Commentary

Coach G aims to get job done at Texas

Rebuilding Horns taking longer than expected, but it's still everything Coach G wanted

Originally Published: November 9, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

The late, great columnist Molly Ivins once said that Dallas was the kind of place where you were more admired for being wealthy enough to buy a magnificent piece of art than for being talented enough to create one.

That might be such a Texas-ism that it would apply even to what's considered the cultural oasis of the Lone Star State: the capital city of Austin, home of the University of Texas.

Gail Goestenkors
Jerry Laizure/US PresswireChallenges don't get in Gail Goestenkors' way: "I know the greater the challenge, the greater the reward," she says.

And there's no way to discuss the situation with Texas women's basketball without bringing dollar signs into the conversation. When the Longhorns pried coach Gail Goestenkors away from the Duke program she had built into a national-title contender, it was not unlike the oil baron who sees a well-crafted portrait and says, "See that? I want that. I'm gonna buy that."

Ah, but here's the difference with collegiate sports: If you're playing by the rules, you really can't be sure that you can buy success.

You can try. You can put a lot of money into a program and staff salaries. Maybe it will work. But maybe it won't. Or perhaps it simply won't happen as quickly as you'd like.

Investing in a new coach isn't gambling, exactly -- not if you are getting a good one, which Texas did. Because you will get at least some return on your investment. However, to a degree, it is speculating, because you're hoping for a very large payoff.

Texas has made three NCAA tournament appearances in Goestenkors' three seasons thus far. Is that enough? No one, least of all Goestenkors, thinks so. She left behind the days of "Isn't it great to be in the tournament?" a long time ago. As in, after the first season Duke made it into the field when she was there, in 1995. From then on, that was a bare-minimum "requirement."

"I always believe I'm going to have higher expectations than anybody else for my team," said Goestenkors, whose record at Texas is 65-36. "So I've been disappointed that it hasn't gone quicker. I had those expectations that we'd come in, turn it around quickly. So it's been a process for me to learn just how long it takes to change things."

The change came at Duke to the tune of four trips to the Final Four. That didn't bring Goestenkors a title at Duke, but it did put that program at the penthouse level. Which was where Texas once was.

That was in the early days of the NCAA era, culminating with an undefeated season in 1986. Yes, the Longhorns did go to the Final Four in the more modern era, too (2003) but that trip felt more like Texas was renting out a ritzy spot for a while, not actually moving in.

I wanted a challenge. I just didn't know how big the challenge was. But every time I've struggled with it, I've reminded myself, 'This is what you said you wanted.' And that's true.

-- Coach Gail Goestenkors, on leaving Duke for Texas

By March 2007, Texas had missed the NCAA tournament two seasons in a row. When longtime coach Jody Conradt decided she'd done everything she could -- which she had, and then some in a pioneering career -- what was handed over to Goestenkors wasn't a mansion that only needed a little dusting and to have the sheets taken off the furniture. By the same token, neither was it dilapidated and in disrepair.

It was an aging dwelling with a good foundation and lot of promise -- but needing some big fixes.

Texas is still Texas, with all its resources and successful sports history. But the situation that Goestenkors stepped into at Texas and the overall climate of women's basketball were both much different than was the case when she took over at Duke in 1992.

Very few were watching her then, and only locally. She was just a young first-time head coach trying to stake a claim on what was pretty barren ground. Duke's men were coming off back-to-back national championships and couldn't have been more popular or overshadowing of everything else in that athletic department. Goestenkors could grow that program at her own pace, and any success at all would be lauded.

However, her personal profile by the time she took over at Texas was as one of the winningest coaches in her sport, going 396-99 with the Blue Devils. Her decision to stay in Durham or go to Austin almost overshadowed the 2007 women's NCAA tournament -- or was at least nearly as much talked about by the game's observers.

As much as Goestenkors was won over by Texas' admittedly huge commitment to reinvigorating the women's hoops program, she acknowledges now she underestimated that aspect of the rest of the Big 12.

It isn't like the old Southwest Conference days when the Longhorns got a huge leg up by thinking and planning at a level far ahead of everybody else in regard to women's sports. In the Big 12, most of the schools have made significant commitments to women's basketball; all have made at least some. Participation in the league pretty much required it.

"I wanted a challenge," Goestenkors said of deciding to come to Texas. "I just didn't know how big the challenge was. But every time I've struggled with it, I've reminded myself, 'This is what you said you wanted.' And that's true.

[+] EnlargeGail Goestenkors
Travis Lindquist/Getty ImagesGail Goestenkors had a 396-99 record at Duke, leading the Blue Devils to four Final Fours.

"I know the greater the challenge, the greater the reward. When I was going through my early years at Duke and we were getting our tails handed to us, it was hard. But I look back, and I wouldn't change any of it because it made me really appreciate the times we were successful. It kept me very humble."

