Following a tumultuous year in which Duke missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994, lost star forward Azurá Stevens (transfer to Connecticut) and guard Angela Salvadores (Spanish professional team) and was investigated by a University human resources professional, The Chronicle’s Hank Tucker sat down with head coach Joanne P. McCallie to discuss the upcoming season. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
The Chronicle: How happy are you with what your team accomplished last year given the circumstances, regardless of the criticism from the outside?
Joanne P. McCallie: Crisis has a way of clarifying, but I was really disenchanted with former players trying to interrupt what the current players are doing. I think that’s a really bad thing. I don’t think anybody should try to play AD and play a role of that nature. With that said, 20 wins wasn’t 27—I know we had averaged 27, I know we’d done some great things.
But to me, based on the schedule and the fact that 72 games were missed—72 games were missed due to injury—and almost never having the same lineup, from my seat, it was obviously a rebuilding type of year based on what had happened to catapult us into an exciting, incredible year this year.
I wasn’t comfortable with it in the sense that I liked it, but I was very proud of the team. I never shared that sort of pathetic—the attack mode of people thinking they know better and things of that nature. I never understood or appreciated that at all.
TC: The offseason started with turbulence for you—how stressful were those few weeks for you while the evaluation was taking place?
JPM: It definitely was, but I think, like anything else, we’ve grown closer. We’ve grown so much closer, and so much has been clarified. You know who did it, you know who attacked, you know who took negative views, you kind of know all that. Then, in the same sense, you have a choice on what view you hold.
I really, really loved the leadership of our team throughout spring and entering right through, and 85 to 90 percent of the team wanted nothing to do with what was taking place. That’s the irony. The current team was not pleased, so I think that led to some closeness, coming together, and, like I said, clarity of what is most important.
TC: Were you caught off guard by Azurá’s departure? What was your relationship like with her during her two years here?
JPM: In her first year here, she came from high school, worked extremely hard. At the end of the season—she had gotten ACC Freshman of the Year—her parents came to see me with Azurá to tell me how wonderful Duke was, how wonderful I was as a coach and how excited she was to try out for USA Basketball. After year one, it was glowing. No parent has ever been so glowing.
She went to USA, did really well. We were really proud of her. I think she came back from USA a different player and a different person a little bit with her thoughts about things. I knew all season that she was struggling. This was no surprise. Very devastating, but no surprise.
She played well at times, then she had the injury with the plantar fascia. That was extremely distressing for her to have that. I just think that Azurá made that decision to go to Connecticut. She told us, she told her teammates that 'I want a guaranteed national championship.' That became something more important than a Duke education. It was really sad.
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TC: We’ve seen an increase in transfers, not only involving your team but also across the nation in every sport. What do you think is causing that trend?
JPM: If you’re looking at us, we’re one of the lowest transfer rates of any program out there. I wrote them all down. We’ve got two players in nine years that have transferred and played at Duke. I’m not talking about somebody who sat on the bench. Alexis Jones, who is very good, got injured and went home. We miss her greatly, always will, always have, just like Azurá. That’s a pretty astounding thing.
I’m not prepared for you to throw us in that, because you evaluate transfers based on were they playing, were they significant, were they productive in your program?
It’s really rampant for the men. The word transfer is no longer a bad word. Once upon a time, if you said transfer, not only would your team attack you, but your family would say, ‘You’re committed, you’re not going to do that.’ I remember when I was a sophomore at Northwestern, and I one time said to my mom, ‘I could always transfer.’
You would have thought I said a bad word. She said, ‘Oh no you won’t.’ The culture has changed. Now it’s like this. I get to sit out a year, I get to lift a lot of weights, then I get two more years and I don’t have to deal with difficulty if I don’t want to.
I think that is a horrible message. If you sit back and look at our team this year, then say, ‘What if Azurá was here?’ You’re talking Final Four team all the way, maybe the best team ever talent-wise. That was what we were going towards. Success isn’t a straight line up. We hit the bump last year.
As a coach, I would have hoped that your team can go through hard times and rise, not go through hard times and quit or go through hard times and transfer. That is not the message I feel that anyone wants sent.
When have you known Connecticut to take transfers? They took two this year. They took Azurá and [Batouly Camara] from Kentucky. Make sure you look at this stuff from a deep point of view, because why is [Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma] doing that? You know why he’s doing that? Because talent is down. And he wants to continue to win. Obviously, they’re great.
