assistant Coach Syndrome (DACS) came down, in part, to something as trifling as optics?

Krzyzewski is seated far more often than most head coaches, and, except for an occasional bout of enraged vitriol directed at an official, he’s much less histrionic on the sidelines than his coaching brethren. As a result the Duke staff — purely on the most superficial level of visual presentation — gives the appearance of a cerebral meritocracy. Krzyzewski also sends his assistants, of course, to do those rushed and preoccupied interviews going into or coming out of halftime. Duke’s assistants are recognizable even to fans of other teams.

You might say hiring a head coach is far too important a decision to be swayed by such trivial gestures. I’m not so sure. I wonder if in its day DACS (1999-2013) may have taught us that athletic directors are just plain folk confronted with an extraordinary challenge. In such circumstances, you or I might very well seek the administrative cover provided by not only an impeccable brand name but also by a familiar face. 

BONUS extension of a labored simile! If the person throwing the paper airplane has no idea what will happen, imagine the plight of writers charged with critiquing the throw. Suffice it to say it’s a tough gig, and if your editor forces you to declaim on each hire in real time you will look foolish sooner rather than later. For example several writers roundly abused Iowa State for hiring Fred Hoiberg in 2010 (he’d never been a head coach before), and, while it’s certainly possible that the Mayor will indeed plow the Cyclone program into the ground at some point in the near future, he’s looked pretty good thus far.

If on the other hand Hoiberg had failed miserably in his first three seasons, it would have been said, as surely as day follows night, that he “never had a chance.” Commandment No. 1 of sports punditry is that when you see one of these paper airplanes nosedive into the ground, you say it “never had a chance” to fly straight. Few memes exert a stronger morning-after gravitational pull, yet it is surpassingly strange, surely, that no writer has ever said this before takeoff.

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