This weekend in Indianapolis, one of the four remaining coaches in the men’s NCAA Tournament is going to win a national championship for the first time. None of them, outside of maybe Gonzaga’s Mark Few, is a household name, certainly not in the same way college basketball coaches were huge stars back in the 1980s and 1990s.
For nearly 40 years, a handful of larger-than-life personalities have ruled the sport, getting the majority share of the best players year in and year out and building up such an advantage over their competitors that their programs were pretty much hard-wired to win.
Roy Williams was, of course, among that group if not at the top. He got his first head coaching job at blue blood Kansas in 1988, reaching the national championship game in just his third season. Then in 2003 after his fourth Final Four appearance, he went home to North Carolina where he one-upped his mentor Dean Smith by winning three national titles.
For the past few years, college basketball has been bracing for an exodus of the coaches who dominated the past three decades. In a way, it’s remarkable that Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo and John Calipari have hung on this long. There aren’t many industries anywhere, much less in sports, where the same people who were relevant in 1995 are still doing their jobs at high level in 2021.
But Williams’ decision to retire Thursday is a moment that can’t be written off as just age and the natural passage of time. It’s about a fundamental shift in the landscape that has unplugged the power of the iconic college basketball coach, forcing them to either adapt to a world many of them won’t like or get out while they can.
Williams chose the latter.
According to a person who knows Williams, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, he has been increasingly frustrated recently with the direction of college basketball. With the NCAA about to grant players a one-time free transfer and the liberalization of name, image and likeness rights that will allow players to cash in on marketing deals, the days of any program — even a blueblood like North Carolina — just falling out of bed and making the Sweet 16 are over.
And at age 70, Williams decided he’d had enough.
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Shortly after the Tar Heels were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a No 8 seed, 7-1 freshman Walker Kessler announced he was transferring. This was a five-star kid, the jewel of North Carolina’s recruiting class, the kind of guy Williams could have in the past brought along slowly and turned into a great college player by the time he was done.
Not only was Williams stunned when Kessler announced he would transfer, the person said, but it was kind of the final straw that made him realize this new era was no longer for him.
For better or worse, that’s the world these coaches have to live in now, and it’s undeniably forcing the legends play on the same field as everyone else, perhaps for the first time since they got started in the business.
Just look at who didn’t make an impact in the sport this season. Duke had obvious chemistry issues all season and never played to its talent level. Calipari came under significant criticism from the Kentucky fan base and finished under .500 (9-16) for the first time since he was a 30-year old coach at UMass. Izzo struggled to get his team’s attention all season, got into the tournament as one of the last four in and was bounced immediately by UCLA. Even though Syracuse made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 on the back of Boeheim’s son Buddy, the day-to-day reality is that it’s been a middle-of-the-pack, .500 program in the ACC for the past seven years.
In a sense, you can understand why now might the time for Williams to walk away.
These days, recruiting and developing great players is only a fraction of what goes into winning and sustaining a high level program. It’s about constantly re-recruiting the ones you’ve got who might be thinking about leaving and being so immersed in the transfer portal that you know who’s available or might become available to help you the next year. When college athletes are able to profit off of marketing deals, it’s going to add another layer of dynamics for how coaches put together their rosters.
You shouldn’t feel sorry for them — they get paid massive amounts of money to deal with this stuff — but their jobs are more complicated now than they were five years ago, and they’ll be even more complicated than that over the next five years.
You can see it playing out in real time during this NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga, Baylor and Houston are in the Final Four not by some fluke, but because they had better rosters than North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky.
For decades, the structure of the sport and the pure wattage of Williams, Krzyzewski and Calipari would have prevented that from happening. But this is a different era, one that will not always be pleasant for those who used to have college basketball in the palm of their hand.
Williams said goodbye on his own terms Thursday before he completely lost his grip. It won’t be a surprise if the rest of the old stars soon follow in his path.