But really? Is that what we’re about now, I’m going to take transfers? That was the neat thing they used to have. Connecticut wasn’t a transfer school. Now, even if they win it, who cares? I can’t even understand it because he’s such a good coach and it’s such a great program.
TC: You do also have an All-American that transferred into the program and will play next season. How did Lexie Brown decide to transfer to Duke?
JPM: People then say, ‘Why do you take a transfer, Joanne?’ I’m still going to tell you that transfer is a bad word, but here’s where the difference was. And I think there is a difference. Lexie called me, and I told her I don’t like taking transfers. Have you seen me take any transfers? This is one in 10 years. She’s an anomaly.
The first thing she said was, ‘Coach, I’ve been to a Final Four, I’ve had great success, I am not getting the academic situation I ever dreamed of.’
It was the reverse motivator, whereas people can leave Duke and go to a less academic [school], she was wanting to come to the more academic. That got my attention. It’s interesting that it’s only happened one time in 10 years.
TC: Angela was a different situation than a transfer—do you think she ever really liked it here and found a rhythm adjusting to a new country?
JPM: I take full responsibility for recruiting Angela and bringing her to Duke, and I’m extremely disappointed in myself. Angela never did—we thought she might—she never did buy in academically. She never did the work academically, and I think she would have done better basketball-wise if she hadn’t torn up that ankle in the N.C. State game, because that cost her in a lot of ways.
Obviously a terrific player, no doubt, but wrong fit, and me and my staff were completely responsible for that, and I think she set a tone of—although she was a talented player—she set a tone of not doing the team things. The best example I can give you is until the day she left here, she could never do a drill right and get into the end of the line without running through the drill—a simple concept like that, she never got it.
She told me when she left she wanted to sign the contract. The irony is, for the fans out there, it’s the first player I’ve ever lost to a pro contract, because she immediately signed, and I think it’s important for the fans to know she wasn’t looking to go anywhere else. Duke was her favorite school, but she just didn’t want to do it.
It would be one thing if she upended and went to Oregon State. You would say, ‘Whoa. that’s different.’ People try to include her in our transfers—I’m like, no, she’s not a transfer. She signed a contract, and she signed that contract really within 10 days of being home.
You always love kids. Don’t get me wrong—I love Angela. But it wasn’t meant to be, and I made a mistake, and my staff made a mistake and we move forward.
TC: Is there anything you plan to change about your coaching style as a result of the investigation?
JPM: I think every year as a coach, you evolve, so that sort of already happens. In other words, win, lose or draw, at the end of every year, you reevaluate. An investigation doesn’t cause that. You’re going to do that anyway.
The investigation, though, I think provides an opportunity to really get to a base level, because that’s a little bit extreme, and therefore, sure—how can we grow? How can we learn? How can we evolve? Those things are very important, but I have to say they’re going to happen regardless of that or not.
I think it’s just a different flavor we have at this point for our program, and I think it also really helped recruiting in an interesting way. One way is some people chose other schools or whatever, but the reality is the people that we really like and really like us and always have are together and moving forward. Again, it kind of clarified what was most important for us.
TC: What was your biggest takeaway—what impacted you most from the whole situation?
JPM: No matter how difficult it was—and it was difficult and not something I agreed with in any way, shape or form—no matter how difficult it was, it always came back to the players. I could have bad days and good days, but the days were always made better by some sort of interaction with the players—players checking in, players texting, some kind of player connection, as well as with my staff.
I think it was very difficult for my staff, but I think it grew the staff closer, and it was very engaging. We made it very engaging, and we tried to make the best of it, whatever we could do to make that happen.
TC: Do you think you personally and women’s basketball here have enough support and appreciation from the fans and athletic department?
JPM: I think [athletic director] Kevin White’s leadership is fantastic. He’s not a wishy-washy leader. He’s a very steadfast leader. He’s a leader of principle. He’s a leader of truth. It’s very important that people recognize you can’t try to do somebody else’s job. You just can’t jump from where you are to being the editor of the New York Times. I’m sorry, okay, and frankly, you can’t try to tell people that the New York Times person should be removed. It’s not your role.
I think that the message it sends is that there are roles and responsibilities that we all have and that we must march through them, so we feel tremendous support from the athletic department, particularly with Kevin and with Nina King, [deputy athletic director for administration and legal affairs], and across campus, it’s been incredible to hear people step up, to hear people say, ‘Gosh, that doesn’t seem right. We’re behind you.’
