Duke Athletic Director Kevin White’s biggest hire is also his most dangerous.
Before July 2, Duke women's basketball had made exactly one coaching change over the previous 27 years. There were many reasons, but above all else, the university had made two slam-dunk hires in Gail Goestenkors and Joanne P. McCallie. The former was a top assistant coach at a surgent Purdue program, and the latter a Power 5 head coach with far too many accolades to list. All they did was combine for 12 first-place ACC finishes and 11 Elite Eight appearances in Durham.
In Kara Lawson, Duke is looking at a far greater unknown. Forget McCallie’s college hoops resume—Lawson’s NCAA accolades ended with her graduation in 2003.
There's no doubt that Lawson will be a good coach, though. She’s universally lauded for her knowledge of the Xs and Os, her player development and her ability to connect with players. There’s not a bad word to be found about her, and when Brad Stevens raves about someone, you know it’s real.
But “good” isn’t enough for Duke. This is one of the 10 best collegiate jobs in the entire sport of women’s basketball. In a normal year, there would be few coaches anywhere who could turn down this offer. The Blue Devils are a sleeping giant, just a few good years away from returning to ACC title contention, and with the game becoming more prominent every year, this is a dangerous time for Duke to fall behind.
Lawson is going to need all the help she can get. She’s inheriting a coaching staff with only two assistants with significant recruiting experience, on a team whose recruiting prowess has recently regressed. Even if she nails the tactical and developmental sides of the game—which seems a fair likelihood—how will someone so removed from the game be able to go into Raleigh and New York and California and recruit the nation’s best?
It’s possible that Duke moves on from several of its remaining assistants and surrounds Lawson with recruiters, but that’d require letting go of some great talent and severing connections with current players. It’s possible that it keeps its assistant staff, but then what’s changed? The fact remains that the Blue Devils still lack in the most important aspect of the game.
Duke’s future prospects aren’t the only things being heaped upon Lawson’s shoulders. If she helps the program quickly resurge, then McCallie will be remembered fondly as the coach who took the Blue Devils to 10 NCAA tournament appearances. If Lawson fails, they'll both be blamed, with McCallie (unfairly) being seen as the beginning of the end.
White is sticking his neck out for his most important hire. If Lawson turns out to be the right choice, he deserves all the credit in the world. If Lawson turns out to be the wrong choice, however, his critics will not be shy about it.
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