From a distance, Jon Scheyer’s job of replacing Mike Krzyzewski seems impossible. Up close, it looks even harder.
At 11:42 p.m. last Saturday, Duke’s head men’s basketball coach walked out of the locker room, and it wasn’t Mike Krzyzewski. Jon Scheyer, the guy after The Guy, went back to the team hotel, the Intercontinental in New Orleans, saw his family for a bit, and then headed to Krzyzewski’s room, where Coach K was recovering from the loss to North Carolina with his wife, Mickie, and daughter Debbie Savarino. “I just wanted to say thanks,” Scheyer explains. “We didn’t get too much into what’s next. He is so great at knowing what’s ahead, though. He just said he is there for me.” Then Scheyer went to his own room, where he did what head coaches do: not sleep.
Krzyzewski has assured Duke fans “We have a great succession plan,” and that may turn out to be true. But it’s a relatively new plan. One year ago, Scheyer interviewed for head-coaching jobs at UNLV and DePaul, and he and his wife, Marcelle, were just another young couple with small children imagining a new life for themselves. “He’s thinking about the job,” Marcelle says. And “I’m thinking about, Where will my kids go to school? Where are we living?” At various points, the Scheyers thought they would end up in Las Vegas or Chicago. At no point did they think they would end up here, with Jon ascending to K’s throne.
Duke athletic director Kevin White had told Scheyer that the only way to take over was if he became a head coach somewhere else first. Jon says now: “I was resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to be the next coach at Duke.” Then UNLV and DePaul hired other coaches, White announced his retirement and Krzyzewski followed with his own. White was still Duke’s AD during the coaching search, but Krzyzewski and White’s replacement, Nina King, helped choose Scheyer.
The Blue Devils’ new coach is only 34. He will be the youngest leader in the ACC by a decade. He has never been in a top job. Beyond an agent, he has never hired or fired anyone. Duke has gone from a coach who writes leadership books to one who reads them.
Scheyer will report to Coach K Court. Students will presumably still camp out in Krzyzewskiville. (Alternative: “Schey-town!” cracks the Chicago native. “We’re going to have one person.”) From a distance, replacing Krzyzewski seems impossible. Up close, it looks harder. Scheyer must fill more than Krzyzewski’s job. Somehow, he must also replace his presence.
On March 4, the night before Duke’s final home game, Krzyzewski addressed the Cameron Crazies with such cool charisma that Scheyer’s mother, Laury, texted Jon: “No pressure!” He responded with an exploding-head emoji. During the postgame ceremony the next night, Marcelle watched Krzyzewski with his family and had an “ugly cry” thinking about what he had built with them.
When Krzyzewski arrived on campus, in 1980, Duke had never won a national championship. He would go on to claim five. Yet Scheyer, a man of such ingrained optimism that he doesn’t even like to discuss the possibility of failing, says his goal is not just to match Krzyzewski’s record but to improve upon it. His dad, Jim, says, “He doesn’t see it as daunting.”
Yes, Scheyer is 34, but Krzyzewski was 33 when he took the Duke job, and Brad Stevens was 30 when he became Butler’s coach—and Scheyer has been planning for this a lot longer than Duke has. He has watched assistant coaches get head-coaching jobs without really planning on how to be a head coach. Scheyer started designing plays as a kid and never really stopped, but in recent years he has also thought hard about human behavior, about how successful organizations are built, about time management and media relations and what makes Duke great and what it could do better.
He has been a childhood phenom, a freshman starter, a sophomore coming off the bench, a captain, a national champion, a designated Hateable White Guy From Duke and a victim of a fluky, gory, devastating career-ending eye injury. He played under Krzyzewski for four years, worked under him for nine, and studied him for all of it.
Coach K won his first national championship in 1991; the next season, with basically his whole squad back and favored to repeat, he said his team was not defending a championship, it was pursuing another one. This is how Scheyer looks at the job. He is not just maintaining Krzyzewski’s program. He is building a new one on top of it.
Duke’s basketball offices will soon be under construction. Scheyer is open to renovating anything else in the program, too. He plans to tweak the offense in ways that he says will be noticeable. He has continued Duke’s recent philosophy of recruiting a new class of elite athletes every year, but Scheyer is increasing the emphasis on players who have a feel for the game like he did: passers, cutters, guys with court vision, who easily blend with others.
Smaller jobs have swallowed more established men. Scheyer’s success rests on two questions. How does he adapt Duke’s program to a rapidly changing environment while retaining what makes it great? And: How does he adapt his life to fit his new job, while retaining what makes him happy?
He must answer both to answer either. Otherwise, he will lose more than just games.
“I promised myself the day I got the job,” Scheyer says, “that I wouldn’t let it overtake me.”