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Mike Lopresti | | November 1, 2022

4 coaches tasked with the (nearly) impossible feat of replacing college basketball royalty

Watch the final seconds from every March Madness men’s title game since 1979

Joe B. Hall once stood where Jon Scheyer does now — replacing a legend in a basketball holy land, hoping for the best. Decades later, Hall would say this about his days at Kentucky:

"I think that the pressure of following somebody like Adolph Rupp can absolutely eat you up like acid, just destroy your whole system."

Gene Bartow once faced what Kyle Neptune does now, taking over for a civic hero with multiple national championships and whose name has become forever linked to the program he coached. Bartow would later joke about his fate as the next UCLA man up after John Wooden:
"There is no doubt I became paranoid. I wasn’t even worried about getting fired. Now, assassinated, that’s a different thing."

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New eras officially start next Monday at Duke and Villanova, where two 30-something head coaches begin the long and demanding and uncertain task of escaping the shadows of giants.
Scheyer will see the dawn of the year 1 AK — after Krzyzewski — against Jacksonville in Cameron Indoor Stadium, probably fully aware that his predecessor once went nearly 20 years without losing a single non-conference home game.
Neptune will start the post-Jay Wright age at Villanova by hosting La Salle, a fellow member of the Philadelphia Big 5. Does he know that Wright went 31-1 in Big 5 play his last nine years? Most likely.
Opening Night will happen, and then both will be fully and very, very publicly on the hard job of making a good first impression. Every coach wants to do that, but shouldn’t it be doubled for the men who follow Hall of Famers? Mike Krzyzewski had already coached in a Final Four the day Scheyer was born in 1987. Neptune is only Villanova’s sixth basketball coach since 1936. The two young leaders are now in charge of college basketball Camelots.
Which begs the question of how it went that nervous first season for other mortals who had to follow deity. Four vivid examples...

Joe B. Hall, Kentucky, 1972-73 

The Associated Press Joe. B. Hall Joe. B. Hall

Rupp was so synonymous with Kentucky, his lawn must have been Bluegrass. Replacing him in the hearts and minds of a hoop-obsessed state would never have been easy, but even more so because he was forced into retirement by an age rule. He didn’t want to go, and most of Big Blue Nation despised the thought of him gone. Into this minefield walked his assistant, Hall.

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The Wildcats were bolstered by a sensational sophomore class with names such as Kevin Grevey, Jimmy Dan Connor and Mike Flynn — and indeed that corps would lead Kentucky to the national title game two years later. But not in 1973.
The Wildcats won Hall’s debut at Michigan State but then came home to be drilled by Iowa by 13 points. In the stands that night, welcoming all his ardent supporters at courtside? Adolph You Know Who. "I’ve autographed every piece of paper in this auditorium, and that’s a fact," Rupp told the Lexington Leader.
So it would go in Hall’s first season, Kentucky sometimes struggling and Rupp hardly concealing his unhappiness about not being coach and occasionally his negative view on how things were going on the court. "He didn’t do anything after I took over that I didn’t fully expect," Hall would tell an interviewer years later, adding that Rupp’s behavior made life for his heir "10 times worse."
In early February, Kentucky was 10-7 and apparently going nowhere. Then the Wildcats began winning. Ten consecutive victories led them into the NCAA tournament regional final, where they lost 72-65 to Indiana, with its own young coach in only his second season. Bob Knight.
The fast finish in 1973 had given a hint of the successful Hall tenure to come, which included a national championship in 1978 and three Final Four trips. Plus, as would not be appropriately credited until later, he had done a magnificent job of integrating the Kentucky basketball program. But the burden had been so heavy from the moment he took over — with his mentor turning some of the screws himself — that Hall never seemed able to fully enjoy one moment as the coach in Lexington.
That fate was clear his first season. Two years later when Wooden retired, he dryly joked that UCLA should hire him. "Why," he said, "ruin two lives?"

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Gene Bartow, UCLA, 1975-76

Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos Gene Bartow coaches UCLA in the 1976 Final Four. Gene Bartow coaches UCLA against undefeated Indiana in the 1976 Final Four.

The Bruins had used only six players in the title game that spring to send Wooden out a 10-time national champion, and four were back for Bartow’s maiden voyage. The roster included future All-Americans Marques Johnson, Richard Washington and David Greenwood. So things looked promising, and Bartow was in good humor. "I think they’ll be patient with me," he said in one interview. "If not, well, I used to teach drivers’ ed and badminton in high school. I’ve always got those skills to fall back on."
By the next March, when the Bruins were 27-5 but short of a national championship, an exhausted Bartow would tell the media after the last game,"I’m going underground. I’m going to be hard to find for a while."
Even the schedule had made his hello to Westwood difficult.  There he was, trying to mold his first Bruins team amid all the scrutiny, and look at the opening game: No. 1 Indiana in St. Louis. Gee, Scheyer gets Jacksonville at home.
The Hoosiers drilled UCLA 84-64 and the headline in the next day’s Los Angeles Times came pretty much straight to the point: "Bartow’s opening act a flop." The situation improved and the Bruins did not lose again until January. They finished the regular season 23-4 and then rolled to the Final Four, which was a given to Bruins fans since this was 10 years in a row.
Alas, who was waiting there? Indiana, still No. 1 and unbeaten and one of the finest teams of all time. UCLA kept it closer than November but not much, and lost 65-51. The Bruins were taken apart by the Hoosiers’ defense, which sagged in on star frontliners Johnson and Washington, daring UCLA to beat them from the perimeter. The Bruins guards shot 4-for-24. Losing in the Final Four can’t be that much of demerit for a coach, can it? Except at UCLA in 1976. The Bruins had won 47 of their previous 48 NCAA tournament games. The masses weren’t used to this.

