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'Ultimate challenge': Joanne P. McCallie reflects on Duke career, looks ahead

McCallie finished with a 330-107 record during her 13 years in Durham.
McCallie finished with a 330-107 record during her 13 years in Durham.

Joanne P. McCallie stepped down as head coach of Duke women's basketball July 2, citing uncertainty heading into the final year of her contract. The Chronicle spoke with McCallie to reflect on her 13 years leading the Blue Devils, her plans for the future and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: When you first accepted the Duke job and were tasked with succeeding the great Gail Goestenkors, who pretty much built the program from the ground up, did you feel any pressure? What was your mindset coming in?

Joanne P. McCallie: I had been admitted to Duke as a student-athlete. Duke was always on my mind, and so coming to Duke was a great thrill. I was excited. I had coached in the Final Four and truly loved that experience. And I admire Gail for all that she did at Duke and I was really excited to try to get a national championship and really try to take it to the next level—[there] was not much room for the next level.... So I was thrilled, excited and wanted to try to make history. Obviously, I didn't get that done, but I [loved] my experience [and] 13 years of growth.

TC: What was your opinion of Duke before you came and how did that opinion change throughout your 13-year tenure as head coach, if it did at all?

JPM: My opinion of Duke was very high. As I looked at Duke and the job and coming here—great respect for Coach K and all the success. You must remember I grew up on his books back when I was the coach at Maine. And so my exposure to Duke had to do with two things: being recruited by [former Blue Devil head coach] Debbie Leonard—great exposure there taking a visit, great respect, loved it. And then my second piece was Coach K and his early books. Back at the time, I was a coach at Maine and I was seeking out mentors, and there just weren't a lot of books written back then.... So that was my excitement, that's where it all built for me.

And so when the job came open, it was sort of a natural to go for that opportunity and to see if I was able to have it. Since being at Duke, I've loved the challenge, and it's been hard. We were in the smaller conference early, but the extended conference has been the ultimate challenge. We were winning 30 games and winning championships and doing all of that in the last conference, the smaller one. But to rise and try to compete with Louisville, Notre Dame and Syracuse as the new ones—that added so much depth to the league....

Back to your question, how did [my opinion] change? It did change in a positive way, but in a very challenging way. The conference is much more difficult to recruit in, and a lot of schools can admit players that we cannot. So I would call it an ultimate challenge at that point.

TC: What was the biggest difference between coaching at Duke overall compared to your previous head coaching jobs at Michigan State and Maine?

JPM: Coaching at Duke, again, was special to me because I had been admitted. So from an academic standpoint, I really understand the academic level—very attractive to me to be at that kind of academic school. And so that was different, because recruiting was different—very different than Maine or Michigan State. We were recruiting a much smaller number of very talented student-athletes, and smaller number meaning many people could not get into Duke and those women that did were obviously very exceptional. And so it was a different recruiting situation. It was exciting. All my schools have been different: Maine, Michigan State, Duke. It's all been different. But I've loved all the staff and I've loved all the success. We've had a lot of it together.

TC: What was your favorite memory at Duke?

JPM: I can pick two that really stand out. Of course, I loved all the Elite Eight runs, the four in a row. That was pretty amazing. But the one against Baylor, where we lost by three, and they fouled out Krystal Thomas in the last minute. And it was ours. It was a game that obviously [was very] disappointing because we weren't going to go to the Final Four, but that was [an] incredible game and incredible experience with an incredible team....  So that was incredible—that game in itself, it was a story in itself. And I know we didn't win it, but it was incredible. 

And then I would also say the second one that will always stick with me is the dominance we had at Georgia. That was the Lexie Brown, [Rebecca] Greenwell group, and we go to Georgia when we probably shouldn't have been sent to Georgia, given our record, our RPI and all that. So we get sent to Georgia to play against an incredible Belmont team who had those five 3-point shooters. I think we won by 10, but it was an excruciatingly difficult game to play and coach. And then to meet Georgia and do so well—I mean, it was a very dominant game, I believe 25 points. If I'm not mistaken, the early score was something like 20-5. I mean, it was a complete team effort, dominant experience. And then that shot us up to Connecticut. So we made the Sweet 16, we're going to Connecticut and on their home floor pretty much...and that game started awful, 8-0 Connecticut. And then we just got into a groove and got into a game. 

