This email from Insider Tom Stephenson is worth posting in full. Great observations on how many coaches tend to underachieve as they near retirement. Tom mentioned some legends who retired at the top of their tourney game. I’ll add Rollie Jim Calhoun and Rollie Massimino.
Tom followed up this email with another great observation: “There will now be at least four Rookie coaches in the Sweet 16: Archie Miller, Kevin Ollie, Johnny Dawkins, and Cuonzo Martin. Brad Underwood could make it five, though it doesn’t look likely. At least one coach (either Miller or Dawkins) will make the Elite Eight.”
Coach K certainly isn’t the first legendary head coach to endure a late-career slump. Look at the following career arcs (obviously, I’m using some pre-1985 tournaments here, so there’s no way to calculate PASE):
- Bob Knight, through 1987: 11 trips, 27-8 record, 6 E8, 3 CH
- Bob Knight, 1988-93: 6 trips, 11-6 record, 2 E8, 0 CH
- Bob Knight, since 1994: 11 trips, 7-11 record, 0 E8
Knight basically averaged an Elite Eight every other trip up through 1987, and a championship roughly every four trips; that’s about as good a tournament record as any coach not named Wooden. Starting in 1988, the program began to slip (one of the Elite Eights was a loss as a 1 seed and was technically underachieving), then he really started to struggle in the tournament after 1993. Knight was 53 in 1993, or four years younger than Coach K when he began slipping.
- Denny Crum, through 1986: 12 trips, 27-12 record, 6 E8, 2 CH
- Denny Crum, after 1986: 11 trips, 15-11 record, 1 E8
Like Knight, Crum was averaging an Elite Eight every other year up through his second championship season. But he only made one more Elite Eight after that. The overall record isn’t awful, but Louisville was never really a championship threat after 1986 and toward the end of Crum’s career started struggling to make the tournament (much less make deep run.) Crum was 49 in 1986.
- Adolph Rupp, through 1958: 10 trips, 20-6 record, 4 CH
- Adolph Rupp, after 1958: 10 trips, 10-12 record, 0 CH
I’m not going to bother with Rupp’s Elite Eights since the tournament was so small back then (in fact, in Rupp’s first four tournaments there were only eight teams.) And if you exclude the famous 1966 championship game run, Rupp only went 7-11 after his final national championship. What’s more, Rupp’s teams started struggling to win the SEC; after winning or sharing 13 of 14 SEC championships from 1943-58 (in 1944 no champion was crowned, and Kentucky didn’t field a team in 1953), the Wildcats only won three from 1959-67; they made two more tournament appearances in 1959 and 1961 as a result of SEC champ Mississippi State being barred by state law from playing in the tournament. They did recover to win the SEC in Rupp’s last five years but didn’t make the Final Four in that stretch. Rupp was 56 when he won his last championship.
Those aren’t the only examples; there are probably plenty more, and there are also probably some who struggled to even make the tournament late in their career. And of course some legends (like Dean Smith, for example) don’t go through a late career slump, or like Jim Boeheim they’re as up and down as they’ve always been. But what Duke is currently going through is hardly unusual for a program coached by an all-time great nearing retirement.