There are not as many seniors playing ACC men’s basketball as there used to be, but there are more seniors than ever working the sidelines. Six of 15 conference head coaches are 62 or older, a notable spike in life experience that mirrors trends in the broader American workplace.
There’s no question the passing decades have shaped the way older coaches approach their business, and who they are as individuals.
Roy Williams, 64, concedes his propensity to be “hard-headed” has receded, the years smoothing the edges of his volatility. “I’m more mellow than I used to be” at practice, the North Carolina coach says. “I try to convince players that it’s the right thing to do instead of ranting and raving and screaming and throwing stuff.”
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who turns 68 on Feb. 13, says he now waits to get “the other perspective” on matters to which “I would have emotionally reacted” as recently as 10 years ago. Another thing that’s changed for the coach with more wins than any man in major-college history: age has intensified the nervousness he feels prior to competition.
“I have a lot of anxiety before every game,” Krzyzewski admits. “That hasn’t lessened for me. If anything, it’s increased.” The change, he believes, is caused by recognition of life’s inexorable mathematics. “You don’t have as many games left,” Krzyzewski explains.
Similarly shifting attitudes and approaches unite older ACC coaches, who’ve earned their way over professionally perilous decades into an elite fraternity whose members are respected, acclaimed and extravagantly well-paid. Short of malfeasance, their extraordinary success and staying power assure their continued employment, their workplace tenures longer than those enjoyed by all but a handful of their most notable predecessors.
The average ACC coach was 51 years old in 2005-06. This season the average has risen to 55, exactly the age of Notre Dame’s Mike Brey.
Expectations regarding longevity have changed not only in the coaching profession, but throughout American society. “What we’re seeing is a lot more boomers, of which I’m one, staying in the workforce to keep active and make sure they still have a purpose,” says Suzanne LaFollette-Black, a gerontologist and associate state director of AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) North Carolina. Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964.
The value such workers bring, LaFollette-Black says, “is their maturity, it’s their dependability, it’s their productivity, it’s their willingness to learn, their innovativeness. The list goes on and on.”
Among coaching greats from earlier eras, the time to go was simply perceived as coming earlier than it does today. UCLA’s John Wooden stepped down at age 64, Frank McGuire of North Carolina and later South Carolina retired at 65, UNC’s Dean Smith left at 66, and Indiana/Texas A&M coach Bob Knight departed his last post at 67.
There’s no doubt huge salaries encourage contemporary coaches to remain on the bench. But so do better health and nutrition, more social acceptance of older people in the work force, and greater life expectancy that elongates views of work and retirement. The recent recession kept many older Americans working, too.
Self-image also plays a role. “People our age don’t think of themselves as old. I think that’s a big thing, because you feel like you’re current,” Krzyzewski observes. “It’s hard for me to believe I’m 67, I’ll be 68. I can’t even comprehend that, I guess is what I’m saying.”
Besides Williams and Krzyzewski, among ACC coaches, Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton is 66, Miami’s Jim Larranaga is 65 and Louisville’s Rick Pitino is 62. Pitino and Krzyzewski still even have dark hair. The ACC’s golden oldies all qualify as seniors under the Older Americans Act of 1965. Only Syracuse’s 70-year-old Jim Boeheim, Coach K’s nearest pursuer in total career victories, predates the baby boom era.
The love of coaching
Some experts argue older people are better able to take life’s ups and downs in stride. “The ability to grow lighter as we go is a form of wisdom that entails learning how not to sweat the small stuff, learning how not to be too invested in particular outcomes,” Jimmy Holland and Mindy Greenstein wrote in their book, “Lighter as We Go.”
Williams laughs at the notion he’s gotten better at putting game outcomes in perspective. “I’m not going to go that far,” he says. “My wife would say the losses are even worse than they used to be.”
Krzyzewski regards game results somewhat differently with 40 years of coaching under his belt. “In a lot of respects, you’re more appreciative of a win, of how guys play, how they respond,” he notes.
There’s considerable commonality in the reasons coaches give for staying on the job. “I think all of the guys love what they’re doing,” Williams says. “It’s the love of coaching, the love of being involved in the game. There’s a lot of junk, which makes it harder. Coach Smith wouldn’t enjoy it as much right now, coaches who want privacy wouldn’t enjoy it as much.”
The desire to work with young people and to “make a difference in folks’ lives” is a key reason to remain in coaching, FSU’s Hamilton says. In that respect, and in the sense coaches perform “a labor of love,” he likens serving as a coach to being a physician or minister.
“To me, it’s not about the money, it’s not always about the winning – I’m talking about winning in games,” says Hamilton, who has 229 victories in 13 seasons at Florida State, eight shy of the all-time lead at the school. “What’s your percentage of helping winning guys in life? That’s really more important to me.”
Besides, Hamilton doesn’t fish, play golf or otherwise have a hobby that might fill retirement. “I couldn’t sit around,” he insists. “This is what I do. I really believe this from a religious standpoint, the Bible says you always should try to fulfill your purpose in life. We all have a purpose. When you figure out what that purpose is, you need to stick with it. That becomes my ministry.”
People who retire from high-powered jobs, particularly men, often feel adrift and are uncommonly susceptible to an early demise, says the AARP’s LaFollette-Black. Mickie Krzyzewski, the coach’s wife, knows the dangers but reports the topic of post-career life is largely unexplored in her home. “There’s no plan for when he stops,” she says of Coach K. “I’m probably more concerned about it than he is.”
An ex-coach could always join the 7.4 million Americans age 55 and older who are “looking at how they can ‘re-career’ or reinvent themselves,” says LaFollette-Black. Just that subject arose at a family gathering in what Mickie Krzyzewski describes as the “funereal” aftermath of Duke’s stunning NCAA tournament loss to Lehigh in March 2012.
Krzyzewski questioned his coaching and wondered aloud if he should retire. That’s when his 8-year-old granddaughter spoke up. “Poppy, I know what you can do if you retire,” she said. “You can be a Santa at the mall.”
If nothing else, the comment lightened the mood.
“Who could do that less well than Mike?” Mickie Krzyzewski asks.
“I could see myself doing that,” demurs the Duke coach. “Hopefully people wouldn’t recognize me, and I’d be a jovial, good Santa.”