Three years into his head coaching career at Elon, Mike Schrage headed to Greenville, South Carolina, for the NCAA tournament in March.
No, he wasn’t there with the Phoenix, who completed a 10-22 season with a 75-58 loss to UNC Wilmington in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament on March 6.
Instead it was part job interview, part family trip.
With Jon Scheyer set to become Duke’s head coach when the Blue Devils’ season ended and Mike Krzyzewski’s planned retirement occurred, he and Schrage had engaged in informal conversations about Schrage returning to Duke’s staff, where he’d worked in non-coaching roles since 1999 -2008.
In Greenville, where the Blue Devils began their NCAA tournament run to the Final Four, Schrage felt old, familiar feelings.
“Jon and I, we’re talking enough, but he’s immersed in the season, right?” Schrage said. “Like, we’re not talking at that level. And we went to Greenville. And I saw so many of the people that are still here that I know and love. I saw March Madness.”
It was so clear to his 17-year-old son, Andrew, that the younger Schrage had to speak up.
“My son was like, `Dad, are you? You’re not going to do this? Are you kidding me?’” Schrage said. “So I was close to 100%. I have made myself 100%.”
With that, Schrage decided he’d leave the only head coaching job he’d ever held to return to Duke on Scheyer’s first staff.
The move became official on April 5 when Schrage resigned as Elon’s coach. Two days later, Duke announced Schrage’s hiring as a special assistant to the head coach.
Again, that’s a non-coaching position since NCAA rules allow teams to have one head coach and three assistant coaches who can recruit off campus and work with players on the court.
His appreciation for the Duke program, gained by nine years of working for Krzyzewski, was a major factor. But timing, Schrage said, was everything with what is an unusual move in coaching circles.
“The other reason I did is because of my belief in this guy, Jon Scheyer,” Schrage said. “I loved being a head coach. I loved Elon. We had a healthy program. We had our best group coming back, but it’s just hard to say no. And a lot of people said, `Hey, you could do this later?’ No, I don’t think you can do this later. There’s only one window of opportunity to do this with a guy you really believe in, in a place that you love and it’s so special to you.”
The 34-year-old Scheyer arrived at Duke in 2007 as a freshman to play for Krzyzewski. That’s when he and Schrage met. They’ve maintained a friendship over the ensuing years.
Last June, when Krzyzewski announced his plan to retire following the 2021-22 season and Duke selected Scheyer as the next coach, Scheyer began thinking about who he would need on his staff. Entering his first head coaching job, Scheyer sought someone with head coaching experience. Prior to Elon, Schrage was also an assistant coach at Stanford, Butler and Ohio State.
“There’s nobody out there that can fill the role of what he can do,” Scheyer said. “He has this amazing institutional knowledge of Duke….So the experience of being a head coach, knowing me, knowing Duke, it was an absolute no-brainer.”
At age 46, with he and his wife, Amanda, having a son one year away from heading off to college and their 14-year-old daughter, Sophie, approaching high school years, Schrage steps away from on-the-road recruiting and running practices to more of a supporting role.
“I don’t mind missing recruiting on the road,” Schrage said. “Some guys in this profession, they need that. I’m good. I’ve got a 17-year-old son, who’s in his senior high school coming up. I’ve got a 14-year-old daughter. I don’t need that in my life. I enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong. But I think whatever Jon Scheyer and his staff he needs, I’m going to do.
Duke associate head coach Chris Carrawell’s Blue Devils playing career intersected with Schrage’s first tenure at Duke. So they have reconnected as well.
Carrawell believes Schrage not only having been a head coach, but coaching at other Division I programs is a good thing for Duke’s staff.
“I thought it helped me coming back,” said Carrawell, who became a Duke assistant in 2018. “The fact that I was able to coach in the D League, be at Marquette for four years. When I came back, and I’m in meetings, I’m just, I’m talking, you know, just from my perspective, and not just one perspective.”
This story was originally published May 3, 2022 6:06 PM.