And we did lose...but it was all the way down the stretch. It was an exciting game, an incredible game. And that was a game that [Leaonna] Odom played out of her mind, best player on the floor. And they had Gabby Williams, they had some really good players. Lexie Brown played well...but I remember they could not guard Odom. She had something like 25 [points] and 10 rebounds, there was some kind of great stat line. So I think those two NCAA runs—the Baylor one, and that Connecticut run, because we played Connecticut before remember. And it was different. I mean, we didn't do as well. And that [most recent] team really believed and thought, 'We're going to beat Connecticut on their home floor and then advance.' 

TC: You mentioned the four Elite Eight runs—how difficult was it for you and your team that you got to those four straight Elite Eights but couldn't quite get over that final hump to the Final Four in each of those seasons?

JPM: Well, I think you have to be a little realistic about it. Obviously very disappointing, but we drew the best teams in the country..... So I think it was the ultimate challenge, because we drew such incredible—I mean, that was the dominance of Connecticut, Maya Moore all that time, and then of course Baylor was great with Brittney Griner, and then Stanford had the two Ogwumikes.... So what I'm saying is very challenging environments with the best players in the country. I was very proud of the team and, yes, it hurt greatly. But I don't know—that's pretty tough stuff.

TC: Leading up to those Elite Eight runs, you won 82 games during your first three years, the second-most wins of any new coach during their first three seasons at a D1 program. How were you able to achieve that success so quickly with a new team?

JPM: Well, I mean obviously great kids. Coming into a situation with some fabulous kids—Jasmine Thomas, Karima Christmas and Krystal Thomas were freshmen when I came in, so that was a beautiful class. And then Keturah Jackson really came on. She had not played at all before and she became a great leader. So basically, coming into a great situation and building a great situation. I mean—Chelsea Gray, Lexie Brown, Haley Gorecki Lexie Jones, Kyra Lambert, Elizabeth Williams—the list is long. 

But the thing you have to remember is we were winning 30 games all with a small conference. And because we were winning 30 games with a small conference, we were getting top seeds. But when we joined, you can look at the records right across the board, despite the investigation time and the injury year. What I'm saying is, you look directly at the records for 13 years, and it becomes much more challenging to win 30 games in a conference that, again, adds three great programs. So the depth of the conference challenged us and you couldn't just zip through the conference anymore. I know Notre Dame did for some time, but they were well ahead of the game when they joined the conference. They had won a national title and beaten Connecticut—they were well ahead of the game when they came in.

TC: So you mentioned that investigation [into the program] in 2016. How did that entire process impact your time and career at Duke and also yourself as a head coach?

JPM: Well, it was very sad. Obviously, it just was a very sad time, because some former players, not the current players, but some former players had sort of gotten together on that. I can just say it was very difficult for everybody. And nothing came of that. It was very sad that it was leaked—it was supposed to be a private investigation and was supposed to be kept in house to protect Duke. And it was leaked, and it hit ESPN, and it really hurt the program. And what I mean by that is sometimes people don't think through the consequences, because it hurt recruiting. We lost four kids that spring that were coming to Duke dedicated and then scared by uncertainty. And that set us back a little bit. That definitely set us back. That put us in a different position of recruiting. Of course, we were negative recruited to death because of that public thing, and public investigation. 

TC: The investigation leaked in the spring of 2016.  That 2015-16 season was your first missed NCAA tournament since 2001 at Michigan State. It was Duke's first missed tournament since 1994. The following two seasons after that, though, you went to the second round and went to the Sweet 16. How are you able to bounce back from that low point?

JPM: I think everybody grows—in adversity, everybody grows. No matter who you are in that process, no matter what people did or didn't do—doesn't matter, really. I tried to grow from it as much as possible. I had never had any issues in my entire career about anything like that, and so it was certainly shocking, to say the least. But again, it was the players. Remember, when the investigation occurred, the current players weren't part of it. So they wanted to go forward. They were like, 'We don't like this interruption. What's going on?' And so, for them, they wanted their time to do great things. They wanted their time to go to a Final Four, to win a title. I realize we did not get that done. I mean, in 13 years, I was not able to get that done. But the teams we had were very supportive, positive, forward-moving. And so I give them great credit.

