In football, the journalist Malcolm Gladwell calls it "the quarterback problem." It's virtually impossible to predict which well-regarded collegiate quarterbacks will become well-regarded NFL quarterbacks. "There is nothing like being an NFL quarterback except being an NFL quarterback," Gladwell wrote. "There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired."
In college basketball, we'll call it "the assistant coach problem." You can be the best doggone assistant coach in the country, recruiting the elite players and diamonds in the rough, developing talent at a high level, scouting opponents, refining your team's offensive and defensive schemes, doing the bidding of your head coach. You can seem a star in the making. Yet still there's no telling how you're going to be when you move two feet over on the bench.
The jump from assistant to head coach is huge. You suddenly switch from behind-the-scenes operator to face of the program. You go from worrying about the 13 scholarship players on your roster to worrying about your athletic director, your radio show, your local media, your boosters.
In trying to determine who is headed for success, several names rose to the top. It's an inexact science, to be sure, but if there's anyone who knows which names we'll be talking about a decade from now as the best in their profession, it's the fellow coaches who are competing against them day in and day out. In our poll of more than 100 college coaches, we asked
Which assistant coach is most likely to become a coaching star someday
Quotes that stood out
On Duke's Jon Scheyer ...
- "Played at Duke. Coaches at Duke. That formula normally works!"
- "Jon has always been able to relate as a teammate: Winning a national championship, leading his team as a senior, then coming back and coaching. He's recruited great guys. He's been doing this now for five years. The experience he's had, winning a national championship at Duke, playing professionally, coming back -- that's something most guys don't have."
- "The best way to be a successful head coach is to get a good job. And he'll get a good job. All the Duke guys get good jobs."
On Virginia's Ron Sanchez ...
- "He is a good combination of a guy who can go get you a top-50 guy, and someone on that staff keeps identifying three-star guys who can get it done at a high, high level. They can out-recruit some people and out-evaluate others. That's a pretty damn good combo in my opinion."
- "Ron and I have known each other in the last few years, gotten to be really close. I think he's sharp, he gets it. I think that it's important that you consider minority assistants. I think he's won, and won at different places. He's been with Tony Bennett the entire time but he's won at different places. Because of that, because of how Ron came up through the system, he had to earn his keep. His path to where he is and the level of success he's had to maintain, I think that's why he'll be a great head coach."
On Miami's Chris Caputo ...
- "He gets players, and I like him because I don't think -- like, he's always been very sincere, very straightforward. Doesn't bullshit a whole lot. I think he'll be a really great head coach. He's learned from a guy [Jim Larranaga] who's done a tremendous job at any level. He's not coming from one of the bluebloods."
- "Just a matter of time with him. And it'll probably come after this season. Miami could be good this season -- and then Caputo will get a job the same way the Oklahoma assistants got jobs after Lon made the Final Four [in 2016]."
On Gonzaga's Tommy Lloyd ...
- "All he has to do is be patient and wait for [Mark Few] to retire. If he does that, his first job will be one of the best 15 jobs in the nation. And he'll keep it going [at Gonzaga] no problem."
On TCU's David Patrick ...
- "Can recruit anywhere. Can recruit the home with the three-car garage, can recruit in the ghetto, can recruit in Australia. Guy can connect with everybody. Doesn't matter who you are or what color you are. He will connect with you. Second, Patrick really knows the game, really can teach, and is going to represent your school the right way."
On Florida's Darris Nichols ...
- "He's a good person. He's a point guard, so he understands the game. Talking to him and watching him operate on the road, talking about recruiting and basketball, he's got a good temperament to be good recruiter and a good coach as far as coaching the game."
If there was one thread among the more than 100 coaches polled, it was that the best head-coaching candidates among the nation's current assistants are those who communicate best. This list isn't a list of the greatest tacticians among college hoops assistants (although that doesn't mean they aren't great tacticians). But the main characteristic of a future head-coaching star is someone who can build relationships: With recruits, with his administration, with the community, with the media and with fans. It just underscores how important likability is in the college hoops game. That may not matter so much in the NBA where the almighty dollar rules, but in a college hoops world built on relationships, it's paramount.
Coaches thought deeply about this question. Several took two, three, four minutes before coming up with an answer. That's a testament to just how many great assistant coaches have been plucked from the ranks in recent years for head-coaching jobs: Matt McCall from Florida is now at UMass, Lamont Paris from Wisconsin is now at Chattanooga, South Carolina's Matt Figger is now at Austin Peay, Villanova's Baker Dunleavy is now at Quinnipiac, Arizona's Joe Pasternack is now at UC-Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State's Mike Boynton was promoted to the head job there after his boss left for Illinois.
Many recent head-coaching hires have been older coaches who've already been in head-coaching gigs before. And plenty of the names that coaches rattled off during this poll as great head-coaching candidates are older current assistant coaches who have already been head coaches: Indiana's Bruiser Flint, Michigan State's Dane Fife, Kansas' Norm Roberts. While these coaches would make stellar hires, we're not going to put them on a list intended for up-and-coming assistants looking for first-time head-coaching gigs.
"Nobody's really jumping off the list for me," said one high-major assistant. "Nobody just blows me away. Nobody really stood out."
To underscore just what a crapshoot this can be, in addition to the nine assistants listed, 37 more also received votes (interestingly, the top three assistants named in the poll were on ACC staffs). Scheyer, the leading vote-getter, was flattered. He has wanted to be a college coach since junior high school. He talked about taking a notepad, scribbling down the top 25, studying the construction of rosters, and then making up his own fictional team. He'd even make a pretend schedule and coach the pretend games under a little hoop at his house.
The 30-year-old Scheyer spoke of what a learning experience it's been to play and coach under Krzyzewski, and how he learned different aspects of coaching from each experience.
"To be with Coach [Krzyzewski], he's one of the best to ever do it," Scheyer said. "A lot of it comes to him so instinctually. Whether it's to have shorter practice one day if the guys are tired, or to pick their spirits up because they've lost confidence as a team, or we gotta get tougher as a team and so we gotta have a tough practice before having a game at a place like Louisville -- those things are great to learn. As a player you're not thinking about ways to bring the team together in a certain way. He's the best ever at motivating, working on team chemistry, team bonding."