Where have all the coaches gone?
Roy Williams, age 70, after 33 years as UNC’s head coach. Mike Krzyzewski, 75, after 42 seasons at Duke. And, as of yesterday, Jay Wright, 60, has announced that he is stepping down from his head coaching position at Villanova after 21 years and two national titles with the program. He led the Wildcats to their fourth Final Four appearance in his two-decade tenure this past March — and this news has sent shockwaves across the college basketball landscape.
The old guard is now, for the most part, out. With Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim approaching 80 and telling reporters that “there’s a plan” for when he steps down, which he wants to do while leaving the program in a good place, he’s not much longer for this career — especially now that his own kids have graduated. Bill Self is under heavy investigation from the NCAA, and God knows what sanctions might be coming his way in the next year, although Kansas is firmly standing by his side. John Calipari and Tom Izzo are still around, the former of whom hasn’t won a championship in a decade, and the latter in two decades.
But Wright’s retirement is representative of a major overhaul in college basketball at a time when its foundation is shifting and causing those standing on it to stumble. With the introduction of NIL opportunities coinciding with a wide-open transfer portal, the state of the sport is undoubtedly changing as the student-athletes take decisions into their own hands. Maybe they weren’t ready to change with it. Maybe they wanted to take the money and the memories and save themselves the stress that comes with change. No one’s going to fault them for that, by any means.
Wright was the assumed successor to step up into the leadership position among college coaches, and now he’s gone, a gaping hole widens in the coaching ranks. There are coaches who have been around longer than Wright in the NCAA, but none at annual championship-contender schools, and few with his innate leadership abilities that have been widely praised in the past 24 hours.
As the transfer portal waivers change the nature of recruiting and the landscape of the sport, and as student-athletes embrace their newfound power and independence, one wonders whether the departure of the old guard could be viewed as a positive development. As the NCAA moves into this new era, the coaches who have been around for decades could go down one of two paths: hold their program back by refusing to adapt to the new reality, or ground the entire sport with clear-headed guidance and lead the NCAA into this future with their experience.
Of course, the third option, which seems to be getting pretty popular, is leaving and letting the new guys figure it out as the old guard reaches a reasonable retirement age while screaming … Not my problem!
With their longtime systems being threatened by controversial player autonomy, coasting into retirement seems to be the logical answer.
So here’s my question: since the college football coaches are the ones most vocally and publicly complaining so much about this new era, why isn’t there a changing of the guard happening in that sport, too?
New challenges for traditional powerhouses
It feels like every week, we’re hearing Lane Kiffin or Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney complaining to the press about the struggles of the transfer portal and the questionable ethics of NIL money as a recruiting tool as the entirety of CFB recruiting gets a makeover. They’re facing the same challenges as many basketball coaches are — in fact, with the amount of NIL money being poured into collectives and promised to unsigned recruits, they may be staring down an even bigger challenge. So why are they sticking around?
While no college sport can compare to the football machine, men’s basketball comes the closest in its financial viability for both schools and the NCAA. The biggest CFB and CBB coaching contracts both float around the $10 million mark, with football often proving to be a much more fickle position, as the limited number of games and the impossibly small playoff provide increased opportunity for scrutiny from fans. So long as Wright’s Wildcats were one of 68 teams making the tournament and doing well in the Big East, he was set. One or two off-years for a football coach at an institution that major in its sport — well, that’s a different story.
So as these changes, openly being criticized by multiple influential college coaches, continue to settle into place, what keeps them there?
You could make the argument that a lot of the elite college coaches are on the younger side, not quite ready for retirement, but we’ve got guys like Nick Saban, Brian Kelly, and Jim Harbaugh — 70, 60, and 58, respectively. They’ve written their success stories, made their money. Why stay as the basketball blue bloods go?
While only the men themselves can answer that, perhaps I can provide some hypotheses for the lack of exodus. The larger rosters for football allow for more flexibility — you lose a couple guys to the portal, it’s not the end of the world. In basketball, two or three guys leaving has the potential to look like a total team rebuild. The size of a college football team’s roster also allows coaches more flexibility in deciding who gets playing time and practice reps, allowing them at least a semblance of retaining the authority of the past over their athletes.
And while football programs are facing the most competition with NIL temptations and offers from opposing teams, they’re also getting the benefits of it. At these major programs, there are boosters galore willing to put together a collective to lure a kid to a team, and the opportunities that are implicitly offered simply by being part of such a football program look pretty good.
Football is also just on a whole different level. The amount of perks and resources and facilities at one’s disposal at the top programs just don’t compare to what you can get as a basketball coach — even if you’re Coach K. It’s a different industry — a more fickle one in many ways, but an incredibly rewarding one on a personal level.
Perhaps we will see some sort of exodus in the coming years. A Nick Saban retirement would probably be the crowning indicator of such a shift, perhaps accompanied by UNC’s Mack Brown and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. It wouldn’t be the same sweep of blue-blood programs that the basketball retirements were, but it might have a similar signal — perhaps one of warning or perhaps one of change.