Duke University women’s basketball coach and former UMaine women’s coach Joanne Palombo McCallie said she got into coaching “by accident.”
“I was in Chicago working at a telecommunications firm, and I wanted to get my MBA,” said McCallie, who will lead her Blue Devils against the Black Bears on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
“There were paid graduate student coaching jobs at Auburn University and Vanderbilt,” said McCallie, a former Brunswick High School All-Maine player and Northwestern University standout. “I was offered both jobs, and I chose Auburn.
“Vanderbilt would have been the natural job for me to take. Vanderbilt was like Northwestern [academically], and living in Nashville would have been cool. But I wanted to work for [head coach] Joe Ciampi.”
She said Ciampi turned out to be an excellent mentor.
“I made a great choice,” said McCallie, who received her MBA from Auburn and spent four years there before becoming the head coach at the University of Maine.
During her time at Auburn, the Tigers played in two NCAA championship games and reached the Elite Eight another time.
“I learned an an enormous amount. It dawned on me that coaching might be something I could really enjoy,” she said.
She thrived on the idea of having an opportunity to develop people.
“I could really see that in a relationship I had with a point guard at Auburn. She was high maintenance and difficult. I had to try different things with her [to get the most out of her]. I saw the impact I could have on players, especially motivating them,” McCallie said.
McCallie said she also benefited from being in a league, the Southeastern Conference, that featured so many exceptional head coaches such as legendary Pat Summitt at Tennessee, Sue Gunter at Louisiana State University and Van Chancellor at Mississippi.
Ciampi, Summitt, Chancellor and Gunter are all enshrined in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I learned from all the SEC coaches,” said McCallie, who established herself as a top-notch recruiter. “It was incredible.”
Once she caught the coaching bug, she admitted that “I really wanted to become a head coach as soon as possible.”
And, at the age of 26, she received that opportunity when she was named the head coach at the University of Maine in 1992. She replaced Trish Roberts.
The intense and charismatic McCallie put UMaine on the college basketball map.
She went 9-20 in her first season, and led the Black Bears to seven straight 20-win seasons and six NCAA Tournament appearances with the dynamic guard duo of Cindy Blodgett and Amy Vachon leading the way.
“It was so much fun,” McCallie said about her eight years at UMaine. “We had a lot of players from Maine, and we also had some special out-of-state kids like Stephanie Guidi, Jamie Cassidy and [the late] Stacey Porrini. They were all super kids. We had a nice mixture of players.”
The three-time conference coach of the year made a tough decision to leave UMaine for Michigan State University, where she again took a program to a new level.
It gave her an opportunity to return to the midwest.
In seven years at Michigan State, she led the Spartans to their first ever NCAA Final Four appearance along with Elite Eight and back-to-back Sweet Sixteen appearances.
In 2005, they reached the national championship game, and she was named the Associated Press’s National Coach of the Year.
She went 81-23 in her last three seasons at Michigan State, and they produced a school-record four straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
“We were mostly a Michigan-based team,” McCallie said. “[The administration] gave us a lot of support. It was blissful.”
Then she took over at Duke 12 years ago.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. But Duke had been on my radar ever since my high school career. I read Coach K [Duke men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski’s] first book.”
She also said husband John McCallie’s mother lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“John’s dad had passed away, and his mother was getting older. It was better to be closer to her. I was an easy drive to get there. It was a family decision,” McCallie said.
Unlike the UMaine and Michigan State programs, Duke had already established itself as a national contender.
“It’s easier to build a program from the bottom up than taking over a successful program,” she said.
But, again, she elevated the program.
She is in her 12th year at Duke and has a record of 302-81. She is a three-time Atlantic Coach Conference Coach of the Year, and became the first Division I coach to lead teams in four different conferences to league titles and to be named coach of the year in four conferences (North Atlantic, America East, Big Ten and ACC).
Duke has made 10 NCAA Tournament appearances under her and earned four Elite Eight berths.
Last season, she became the 15th fastest coach in NCAA history to reach the 600-win mark.
She will enter Thursday’s game against UMaine with a career record of 613-229.
She brought in back-to-back No. 1 recruiting classes in 2010 and 2011, as well as 2015. She brought in the No. 2 classes in 2013 and 2014.
“She is a great recruiter,” said Amy Vachon, the head coach at UMaine. “She’s fantastic. She can get the players. And she knows the game. She is very demanding of herself, her coaches and her players. She expects excellence, and when you demand excellence, you’re going to achieve at a really high level.”
McCallie said she has changed and is more mellow these days, and the game has changed during her 27 years as a head coach.
“You get wiser and smarter. You have so much game experience,” McCallie said. “The kids have changed. My current team couldn’t handle how demanding I was with those Maine kids.”
“She was tough. But we were pretty successful,” the 53-year-old McCallie said.
She said she is constantly making adjustments.
“You’re always changing your offense to suit the team you’re coaching and, defensively, I’ve gone from matchup zone to man-to-man to full-court pressure. I do a lot of different things defensively.”
She still loves coaching and teaching but admits the amount of travel involved in recruiting is the hardest part.
“If you could just run practice and coach games you could do it forever,” said McCallie, who was raised a Navy brat.
The past few years have been difficult for her.
She was the subject of an investigation into allegations of mistreatment of players and assistant coaches in 2016 but was exonerated.
“A very small minority can cause you a great deal of issues,” McCallie said. “It was unfortunate. The vocal minority is a dangerous thing.”
She took a two-month medical leave of absence last spring due to a kidney ailment and has undergone eight surgical procedures for melanomas.
But she has persevered and is healthy now.
She and husband John are empty-nesters these days as their 24-year-old daughter, Maddie, is working toward an MBA from Elon College in North Carolina, where she played basketball, and 18-year-old son Jack is a freshman at her alma mater, Northwestern University.
McCallie traded in her golf clubs for a tennis racket and plays a lot of doubles with her girlfriends.
“Golf was so hard. I didn’t have the time,” said McCallie, who also lifts weights.
Several family members, including her mother and father, still live in Falmouth, and she is looking forward to bringing a youthful Duke team to Bangor.
“It’s great to be home, and I have so much respect for the job Amy has done,” said McCallie, a member of five Halls of Fame including the Maine Sports, UMaine and the Maine Basketball halls of fame. “She has a real nice mix with some international players and she has them playing hard.”
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