TC: It was a tough year and a half between 2018-19 as well as the first half of this past season. How were you guys able to really turn that around so quickly and beat a couple of top-ranked teams [in the second half of this past season]?

JPM: The struggles we had, we didn't have Mikayla [Boykin] back. You'll have to document when Mikayla came back and when Kyra came back, because there was a delay in that.... We sort of fumbled early, and then we just decided we're going to be who we're going to be, and we're going to become relevant. You know, I remember somebody saying, 'Well, they're irrelevant. Duke women's basketball is irrelevant.' I thought that was a funny quote, and I just told the kids, 'I'm not crying about it. There's nothing I'm crying about. You know, this has been tough.' And I kind of joke with them, 'So I'm not crying, you're not crying, and we're going to go and be free.' 

And also the players were all so bound and determined, with Haley Gorecki leading the way, and Odom, those guys really were trying, they bonded. And Kyra was coming along after being out and Mikayla was doing well. And so they were bound and determined. Like, 'We're not having a crying season.' I don't know, was it a nine-game winning streak? It was something so extraordinary considering who we played. I mean, at N.C. State—that was a terrific game. That kind of goes in a memory game. That win at N.C. State was fabulous. But I guess the team deserves the credit for having a lot of people on their backs. Of course the coach always has people on my back, but they were taking shots. You know, 'What's this Duke women's basketball, this is not what we do.' Lots of assumptions and lots of comments, and I think our team just said enough.

TC: After that huge turnaround, how tough was it for yourself and the team when the NCAA tournament ended up being abruptly cancelled?

JPM: Well as you know, everybody, every team was devastated. And some teams had seasons, like Northwestern had a season that was unbelievable. I mean, you know what I'm saying? They had gone to heights they'd never been before. And so I'm just using that example because everyone was so affected. But yes with us, at one point, I think some commentator, I think it was Andy Landers, said we were the hottest team in the country and just a dangerous team. And yeah, we did feel that way, and we did feel like we were ready for our run. So it was shocking, disappointing, sad. I mean to be such a health issue, this pandemic—my gosh, we're still going..... It's so sad that it happened. It's so sad that all the sports are cancelled. But that is minor league compared to what is going on now. We've got to see progress. You know, we've got to have hope.... With all this going on now, it's hard to be thinking about sports.

TC: In the speech in which you announced you were stepping down, you mentioned that a goal to remove any uncertainty from this upcoming Duke women's basketball season was a motivator in your decision. Would you like to elaborate a little bit more on the timing of the decision, just a month before players are expected to return to campus?

JPM: Sure. First of all, the kind of thinking I had to do about it was incredible. July 1 was the start of my new contract for my last year. And I could not accept—once it was confirmed that this would be my last year, you know, unless we did something incredible. I've been in coaching too long for that. And most importantly, to give time for the new coach to kind of help everybody emotionally prior to them coming to campus. I was a lame duck coach. It was hurting recruiting, people were making a big deal about my contract entering the last year and without that certainty, it was hurting the program and was hurting the players. I never wanted the players to play like they had to get me a contract. That's the way they would have been in the lame duck year, which is this year. They would have felt like they had to prove something and they wouldn't be playing free.

And the other reason for the timing was to help my assistant coaches, whether they get severance, or whether they get new jobs, or God willing can stay on and help through this transition. So July 1 was important. I had to get them through COVID early. That was the March, April, May, June—I also had to think hard about what to do. Making a decision is very, very difficult. I've been coaching a long time. So all those factors factored in, and it just seemed natural as the way it worked out that on July 1, I would step away.

TC: And then now what are your goals for the future? What do you plan on doing next?

JPM: I've been in great contact with the players, helping them move through this. I've been in great contact with the staff. And also getting excited about the new coach and helping all that good stuff. But right now things are settling down. My second book is coming out in February, and I will be working on that, taking a sabbatical year. And then I will totally reevaluate in the spring, relative to whether I coach again. I'd like to do a lot of work in mental health and melanoma. And my book is not a basketball book. It does not chronicle these seasons, it doesn't do that. It talks about mental health, COVID effects. It talks about a lot of things that are very outside of sport, but it also tells a sports story. So it's a very different book. And maybe it's timely considering the status of mental health in our country right now.

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