Duke coach, husband both on sidelines this season

Updated: February 16, 2006, 11:55 AM ET
By Melanie Jackson | Special to ESPN.com

Gail Goestenkors and her husband, Mark Simons, are used to seeing little of each other during the basketball season.

Goestenkors, of course, has been the head coach at Duke since 1992. In June 1997, she married Simons … who was the head men's basketball coach at Elon.

Mark Simons
Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletic Dept.Mark Simons, husband of Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, has been an assistant coach for Nell Fortner's Auburn Tigers since Jan. 1.

The schools are located just about 40 miles away from each other, but when you factor in games, practices and breaking down game film, let alone road trips, 40 miles might as well be 400.

"We've always been a couple that has been away from each other a good bit during the season," Goestenkors said. "He had his season going on, or was away recruiting. But it's not as hard as most situations."

And not as hard these past few years. Since stepping down after 10 seasons at Elon in March 2003, Simons, who's now involved in real estate, says he has seen more of his wife during the hoops season. Basketball still dominates their blood, though.

"These last few years," Simons said, "breaking down tape with her has been our quality time."

Quality time, however, has been in short supply this year. Since Jan. 1, Simons has been living -- yep, you guessed it -- some 400-plus miles away in Auburn, Ala., where he has been an assistant coach to Nell Fortner and the Tigers.

Yes, as his wife continues to guide the country's No. 1-ranked team up north in the ACC, Simons has stepped in as an interim assistant in the SEC. The position opened unexpectedly when Fortner's second-year assistant, former Tennessee star Carla McGhee, needed surgery that would sideline her for a significant amount of time.

So how did Simons end up subbing in? Another Fortner assistant, former Michigan coach Sue Guevara, is one of Goestenkors' closest friends. They've known each other since Guevara was an assistant coach during Goestenkors' playing days at Saginaw State (1981-85).

But Guevara has known Simons since then, too. He was Saginaw State's baseball coach as well as an assistant coach for the school's men's basketball team.

In between Fortner's coaching stints with the WNBA's Indiana Fever and Auburn, where she was hired in April 2004, she spent a week with the Blue Devils -- at Goestenkors' request -- assessing practices and evaluating the Duke coach at work. "We all got to know each other really well," Goestenkors says.

I can hear the joy in his voice again. He has missed [coaching] desperately. It's his passion, his love.
Duke coach Gail Goestenkors on her husband, Mark Simons, and his return to coaching

Though Guevara was the one who suggested Simons, it didn't take Fortner -- whose Tigers are 12-11 in her second season -- long to approve of the idea. Simons took even less time to make up his mind when his cell phone rang out of the blue some time around the holidays.

"It was Sue, asking me if there was any level of interest," Simons recalled. "I told her I'd be down there tomorrow."

When Fortner called to make it official a couple days later, Simons didn't have one ounce of hesitation.

"None … zero," Simons said. "I love coaching. It's who I am."

Goestenkors has always loved that about her husband, that she can come home and talk hoops with someone who loves it -- and understands it -- as much as she does.

"He's an incredible supporter, and it would get to the point where we had to stop talking about basketball," Goestenkors said. "It's so much a part of who we both are. It can consume us. It's nice to have someone as passionate as you are but can give you a different perspective."

Though Simons, 55, is back on the sidelines for the first time in two years, it's also his first foray into coaching women.

"I was a little … skeptical is not the word, but I was anxious," said Simons, who compiled a 109-169 record at Elon over 10 years, helping the Phoenix transition from Division II to Division I.

"I had worked with Gail's kids a little bit. But I didn't know how [Fortner's team] would respond to me. Here I am, coming in midseason. I'm the new guy and all of a sudden I'm asked to coach these kids.

"But they've been great. It's been wonderful. It's been a blast. They've accepted me with open arms."

Gail Goestenkors
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeGail Goestenkors, who turns 43 later this month, and Mark Simons, 55, got married in June 1997.

Fortner said Simons' knowledge and personality made for an easy adjustment period.

"Mark's been a blessing, certainly on short notice" said Fortner, who added that Simons likely will remain with the staff through the season, though the position is primarily volunteer. "He's a great teacher, and the kids have really taken to him."

Simons, who's 6-foot-7 and primarily working with Auburn's posts, also says it has been a good fit. Seeing KeKe Carrier, a freshman center who's also 6-7, trying to apply things he has shown her in practice has been truly rewarding.

"I've been trying to teach sealing using a type of spin move to get herself into position to receive a lob pass," said Simons, who also was head coach at Georgia College before his decade at Elon. "You show it to her and right away she tries to do it … instead of making a stray cut. It puts her in better position closer to the basket."

With the wealth of talent Fortner "has brought in here," Simons said his job is easy. Getting used to life so far away from Goestenkors is another matter. That aforementioned quality time most recently meant a 30-minute visit -- their first time together in more than 30 days -- as Simons met up with Duke's team bus on its way back from a game at Virginia Tech. Simons had spent an off day in Durham catching up on a real-estate matter.

"[Being apart] is the hard part," Simons said. "We don't want to say we're used to it, but…"

Goestenkors -- who admits she checks up on Auburn when she gets a spare second in her own schedule -- knows it's not an ideal situation, but is happy how it has worked out for Simons.

"I can hear the joy in his voice again," Goestenkors said "He has missed it desperately. It's his passion, his love."

But does Simons know that the ACC -- not the SEC, for once -- is the toughest conference in the land this season?

"We talk more about individual programs," said Goestenkors, before adding with a laugh, "but he knows we have the best conference."

Melanie Jackson coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail the Dish at Melanie.J.Jackson.-ND@espn3.com.

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Women's Basketball
Melanie Jackson is ESPN.com's women's basketball editor.