Of course, there are always naysayers, but that’s part of life. More than anything else, we’ve received incredible support and just people wondering about that a little bit, so it’s really been a coming together.
TC: It seemed like most of the team was hurt toward the end of last season—Rebecca Greenwell, Lynee Belton, Haley Gorecki, and then obviously Azurá and Angela—but are all the returnees healthy now?
JPM: We’re really excited. We’re mostly healthy, yes, but not completely, but we will be. Haley had a setback. She had a little bit of a setback in her rehab when she was in Chicago, and she had an additional surgery. Everyone else, everything’s moving forward, and then that was the one unfortunate hiccup.
TC: Do you also expect to have Kendall Cooper back for the start of the season?
JPM: We expect to. When I say that, I say that respectfully, though, because she still has to go through the process, and that is sort of just happening right around now in terms of the process of being readmitted to Duke and coming back, but I definitely expect it and hope for it and think it would be a great thing.
TC: With Lexie and Rebecca [Greenwell] as your primary guards and the depth you’ll have at guard next year, how much potential does your backcourt have next year to really be one of the best in the conference and the nation?
JPM: Oodles, tremendous potential to be so dangerous, so fun to watch and so amazing to play off each other. Becca and Lexie are both very motivated and very excited. Becca has had an incredible recovery from back surgery. That was the day before they announced the NCAA [tournament] selections. And we had to tell them that she had back surgery.
Becca is doing great. Lexie is doing great. We’re having a really good summer. Everybody is here, everybody is coming in for second [summer] session. Can’t say enough about the team in that way. There’s no question those two could be just awesome.
I don’t even want to compare them. I just want them to be the most awesome backcourt they could ever be with no comparisons, just having fun with it and being able to build their team around such great talents that they can share as well.
TC: With Leaonna Odom as your top recruit coming in, what are her biggest strengths as a player and how will she fit into your rotation and your system next season?
JPM: [Leaonna] has been here early, she’s already finished her first summer class. She’s very committed, she’s very talented, she’s very focused. She won a state title on her 3-point shot that sent them to the title game.
She’s going to have an enormous impact on our program. She’s just trying to get stronger. The issue with her becomes weight room. The weight room is her best friend. She’s got to get stronger, gain some weight and do all those things, but without question she’ll be in the rotation immediately in some form or fashion. She’s too talented.
She can really run the floor, she can shoot the three. She can play facing the basket, she can post up. She has a lot of special skills.
TC: You added some frontcourt depth in the spring with Emily Schubert and then [Wagner transfer] Sofia Roma, who won’t be able to play next year; what do you expect Emily’s role to be next year with some experience coming back in the post?
JPM: Emily is an interesting student-athlete who did not play AAU and has totally benefited from it. She has very few bad habits. She plays extremely hard and works extremely hard. She’s very competitive. Her track background is very intriguing for how she runs the floor. She has great hands, she was a discus thrower in the state of Tennessee. All those things matter when you talk about a post running the floor, catching and being able to finish.
It’s whatever she wants it to be. I think she can help us right away, I think she can impact. It goes back to the weight room, it goes back to the summer and how they transition, but we’re very excited about her.
TC: What are your expectations for this team?
JPM: Same expectations, it’s just different. The fan mentality would have been abuzz to have Lexie, Azurá and Becca. Three possible All-Americans on the same team. I’m not sure that matters at all. Our goals are the same—pursue every championship, the ACC regular season and tournament and NCAA title, no different, but at the same doing what we have to do with get there.
A team with two All-Americans is different from a team with three All-Americans. It doesn’t have to be a worse team. Everyone has just got to step up and play their role.
TC: October is three months away. How excited are you to get the season started and really put everything that happened this offseason behind you?
JPM: We worked hard as a staff and a team. We’ve done a lot of meetings and discussions and things through the months of May and June, and as we hit July, we basically have just finished all of that, forgiving people that have really shown us a different side of them—pardoning is a good word—and, at the same time, moving forward with great energy and enthusiasm.
The renewal effect is occurring right now as of July 1, and we’re kicking off a new year with great spirit and great motivation. Obviously, we probably won’t be picked since Notre Dame has been so dominant. We won’t be picked to win it in the league or anything, but we’re okay with that. We’re just going to find out how good we can be.