McCallie faces great expectations at Duke
Joanne P. McCallie visited Duke in 1982, recruited to play there by then-head coach Debbie Leonard and assistant Jackie Silar, who is now the Blue Devils' associate athletics director. McCallie was still Joanne Palombo then, a high school player with very lofty goals for her life.
"Duke was the first recruiting letter I ever received, in ninth grade," said McCallie, who spoke to me by phone from Durham, N.C., on Friday morning, not long before her introductory news conference as the Blue Devils' new head coach.
"So it's kind of funny now to come back around to Duke. After a lot of years, of course, and more wrinkles."
She left Michigan State and replaces Gail Goestenkors, who departed after 15 seasons to take over at Texas. McCallie; her husband, John; and children, Maddie and Jack, make the move, and McCallie expects her three assistants for the Spartans -- Al Brown, AnnMarie Gilbert and just-hired Samantha Williams -- will, too.
"I want to say pending signing their contracts," McCallie said. "You know how it is -- we're all in flux. They have all verbaled to come to Duke, we're just trying to get the contracts signed."
It's kind of funny she used the term "verbaled," normally reserved for what recruits do, to describe her coaches. Speaking of both recruits and current team members, McCallie said she believes everything is intact.
"I know of no transfers at this time; everybody is in good shape," she said. "And I've been able to talk to or exchange messages with incoming student-athletes. The thing I like so much is the work the team has done. They deserve all the credit; the team has wrapped their arms around the incoming student-athletes and also others.
"These women are so motivated by being at Duke. Of course, the coaching situation and change has been very, very difficult. They've really hung tight, and I'm impressed with the way they've done that and the leadership that's been shown."
McCallie met with the Blue Devils on Thursday. It has been a stressful and largely unhappy past month for the Duke players.
Texas coach Jody Conradt resigned on Selection Monday, and Texas acknowledged Goestenkors was its top replacement candidate. So Duke's players were asked about that as they prepared for and played in the NCAA Tournament. Then, of course, the tournament ended for Duke in nightmarish fashion in the Sweet 16 with a loss to Rutgers, followed by more than a week of waiting for Goestenkors to make her decision.
Both the fact that Texas publicly targeted the Duke coach while the Blue Devils were playing in the NCAA Tournament and the fact that their coach coach did indeed leave for Texas well, let's just say the Blue Devils now likely see red at the mention of "burnt orange."
Duke and Texas are scheduled to meet next season, and the Blue Devils would hardly be human if they didn't want to win that game by 50 points. But, frankly, I think it might be better for both sides if they dropped the game from the schedule, at least for next season. Give some feelings time to heal and everyone a chance to move on.
McCallie was noncommittal about her thoughts on the meeting with Texas; she and Goestenkors will need to discuss it. There are more pressing matters, of course, as McCallie takes over at Duke.
She used the same phrase about adjusting to her new players, and vice versa, that Goestenkors did when she talked about meeting with the Longhorns: "It's a process."
Duke senior-to-be Emily Waner said at Duke's news conference, "We're a really tight-knit group, and I think that that's a good situation for us. Now it's getting to know [McCallie] and to form that with all of us put together."
It will take a little while for McCallie and the Blue Devils to get to know each other -- just as will be the case for the Michigan State Spartans and their eventual new leader.
Speaking of that, I asked McCallie why she had agreed to a new deal with Michigan State on March 24 if she was then willing to leave the school less than a month later. (Later that day, incidentally, Duke lost to Rutgers, the team that had eliminated Michigan State in the second round.)
McCallie said that at the time she thought there was a strong possibility that Goestenkors wouldn't leave Duke. Further, she figured that if that did happen, former Duke assistant and alum Joanne Boyle would take the job.
Boyle was indeed offered the Duke position, but opted to stay at Cal, where she has been head coach the past two years. McCallie, who is good friends with Boyle, said that Boyle saying no to Duke changed everything.
"It was Duke, a job I've thought about and talked about for a lot of years," McCallie said. "It was a job I thought I might never have a chance to get, because it wouldn't be open. I just had to take a good, hard look. I felt like if I didn't [look into Duke], I could never be happy knowing I didn't try.
"It was very difficult to leave. The Michigan State fans have been incredible to me and my family. I love the people at Michigan State, I love our team. The program is in great shape. There's a great team at Michigan State for a coach to take over. Just like there's a great team at Duke, thanks to Gail for all her excellent work here."
You'll notice that McCallie still referred to the Spartans as "our" team. It's not surprising when any coach who's relocating makes such a slip. It's a difficult transition to make quickly.
In that same vein, McCallie said that her daughter, who's 12, is struggling with the move.
"She has so many fabulous friends, and she's at that age where it's hard for her to imagine she will make those kinds of friends somewhere else," McCallie said. "It will take a little time for her."
This is not McCallie's first move as a head coach; she went from a lot of success at Maine to success at Michigan State. She feels confident the success will continue at Duke.
But she knows that, just like winning over the Duke players, she will need to win over the Duke fans, as well. Goestenkors was very popular, and many Duke supporters feel the school badly botched things by letting her get away.
They will be getting to know McCallie and her family. Which brings up the incident last month at the Sarasota, Fla., airport when McCallie's husband, John, was arrested after a scuffle with a police officer. John McCallie has a court date pending later this month, and Joanne McCallie said that because of that, she could not really discuss the situation.
"I can't talk about it now, but I can when it's over," she said. "Once it concludes, I could share a lot more, certainly. In truth, there are always two sides to anything."
So a new stage in McCallie's life is set to begin, as is a new era in Duke women's basketball. Duke athletic director Joe Alleva threw his latest dart at Goestenkors while introducing McCallie, saying, "She's going to lead this program to new heights."
The truth is, there aren't new "heights," plural, that Duke hasn't hit already. There is only one height left unreached: winning an NCAA title.
In order to have a shot at that, McCallie will need to maintain the Blue Devils program at the level Goestenkors did for a decade after building it to that point. You have to keep knocking on the door for it to open, and that's the expectation McCallie faces. Under Goestenkors, Duke became a program where anything less than an NCAA title was considered not good enough.
McCallie, who led Michigan State to the 2005 national championship game, understands the challenge. She said that long ago, she thought about this very opportunity at this very school.
"You come to Duke and you try to make the smoothest transition," she said. "I respect so much what Gail has done here. Now I have to give this team the best chance to pursue championships, and that's what I'll do."
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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