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Coach G: Time to leave 'nest' for 'new experience'

4/6/2007 - Duke Blue Devils

Many people have jetted off to Europe to "get it away from it all." For new Texas coach Gail Goestenkors, the trip to Italy with USA Basketball this week is coming at just the right time.

It might not seem like it; she has so many details, big and small, to take care of as she moves from Durham, N.C. -- her home of 15 years -- to Austin. Most important of all is getting to know her new players, because that's the kind of coach she is. As Goestenkors said during her introductory news conference at Texas on Thursday morning, relationships with the people she works with mean everything.

Not every coach is like this, nor do I necessarily think they need to be. Some coaches are very effective with a more distant and strictly business approach. That can work, too. But when you're by nature a very passionate person, you can't do things with only your head and not your heart. It's impossible.

That's why being in Italy now is good for Goestenkors, a brief but important healing time. She can focus on being on the court with several of the world's best players and away from the immediacy of just having made the hardest decision of her life.

"Monday morning was when in my heart I knew," Goestenkors said of when she was sure she would take the Texas job. "I needed to get home and get away from everything. I had felt it the day before, but I wanted to sit with it and make sure. Because it was so difficult."

"Home" of course was Durham, at least for a little longer. Tuesday morning, she called to meet with Duke athletics director Joe Alleva. She had also scheduled a team meeting for that afternoon when her players were finished with classes. She told Alleva and school President Richard H. Brodhead of her decision, plus her Duke staff.

Then someone at Duke leaked the information to the media. My business has turned coaching-change news into an absurd, ridiculous frenzy, with zero regard for the idea that the feelings of a group of young people matter in the slightest.

Leading up to Tuesday, I had been approached by and called by media folks who'd never spoken to me before -- I wonder where all these people are in covering everything else about women's basketball -- asking, "What have you heard about Gail?" as if reporters deserve to be the "first" to know about a coach's choice and the players are supposed to hear it from us. I said when Goestenkors was ready to talk about her decision, she'd talk. It was a lot more important that she talk to her players first.

Thursday in Austin, Goestenkors smiled for the cameras and shook hands and did the "Hook 'em Horns" hand sign. She spoke about Texas' tradition and its future, and she lauded the atmosphere of the entire athletic department, how universal and sincere her welcome was.

But there's a lot of sadness in her right now, too. We spoke by phone late Thursday afternoon; she had to be in Atlanta for an evening banquet to accept the Naismith women's coach of the year award. Then it was off to Italy on Friday.

When Goestenkors said a lot of tears have been shed the last week-plus, she's not exaggerating. And it's not like now the decision is made, it's all sunshine. People who give 100 percent of themselves to something aren't wired like that. It's not a switch you flip on and flip off.

Just the mention of Abby and Emily Waner or Wanisha Smith or Carrem Gay or Joy Cheek or anyone else still in a Blue Devil uniform is going to make Goestenkors tear up. You don't stop loving kids because you're not coaching them anymore.

Alleva had made some unfortunate comments early during the NCAA Tournament, statements he probably wishes now he could take back. Not because they pushed Goestenkors out the door, but because he created the impression that Duke wasn't going to try hard to keep her and didn't care as much as you would think any school would about someone who'd done nothing except bring success and positive publicity to the university.

Those remarks did wound Goestenkors, but she was willing to look past them. Shortly after the Blue Devils' loss to Rutgers, she communicated to me off the record that Duke had stepped forward in a big way, but she still needed to go visit Texas in order to make her choice.

I reveal that now only to show that what Goestenkors said publicly Thursday -- that Duke had been more than fair in its contract offer and with addressing issues with the program that she thought needed to improve -- wasn't her blowing smoke after the fact.

Goestenkors didn't leave Duke because Texas "bought" her. Nor were the heartbreaking endings the Blue Devils have had the last two seasons a factor. Some assumed that the agonizing loss to Rutgers on top of last season's kick-in-the-gut overtime loss to Maryland in the NCAA title game might have convinced her that there was some kind of dark cloud at Duke she needed to escape.

"My kids asked that," she said of the Duke players. "It was so sad. Because I had not even thought of that. They said, 'What if we would have won?' Abby was like, 'Would you have stayed?'

"And I said, 'No. As a matter of fact, if we would have won a national championship at any point, it would have made it easier to go.' Because I would have felt like I would have done what I felt like I came there to do. I think I did a lot in terms of helping kids learn and grow, but that was the one thing that we didn't finish. It's hard to leave without getting a national championship for Duke University."

So why did she leave?

"It was about my need for continued growth, and I told my players that," she said. "I said, 'Every day I talk to you guys about growing, stepping outside your comfort zone and taking risks.'

"I'm at the point of my life where I knew I was either going to stay at Duke for the rest of my career -- which would have been great, wonderful, and I would have been happy. Or I was going to step out of my comfort zone and go see what else I could do. And that challenge excited me. I had to do it.

"And that's why it took me so long to decide. Duke has been this great nest for me, and I've learned and grown so much -- as has the program. We've grown together. Now it's time for me to step outside that nest, and have a new experience."

I believe Goestenkors really means that -- because she gave me that exact same advice 11 years ago. I was in management at a medium-sized newspaper in Virginia; comfortable and yet with a nagging feeling I needed to make a change.

They always say that if you can talk to people outside your business and get feedback on such decisions, do it. So I asked Goestenkors, who told me then that sometimes when you're scared to make a move because you're 'OK' where you are and not sure if you'll succeed if you leave, then maybe that's just the time to push yourself to do it. Not long after, I left for Kansas City.

Goestenkors has built one of the best programs in the country, and she didn't need to leave it to pursue the highest goal in her profession. She didn't have to go to Texas to get a national championship. But she did it because she needed to push herself. Now there are all kinds of new challenges. She has always paid close attention to other conferences, not just the ACC, so she knows how tough the Big 12 is.

She also knows the league has led the nation in attendance now for eight seasons, and there's an atmosphere in the conference that makes even regular-season games seem like real "events."

She's following an institution in Jody Conradt, but nobody coaches forever. Believe it or not, Tennessee's coach will someday be someone other than Pat Summitt. Admittedly, that might be when Summitt is 115 years old, but still …

Change happens, and it can be simultaneously exhilarating and heart-wrenching. Goestenkors won't clean out her office or look out on the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium one last time or say goodbye to her former players without feeling grief. But she knows she couldn't have left Duke in better shape -- the Blue Devils will be national-championship contenders again next season -- and she takes over a Texas program that, with all due respect to Conradt, is ready for new leadership.

Longhorns fans have hardly "suffered" -- the team was just in the Final Four four years ago -- but they are thrilled that the flagship women's program at their school has lured the best possible replacement for a legendary coach.

Goestenkors' decision was the biggest domino to fall in the many that will go down in the next month or so with several big jobs open in this sport. It will be a different landscape in many regards when next season begins.

Goodbyes are always hard. But hellos aren't always easy. Players and coaches at a lot of schools are or will be going through both.

"It's a process," Goestenkors said. "You have to get to know one another and build that trust. And that takes time."

And after she returns from Italy, Goestenkors will really start that process in earnest.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.