DURHAM, N.C. — Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie has not only kept the Blue Devils women’s basketball team among the nation’s elite, she’s made the program her own.
Four years after Gail Goestenkors left for Texas, McCallie and the Blue Devils are thriving.
“We’re trying to make history and do special things here at Duke, so we feel a long way off meaning we’ve never won a national championship and there’s been some opportunity,” McCallie said. “We in Year 4 and there’s so much to do.”
McCallie’s Blue Devils (29-3) have reached the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game for four straight seasons and won a second straight title last weekend. Now the sixth-ranked Blue Devils expect a high seed as they head back to the NCAA tournament, where they came within a few minutes of beating Baylor to reach last year’s Final Four.
“From a success standpoint, I don’t see a drop-off,” said senior Jasmine Thomas, a Goestenkors recruit who was a freshman in McCallie’s first season. “But it’s definitely different teams, different sorts of talent and different styles. Things have definitely changed, but that’s just how things happen. … Your ability to be successful while undergoing change is a great accomplishment.”
Goestenkors’ departure for Texas in 2007 came after her run of five straight ACC tournament titles, four Final Fours and two appearances in the national championship game.
When she replaced retired Hall of Famer Jody Conradt, she arrived at Texas with much fanfare and a seven-year contract for $1 million a year. The expectation was she would quickly rebuild the proud program into the power like Duke.
Instead, the Longhorns have finished no better than fourth in the Big 12 Conference and have one NCAA tournament win in three trips. They started play in this week’s Big 12 tournament still trying to bolster their NCAA chances after losing three overtime games to go with a three-point loss to highly ranked rival Texas A&M, who has won 10 straight in the series.
“Obviously, we are not where we want to be,” Goestenkors said. But “we’re closer than it looks.”
Her departure opened the door for McCallie to return to the campus she once visited as a high school recruit. She had led Michigan State to the NCAA championship game in 2005 and was The Associated Press national coach of the year that season, but she was eager for a new challenge, too.
“I know this sounds naive and maybe I’m stupid for it, but that’s all I saw, that they’d never won,” McCallie said of Duke. “And I’d love to try. I don’t mean coming to guarantee it. I just thought that would be the coolest thing. How many programs are there that are top line that have never won it?”
McCallie inherited a strong program complete with a talented incoming class of Thomas, Krystal Thomas and Karima Christmas serving as the core of the transition. Still, it was a bumpy first two seasons.
“There wasn’t a lot of group therapy and ‘How are you feeling today?’ kind of thing,” she said. “I think I got some criticism for that, that I wasn’t sensitive enough to the change. To me, it was a gorgeous opportunity to return to Duke after having a (recruiting) visit here, being offered here. … I was going to keep that energy. I was not going to let that be put out because of something I didn’t control.
“I didn’t control anyone’s departure. So I took a very productive view. That might not have matched every player’s view. A player’s view might have been more of sadness.”
Yet the Blue Devils look far more settled now, winning at least 25 games each year under McCallie. And her staff has put together classes ranked No. 1 nationally by at least one recruiting service the past two seasons, setting up the Blue Devils to keep rolling along.
“You know what? We’re going to pursue history,” McCallie said. “And if we do it or when we do it, how incredible — and it will be for everybody. If we ever do it, it will be for all the kids, (former Duke All-American) Alana Beard, anybody who was part of those chases, Gail. It’s not a singular thing. It never will be. And if we don’t, I’ll walk away. My time will come. But it’s great. It seems so simple.”
AP Sports Writer Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.