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That also meant Knight had single-handedly put an end to the debut seasons of two legend-followers in four years — Hall in 1973, Bartow in 1976.
UCLA went 24-5 the next season but was upset in the NCAA tournament by Idaho State, and the UCLA fans weren’t going to accept that. A drained Bartow left, even with a 51-10 on-court record his first two seasons. Wooden’s mark his first two years was 46-14. The post-Wooden parade had begun in Westwood. There would be six UCLA coaches in the first 14 seasons after his retirement.
Bartow went on to create a basketball program at UAB, where there were no shadows to evade, and took the Blazers to the Elite Eight. But the anguish of those UCLA years stayed with him. In what would have been a remarkable irony, he actually was in the mix for the Kentucky job when Hall retired in 1985. He decided against it; working in one college basketball shark tank had been enough.
"Probably the smartest thing I ever did," he later told The Birmingham News about his decision to turn down Kentucky. "Or the second smartest. The first may have been getting out of UCLA alive."

Bill Guthridge, North Carolina, 1997-98

Getty Images Bill Guthridge Bill Guthridge

Not even Hall or Bartow faced Guthridge’s challenge — coaching his first season in a building named after the guy he replaced.
It all happened so quickly, too. Dean Smith hadn’t decided his coaching flame had burned out until October in 1997. He announced his retirement a week before practice started. "We thought the world was coming to an end," one of Carolina’s stars, Antawn Jamison, said years later.
But Guthridge had been the mild-mannered assistant at Smith’s side for decades, so the move was natural. Plus, he had the bulk of the previous year’s Final Four team returning, including Jamison, Vince Carter and Shammond Williams. That the Tar Heels had such an accomplished and veteran lineup made Smith’s decision to step down all the more shocking. North Carolina would be fine. More than fine.
The Tar Heels started 17-0 and Guthridge did not know what losing as a head coach felt like until a January trip to Maryland. His first crack at Duke, North Carolina won by 24 points. The Tar Heels stormed into the NCAA tournament 30-3 and ranked No. 1, and didn’t stop until the Final Four, where Utah ended the ride 65-59.

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At the Final Four, Guthridge put the season’s experience into words: "My first time I was scared was at our first practice, and then I was scared our first exhibition game, our first regular game, our first road trip. But I think I have that all out of the way now.
"It has been hectic since Oct. 9 when the change was made. I knew there was that possibility over the last eight, 10 years; that Dean was worn out when the season was over. Dean wanted me to think as a head coach. I haven’t had time to reflect on how much I have enjoyed it or what’s gone on. Obviously, the relationship that I had with this team was very special."
Guthridge was back in the Final Four in 2000, and then he was gone from the bench. His mission had been to carry the North Carolina program from the earthquake that was Smith's retirement to a stable future. Three years later, Roy Williams came to Chapel Hill.

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Mike Davis, Indiana, 2000-01 

Getty Images Mike Davis Mike Davis

This was not how a man wants to land his first head coaching job. A legend fired amid a raging controversy, his adoring state angry at the university president, angry at the school . . . and for some odd reason angry at the young assistant asked to take over. As only an interim, of course.
"I know everybody’s watching," Davis said as he moved in for Bob Knight. "I’ve got to prove myself every night when I step on the floor. I know that."
His first game went swimmingly, an 80-68 win over Pepperdine — the same team that had blown the Hoosiers out of the NCAA tournament by 20 points in the first round the previous spring. Knight’s last Indiana game, it turned out.
An early three-game losing streak, including getting upset by Indiana State, made the locals a tad restless. But the cheers began to grow in the winter as the Hoosiers swept Purdue, upset No. 1 Michigan State, advanced to the Big Ten Tournament championship game and took a 21-12 record into the NCAA tournament. By then, it seemed clear that Davis was the man for the job. A nice tournament run would have been the perfect topper, but Indiana had an awful first-round game and was knocked aside by No. 13 seed Kent State. On the same day there were reports that Knight was in Lubbock interviewing at Texas Tech.

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No, Knight wasn’t coming back. Even his most ardent fans in Bloomington had to understand that. "I do want this job in the worst way," Davis said after the Kent State debacle. The IU brass agreed and made it official. No more interim.
The next season, the Hoosiers advanced to the national championship game, winning five NCAA tournament contests, including top-ranked Duke in the Sweet 16. That’s more tournament victories than Knight had in his last seven years at Indiana. The Davis Hoosiers had knocked off the No. 1 team twice in his first two seasons. But the magic quickly began to fade for Davis and by 2006, with the Hoosiers program seemingly in a stall, he resigned.
Indiana has never been back to the Final Four, nor even played for a regional championship. Davis has gone on to coach at UAB, Texas Southern and now Detroit Mercy.  The sometimes bright and sometimes painful Indiana experience that began in 2000 was valuable training, he came to decide.
"I wasn’t prepared. I knew I wasn’t prepared but I tried to walk out like I was prepared," he said years later. "I’m a way better coach now than then. It’s not even close. It changed me for the good. Sometimes when I was there, you’d feel sorry for yourself and make it all about you. But when you look back and reflect on it, it should never be about you. It should be about the players and the life lessons you have the opportunity to teach them."
It was a high-speed highway the above four traveled, from the first season they became coaches with ghosts looking over their shoulders. They learned a lot, saw a lot, felt a lot, won a lot, and it was not often easy or pleasant or fair. Jon Scheyer and Kyle Neptune are now merging onto that road.


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