Former Duke coach Gail Goestenkors inducted into Women's Basketball Hall of Fame
When Gail Goestenkors took the helm of the women's basketball program in 1992, Duke had never been to a Sweet 16.
That changed quickly. The Blue Devils made the tournament in 13 of Goestenkors' 15 years in Durham, and advanced to the Sweet 16 or beyond in each of her final 10 seasons, transforming a program that struggled to find success in its first two decades into a national powerhouse.
Goestenkors was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame Saturday night in Knoxville, Tenn., as part of a six-person class that included four-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Leslie. Now an assistant coach with the WNBA's Indiana Fever, "Coach G" spent the weekend in Knoxville reuniting with some of the coaches and administrators from her days at Duke before driving back to Indianapolis Sunday to do what earned her the distinction in the first place—coach.
"It was an incredible honor, and one that I really didn't feel comfortable with, I think because basketball is such a team sport," Goestenkors said. "Once I understood that it wasn't me that was going into the Hall of Fame, it was all of the people, all of the players, the assistants, the staff, they were all going in with me, it felt more like a team. I think that's how it felt this weekend—it felt like a family reunion because many of my family members were there and then my Duke family was there as well."
Goestenkors won 396 games at Duke, taking the Blue Devils to four Final Fours and two national title games. She earned ACC Coach of the Year honors seven times and national coach of the year awards in 2003 and 2007.
The Blue Devils finished 12-15 in 1992-93 but jumped from ninth to fifth in the ACC in Goestenkors' second season on the sideline—her first experience as a head coach after several years as an assistant at Purdue.
From there, Duke would never miss another NCAA tournament under her watch, a streak that has continued under current head coach Joanne P. McCallie.
"Early on, it took a lot of patience and a lot of perseverance because it was a struggle early on. Fortunately, I was surrounded by such great people, both as administrators and staff, assistants, that we still had a great time, even though we were losing," Goestenkors said. "We were so passionate and believed so much in what we were doing, so that we could really make the program similar to the [men's program]. They were such great role models for us."
The 1997-98 season was the start of several streaks for Goestenkors—through the rest of her tenure, her teams always finished either first or second in the ACC and always advanced to the NCAA tournament's second weekend.
The next year brought the seismic shift.
After advancing to the Elite Eight for a second straight year in the 1999 NCAA tournament, Goestenkors and the third-seeded Blue Devils went up against one of the giants of the game—three-time defending champion Tennessee led by legendary head coach Pat Summitt—for the right to go the Final Four.
The Lady Volunteers boasted the consensus best player in the nation in Chamique Holdsclaw, but the Blue Devils sprung the upset, 69-63, advancing to the program's first-ever Final Four in San Jose, Calif. Duke advanced to the national title game before falling to Purdue, but the win against Summitt and Tennessee provided an enormous boost to the program's national reputation.
"That was probably my greatest memory because it was a David versus Goliath and it kind of put us on the map nationally," Goestenkors said. "It had an immediate impact, because at that point there weren't many women's games on TV, so the NCAA tournament was on TV and everyone got to see us, some recruits [saw us] for the first time. And then we could talk about and show them what we were capable of."
From 1999-2005, Duke's recruiting class was ranked in the top five nationally, bringing in talented players like Alana Beard—the program's all-time leading scorer—who led the Blue Devils to the first-ever undefeated run through the ACC in 2001-02. The Hall of Fame coach's squad ran through the conferenced undefeated again the next year and in 2006-07.
Goestenkors won at least 30 games in each of her last seven seasons in Durham. She also spent summers with USA Basketball, including as an assistant coach on the 2004 and 2008 Olympic gold-medal teams.
Duke looked poised to claim the program's first national championship in 2006 in Boston, leading by 10 at halftime. But Maryland stormed back to force overtime, and the Terrapins cut down the nets with a 78-75 win in an all-ACC title game.
Goestenkors left Duke in 2007 to become the next head coach at Texas, replacing legend Jody Conradt, who won 900 games. She spent five seasons in Austin, but could not duplicate the success she had in Durham.
Texas made the tournament every year, but advanced past the first round just once. Goestenkors resigned in 2012 with 498 career wins and prepared to take a break from basketball. The break did not last long—Goestenkors made the leap to the WNBA as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Sparks last year before joining the Fever this season.
"It's a difference experience in that it is their job, they're now grown women. They come in and they do their work, they know they have to take care of their body, take care of their mind because that's their livelihood, and then after practice they leave their job," Goestenkors said. "It's a different feel whereas in college you're really helping young women—they're 18 years old so they're still really growing, maturing, changing. You spend much more time helping players at the college level, both physically in the game of basketball and emotionally just growing."
Joining Goestenkors and Leslie in this year's Hall of Fame class were Janeth Arcain, Janet Harris, Brad Smith and Kurt Budke.