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G & Co.: Coaches nurture in tight system

When the whistle blows for a timeout during a Duke women’s basketball game, there is an unmistakable routine.

The players on the floor hustle to the bench, where they begin to catch their breath. Meanwhile, the coaches are busy taking part in their own pseudo-huddle 10 steps in front of the bench. Duke’s three assistant coaches surround head coach Gail Goestenkors and quickly whisper thoughts to one another.

“We talk about where we’re going after the game,” Goestenkors joked. “I just want ideas from them, and they know they have just a couple seconds and then I go and meet with the team.”

The timeout routine is in many ways a microcosm of how the Blue Devils’ coaching staff operates—Goestenkors is the CEO of a slick corporation. And with this structured leadership style, she has elevated Duke’s program into the elite ranks of the sport.

A definitive hierarchy

At the start of every game, freshman guard Laura Kurz and assistant coach Gale Valley sit at one end of the bench while forwards Wynter Whitley and Chante Black sit with LaVonda Wagner, the second assistant, at the other. There is no rift on the team, though—this is just an example of the organized framework Goestenkors has constructed.

In the system, Valley works almost exclusively with the guards and sits beside them throughout the game. Wagner, in charge of what the team calls “post play,” resides closer to the baseline, next to Black and Whitley, both reserves.

The coaches’ responsibility extends beyond talking through the game with their respective players, though. It ranges from skill development to off-court management. On a given day, Valley might do anything from work with Wanisha Smith on her ball-handling to review Jessica Foley’s exam scores to accompany injured Caitlin Howe to a doctor’s visit.

“I think it’s really good to have the coaches broken up to players,” Foley said. “I’ve never had anything like this before on any other team. I think it really helps them pay attention to every person on the team and helps you look at strengths and weaknesses and work on them. Sometimes when you’ve got a whole team in front of you, people get lost.”

Adding to the personal attention, assistant coach Shannon Perry fills in the gaps—working with both groups, coordinating managers, directing the male practice squad and handling film exchange.

While running the show from her lofty perch in Schwartz-Butters looking out over Duke’s athletic campus, Goestenkors still makes sure to spend one-on-one time with all the players. At specific junctures during the year, the head coach arranges sit-down meetings with each player so that they have a chance to discuss their roles as well as air any concerns they have in a private setting.

“I definitely think that if you’re in the post group, you’re going to get to know your coach better and if you’re in the guard group you’re going to get to know yours a lot better,” junior forward Mistie Williams said. “It’s really up to the athletes to make those kinds of bonds with your coaches. It’s like a big family, so we really just talk to everybody.”

An around-the-clock job

The workday for Duke’s coaches begins before most students have even begun to hit the snooze button on their alarms and ends late at night, if at all.

The coaching staff only gets a few hours a day with the players because of NCAA regulations, so they must prepare extensively to maximize the time. With practice as early as 11:45 a.m. during the season, the coaches get ready hours before to use the practice hours most effectively. After practice most days, the coaches will eat with the players and oversee their weight-lifting program.

But the workday is hardly over when the players leave for the afternoon. Once the business of the current team has been squared away, the coaching staff gets to work on the Duke teams of the future.

The assistant coaches have specific responsibilities in the never-ending recruiting process. Valley was in charge of next year’s incoming class, and Wagner is in charge of the high school class of 2006. Perry spends her time chasing after the current high school sophomore class.

The recruiting tasks often extend late into the night, when potential Blue Devils can be contacted on the phone or even through AOL Instant Messenger. Often the coaches are online until they leave the office and all evening once they get home until they go to bed.

“You don’t really think about it as taking it home with you,” Perry said. “I’m single. It’s what I do. I don’t know any other way.”

From October into April, there really is no time off for the quartet of coaches. The NCAA requires that student-athletes be granted at least one day off a week, but the same is not true for the professional staff. Instead, players’ days off are an opportunity for the coaches to get in extra scouting or go on recruiting trips.

“The other day [Goestenkors] came in and said, ‘You need to go home,’” Perry said. “I said ‘Do I look that bad?’ She was like, ‘When do we ever have a break during the season to take a break and do something like go shopping?’ I was like, ‘Okay,’ and it was 6 p.m. and I was still at work. It doesn’t really feel like work most of the time, though.”

The next step

Similar to any business environment, Goestenkors must also consider the career aspirations of her staff when breaking up responsibility. Both Valley, who has been at Duke longer than Goestenkors, and Perry, who began in June after a stint at Southern California, say they are not currently thinking about head coaching positions at other schools. Wagner said she is happy as a Blue Devil but sees her time at Duke as part of her career path.

“I think it’s nothing but a positive when you can say you came from a prestigious academic institution as well as a great basketball program—probably the top basketball program in the country,” Wagner said. “There are great opportunities for advancement.”

The variety of future interests is something Goestenkors must consider each year when she puts together the staff. Coaches must be willing to work well together but also to bring diverse skills in order to round out the program.

“I want to help them attain their goals, whatever they are,” Goestenkors said. “I always encourage them, if they’re interested, to look for jobs and know that I’ll help them get there.”


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