Kerr takes on his dream job at Duke

September 20, 2008
ZundellBy Adam Zundell
(Archive)

It is said about coaching that "you never want to be the guy who follows the guy." As in, you don't want to be Bill Guthridge to John Wooden, Bob Davie to Lou Holtz, or any Alabama coach not named Bear Bryant.

Other / Courtesy of Duke UniversityDuke's John Kerr, center, is happy to be back at his alma mater.

But most times, you don't have the luxury of being picky. Not many would choose to follow a legend, but when the dream job comes up, you can't have trepidation on account of some old cliché.

So when John Rennie announced his retirement from Duke in August 2007, John Kerr felt he'd have to give it a look if he was asked. After all, the last time the Duke coaching position was open was 1979, when Kerr was 14 years old. Of course, Kerr starred as a midfielder at Duke from 1983 to 1986, when he helped lead the Blue Devils to the national title and won the Hermann Trophy. He also served as an assistant coach for Rennie in 1992 and 1993. Kerr served as the head coach at Harvard for the past nine seasons.

Despite being happy at Harvard, the lure of his alma mater was strong. Kerr was eventually offered the job, and he accepted following the 2007 season. In some higher-profile sports, coaches hop from one job to the next, looking only at dollars and cents and calling the most recent, highest-paying job their "dream job." But for the Duke job and Kerr, it is evident that the move from Cambridge, Mass., to Durham, N.C., was truly about returning to the place that he loves.

Unlike some who pay lip service to dreaming about a particular job, Kerr actually did let his mind drift to thoughts about being the boss at Koskinen Stadium back when he was a senior. Those thoughts slipped in and out of his mind when he was cutting his coaching teeth as an assistant under Rennie. "One day, maybe?" Kerr would think to himself.

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"When I was in that process of leaving Duke and graduating, I looked around and said, 'I loved my four years here and would love the opportunity to come back and coach here,'" Kerr says. "I got the chance to come back and assist Coach Rennie and had the time of my life. I had a real feel for what it was like to be a coach there, and hoped that I would have an opportunity to be the head coach whenever Coach Rennie stepped down."

Because Rennie kept cranking out ultracompetitive teams that kept Duke in the upper echelon, the Blue Devils job opening was still off in the distance. After Kerr's international and domestic playing career came to an end, he decided to get into coaching full-time. He became the head coach at Harvard in 1999, and transformed the Crimson into players on the national stage. He spent nine years helping to restore the program's proud tradition, so Kerr was comfortable with letting the Duke coaching search play out.

"I loved everything about the job at Harvard -- the players, the administration, the coaching staff -- so I was really in a good place," he says. "We really had things going in the right direction and I loved the players, but the chance to return to my alma mater and a program that is so highly regarded was just something I couldn't pass up."

He said in the news release announcing his hiring that Duke was "the only job I'd leave Harvard for." As luck and aggressive scheduling would have it, Duke and Harvard played on Sept. 5, and Kerr's Blue Devil squad got the better of the Crimson, 3-1. "I'm glad it's over and we're on the right side of the result," Kerr told the Duke Chronicle following the game.

While it's unfair and unproductive to compare Duke to Harvard, some things will be easier in the transition than others. While it's not an Ivy League school, Duke isn't a diploma mill either, meaning that Kerr will be pursuing a similar caliber of student-athlete. The difference now, though, is that he's armed with athletic scholarships that allow him to target players and make offers much earlier than he was able to at Harvard. The upcoming nightly grind of the ACC schedule and the expectations that surround being at Duke are something he got a taste of as an assistant and are welcomed by any competitor, but they probably feel a little bit different when you're in the big chair.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for Kerr will be building on Rennie's legacy while at the same time carving his own path at Duke.

"[Rennie's] scouting, motivation and his recruiting were fierce," Kerr says. "He went after the best players in the country, and I'm going to try and follow in his footsteps in that regard." He met weekly in the spring with Rennie, who has anointed himself as the team's No. 1 fan.

"I'm going to try and carry on the torch, and I know I'm going to be able to put my philosophy and my way of playing soccer into place, and we're already starting that," Kerr says.

His coaching philosophy is rooted in his experience as a Blue Devils player. Kerr admits he had a "one-track mind" and was "maybe a bit too selfish in some ways" but that Rennie helped him see the entire team as a functioning unit. That helped Kerr become a better leader and laid the foundation for Duke's national championship run in 1986. While both Rennie and Kerr agree Duke has had more-talented teams, it was the team chemistry that set the 1986 squad apart.

"That team wasn't as talented as some of the other teams I played on, but we did have chemistry," he says. "We played as a team and played for a goal. We got on a roll and we decided it was our goal to win the national championship. We thrived on that team unity."

If John Kerr can find the right combination of talent and team chemistry, he might just be able to be one of the few coaches in any sport to win a national championship as a player and as a coach at his alma mater. That achievement would be following a legend with something legendary, and is probably the only way it can be done.

Adam Zundell is a contributor to ESPN.com. His 2005 story "Jason Garey: The Kid Can Play" won first place in the College Division in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America's annual writing contest. He can be reached at azundell@yahoo.com.