CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — When forward Benny Williams signed with Syracuse, he was eager to play for Jim Boeheim and compete in an Atlantic Coast Conference that featured two other Hall of Fame coaches leading marquee programs.
Less than three years later, things look very different.
Changes that began in the last three years for the league have accelerated. Big names — faces of the sport itself, even — have headed into retirement in North Carolina’s Roy Williams in spring 2021, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski a year later and Boeheim this spring to end a 47-year tenure. That leaves the tradition-rich league with no Hall of Fame head coaches for the first time in more than two decades, only one coach who has won a national championship and seven of the league's 15 schools led by coaches in place three years or fewer.
“It’s weird,” Benny Williams said Wednesday during the league's preseason men's basketball media day. “Ever since I can remember, Boeheim, Roy Williams and Coach K have been the coaches.”
Throw in the departure of Notre Dame’s Mike Brey after 23 seasons last spring, and it’s left what ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips acknowledged was “a void” even with the return of longtime coaches like Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton and Virginia’s Tony Bennett.
“The league is strong and we have really good young coaches that have been mentored by really good people,” Phillips said in an interview with The Associated Press. “So I have confidence that the league will carry forward. And this is just a period of time that came together like no other.”
To Phillips’ point, the Hall of Fame retirees were succeeded by their assistants.
Former UNC player Hubert Davis is entering his third year at No. 19 North Carolina after taking over for Williams and making an unexpected run to the NCAA title game in his debut season. Jon Scheyer is entering Year 2 as Krzyzewski's successor at No. 2 Duke and won the program's league-record 22nd ACC Tournament title. Neither had been a head coach before.
Now it’s former Syracuse All-American player Adrian Autry’s turn, facing the pressure of taking over for a coaching legend as a first-time coach.
“If I thought and I put it into the context you just did,” Autry said, “I probably wouldn’t get out of bed.”
Still, it represents a massive change in star power for the league at a time rosters turn over quicker with freer player movement through the transfer portal, making top coaches the most identifiable and lasting presences than ever before.
The retired Hall of Fame trio had more than 3,200 wins, 27 Final Four trips and nine NCAA titles Their mere sideline presence was a constant reminder of success. And they had the credibility to advocate or voice concerns about college basketball.
“I didn’t think they were going to be here forever,” Duke veteran guard Jeremy Roach said. “They were already when I got here ... in the later stages of their coaching careers. So I didn’t really expect to have that much longer of a career. I didn’t expect it to be when I was still in college.”
The league has had at least one active Naismith Hall of Fame coach going back to Krzyzewski’s induction ahead of the 2001-02 season. In fact, the league had four Hall of Famers as recently as 2017 with Rick Pitino at Louisville after the Cardinals joined the league in 2014, though he lost his job that fall amid the fallout from the federal corruption investigation into the sport and is currently at St. John’s.
Now they're gone, and the league’s three new coaches for this season include Micah Shrewsberry, who takes over at Notre Dame after two years as a head coach at Penn State, and Damon Stoudamire replacing Josh Pastner at Georgia Tech. Stoudamire’s five years at Pacific makes him the veteran of the newbies.
“To the outside, it’s probably a lot of uncertainty,” Stoudamire said. “And I would be lying if I didn’t say that that didn’t make it a lot easier to step into the job. Because where the job at Tech is today compared to four years ago had I walked into the league, it looked totally different.”
Bennett’s run to the 2019 NCAA title represents the only national championship won by a current ACC head coach. The 75-year-old Hamilton is the longest-tenured coach entering his 22nd season, followed by Bennett (15) and Clemson's Brad Brownell (14). There's also plenty of experience in 74-year-old Jim Larranaga, who is entering his 13th season at No. 13 Miami and is coming off his first Final Four trip with the Hurricanes.
Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes figures that's enough to maintain the ACC's national standing.
“To me it's no disrespect to football, if you say 'ACC' to any person in the country what are they going to say? Basketball,” Forbes said. “There's a a lot of positives in our league. It's name recognition sometimes. Right now, losing Coach K and Coach Williams, Coach Boeheim, Coach Brey — people have got to get used to that.”
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