With Duke getting blown out by Miami earlier this week, and North Carolina looking disjointed and not their usual super-talented selves, and Butler making a buzzer beater last weekend to stay firmly among the nation's most overachieving and best teams, the inevitable is starting to coalesce and will crystallize soon. It may not be this year. It may not be in three years. But in five years at the latest it's going to happen.
Butler coach Brad Stevens, who has led his team to two national title games, will be the head basketball coach at either Duke or North Carolina.
Take a look at him, a clean cut, nice guy, All-American conservative presentation wearing traditional suits during games. The 36-year-old has Duke and UNC written all over him because they are, and have been for decades, among the top five college basketball programs in the nation with Duke winning four national titles and UNC three. They pride themselves on a professional, classy image. Stevens drips that stuff.
It's not a question of whether Stevens will eventually take this big leap to the big time. It's a question of when Coach K, 65, and Coach Roy Williams, 62, will retire. Both schools will offer him a ton of money, so that's not an issue.
After watching Coach K on the bench taking his team's worst beating this week vs. Miami since UNLV smoked the Blue Devils in the national semifinal back in the Christian Laettner era, I could see in his face the look of a guy who has almost had enough. The strain of coaching with his level of intensity has no doubt pushed his body and mind to the brink of what one human body can stand. Beyond weariness, he has accomplished everything he can in the world of basketball. Hailed as the undisputed best college basketball coach, K has been dominating this scene in a way approaching that of the Wizard of Westwood, UCLA coach John Wooden, who won seven national championships during the late 1960s and 70s. K hasn't won as many titles but with four he's on Wooden's tail. On his resume are the two US Olympic team Gold Medals. His resume is beyond complete, his Basketball Hall of Fame status secure.
My guess is K will continue coaching Duke another two-to-three years. I also conjecture that K has recommended to Duke's athletic director that his successor should be Stevens. K learned first-hand how clever a coach the Indiana native was in the national title game three years ago when Butler almost beat Duke in what would have been one of the greatest team and coaching achievements in college basketball history.
As for Carolina, the years of wear and tear coaching big time college hoops are starting to get to Roy Williams. Like K he looks worn down. I like him and respect him and he's done great things coaching at Kansas and UNC. But like coach K he's been to the mountaintop having won two national titles with the Tar Heels. He doesn't have to prove anything at this point. He is a great basketball coach. And he's getting up there in years, like K.
Like K, my guess is he will give up the reigns as UNC hoops leader within the next two-to-three years. Like K, my guess is he has also advised his AD that his successor should be Brad Stevens.
Great coaches know who the other great coaches are.
So with both K and Roy probably retiring soon, the big question now becomes which one will retire first? The one who does first will give his university the inside track to get Stevens. It's unlikely if K retires before Roy and Stevens is offered the Duke job, he will decline and wait around for the UNC offer when Roy retires. Turning down a Duke offer would be crazy. The job is too coveted and high profile. The only question is whether Stevens would be reluctant to replace someone as wildly successful as K. The shoes might be just too big to fill.
He could spend his career never living up to standards K set; it would be tough, nearly impossible, for anyone to match K's accomplishments including such a promising coaching talent such as Stevens. So this could be the only reason I can see him turning down Duke if landing the offer there first. But if he got the offer before Carolina, he would take it; he couldn't be certain when Roy would retire or UNC would offer him the job although I think they would once Roy leaves.
If Roy retires before K, UNC would offer the Butler coach the job and he would no doubt take it. Again, there would be huge shoes to fill to duplicate Roy's accomplishments. But not quite the same intimidating numbers to contend with, especially K's four national titles.
So I believe machinations are underway behind the scenes with both college hoops programs. They both want Stevens desperately because he's the best young coach in college basketball who also fits the clean cut image they love to portray to represent their universities. If I were the athletic director at either school, I would have already raised the retirement question with my head coach, asking when he thinks he might hang things up. I would have also asked them which coach he recommends as his successor.
So it's a behind-the-scenes race to retirement at this point. Yet it's politically highly charged: Neither university wants to appear in any way to push their great coaches out the door. But by losing a great coach first via retirement, the university would benefit from gaining another great coach.
Meanwhile, Stevens continues to dazzle the college basketball world by wielding his magic coaching Butler to more wins with mediocre talent. He has probably been approached already by the ADs of both Duke and UNC saying they want him when their current coaches retire. It's all secretive at this point, politics. The ADs don't want to push out their successful leaders but they also have to be thinking about who to hire next to keep their programs at the elite level they have been for so long.
Stevens is going to make a lot of money from one of these universities one day. It will be interesting to see if he's as good at coach as he seems to be, if he can approach the winning levels of K and Roy.
Sooner or later, we are going to find out. I predict Roy Williams will retire before K, at the gentle request of the UNC AD, and offer Stevens the job and he will accept. Why? Because UNC is so focused on, and historically accustomed to, being a better basketball program than any others in North Carolina and the country. But Coach K has usurped that dominance during his tenure. They won't want to risk Stevens continuing that trend as the Blue Devils head coach.