For those who were longtime observers of the Big 12, it truly is no surprise at all that Goestenkors wasn't able to step right in and cut straight to the front of the line. Consider, for example, that Oklahoma's Sherri Coale, Iowa State's Bill Fennelly and Kansas State's Deb Patterson had all been in the league since it began in 1996.

The Sooners have been to the Final Four three times under Coale. Fennelly has taken the Cyclones to the Elite Eight twice. The Wildcats haven't moved beyond the Sweet 16, but Patterson's program has won a lot of games and is especially a threat at home.

In fact, the league's attendance -- best in the nation now for the past 11 seasons -- is a definite factor, too. Road games really can feel quite hostile in the Big 12.

Baylor's Kim Mulkey and Texas A&M's Gary Blair are both coaches whose Final Four experience goes all the way back to the first NCAA tournament, in 1982, when Mulkey was a player and Blair an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech. Mulkey's 2005 Baylor squad won the national championship. Blair's Aggies have gone as far as the Elite Eight.

Oklahoma State climbed up from a winless conference season in 2006 to a Sweet 16 appearance in 2008. Texas Tech is trying to return to the level where that program once resided. Last season, Nebraska became the ninth program to win the Big 12's regular-season title since the conference began in 1996-97. By contrast, since 1991, only four schools have won the ACC's regular-season title.

And particularly having the likes of Mulkey, Blair and Coale in the geographic vicinity to have to recruit against has been an obstacle for Texas, which a couple of decades ago generally had its pick of the best players from that state.

"It's been hard for us to get control of the state back when Texas had lost control of it," Goestenkors said frankly about recruiting. "I know that we are getting a lot done. And all the things that go into making championship programs, we're doing. Once you get there, then you work at staying there."

In retrospect, one of the things that seemed like a fortunate occurrence at the time -- Mickie DeMoss' arrival at Texas as an assistant coach when Goestenkors took over -- in reality might not have helped the program as much as anticipated.

DeMoss by that time had been a head coach twice and a longtime assistant at Tennessee. She's known as a recruiting whiz, but outside observers speculate that she didn't necessarily bring the on-the-ground verve truly needed as Texas tried to muscle back in on ground that Mulkey and Blair were working particularly hard to keep.

Goestenkors herself would never say that about DeMoss, who has returned to Tennessee's staff. Goestenkors simply says she realized her own staff required something new. It didn't take a difficult NCAA first-round loss -- in Austin -- to San Diego State last March to make her see that. But that stinging defeat was a kind of clarion call.

"I knew I needed to make some changes," Goestenkors said. "We needed some more energy. Mickie knew that as well. With her and myself and Gale Valley, we were veteran coaches.

"The job opened up at Tennessee, and that feels like home to her. She wants to retire at Tennessee, and I understood that fully. I think everybody is glad things worked out the way they did."

Assistant Ron Hughey left Rutgers after a brief stay there to come to Austin, where he is expected to make an immediate impact in terms of recruiting. That's ultimately the bottom line: getting high-level talent.

That said, Goestenkors says she has learned something about that process, too, while at Texas.

"I think I've come to the point," she said, "where I know now the type of person, player and student-athlete I'm comfortable with and who will succeed at Texas."

She doesn't have to say that she didn't feel all the players she inherited fit that description. That was obvious watching the chemistry breakdowns and the deficit of heart the Longhorns sometimes showed in crucial moments.

Even last season, Goestenkors spoke of younger players such as Ashleigh Fontenette and Ashley Gayle, who now are both juniors, as being her best leaders. They are even more in those roles now. And senior Kathleen Nash, Goestekors said, is more vocal than she has ever been.

The way the players practice, their performance in the classroom, their attention to detail -- all are things that are finally matching what Goestenkors wants.

But does that mean the Longhorns are in store for a very successful season? Well, not necessarily. Sophomore post player Cokie Reed is out for the season after foot surgery. This is still a young group, and not very deep. There remain hills to climb.

Goestenkors knows that in the end, the buck absolutely stops with her. That's just the way it is when a lot of "bucks" have been spent to try to purchase success. Realistically, it doesn't work that way, but this is Texas, so they tend to think it does.

The Longhorns saw a very appealing portrait at Duke and wanted it for their own. They didn't realize they weren't actually buying the picture itself, though. They were buying the artist who created it. And it hadn't been painted with a premium on speed, but rather craft. Goestenkors made her first Final Four appearance in her seventh season at Duke.

"I started off in coaching as an assistant making $17,000 a year, and I felt exactly the same way about the job that I feel right now in terms of getting the most out of myself and the players," she said. "It's been hard when you hear others say you're not getting the job done, but that's what you have to deal with.

"I've come to terms with it, and I know we're heading in the right direction. I can see progress in different ways every day. I know it when I see it."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.