As Duke welcomes Kara Lawson as its next women’s basketball head coach, it also welcomes an entirely new assistant coaching staff: three individuals with a myriad of experiences and over four decades of college coaching experience.
Each has had an unorthodox journey to becoming a member of the Blue Devil staff, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a good fit for the program.
“I think I've got a lot of different perspectives,” assistant coach Beth Cunningham told The Chronicle. “I've walked in a lot of different shoes…. So I think just all those experiences together really kind of make you who you are, give you certain perspectives that I think will really help continue to build and grow what we're doing here [at Duke].”
Making their mark on the court
For one, each of Duke’s new assistants were involved with basketball in college—no surprises there.
The youngest of the three, Winston Gandy, is the least removed from his college experience, having graduated from Maryland in 2013. During his tenure there he volunteered as a scout team player for the Terrapins, and since his arrival at Duke he’s been able to relive some of those experiences.
“I think it's pretty funny,” Gandy told The Chronicle, “where different times Kara, myself and even [assistant coach Tia Jackson] and [Cunningham] have had to step in and kind of be the scout team. And so it's nice to kind of remind [the players], ‘Hey, we don't have a jersey but we can still play if need be,’ to keep them honest.”
While both Jackson and Cunnigham are a little more removed from their college days, they can both certainly hold their own on the court as well.
After an outstanding high school career at Mardela Springs High School, Jackson went on to play for Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer at Iowa. During her time there, Jackson helped lead the Hawkeyes to their only Final Four appearance in 1993, taking home Mideast Regional All-Tournament honors.
The Maryland native had a brief stint in the WNBA during its inaugural 1997 campaign, winning the West Conference Championship with the Phoenix Mercury. But that season turned out to be the end of Jackson’s playing career due to injury.
Of the three assistant coaches, Cunnigham had the longest on-court career. After excelling in both tennis and basketball in high school, she chose the latter as the one to pursue, eventually playing under the legendary Muffet McGraw at Notre Dame and leading the Fighting Irish to the program’s first Final Four during her senior season in 1997.
After college, Cunningham spent two seasons playing in the now-defunct American Basketball League and one season in the WNBA.
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But, like Jackson, Cunningham realized that her calling was in coaching and made the switch in 2000, in large part because of her father Bob, who was the head baseball coach at Indiana from 1984 to 2005.
“I just think growing up a coach's daughter, that's really all I know,” Cunningham said. “You learn early on what great leadership looks like. I was lucky to just be around my dad, and his influence coaching at the collegiate level for all of my childhood.”
Days before Duke
Gandy’s road to Duke was unconventional. Immediately after graduating, he served as the director of recruiting operations for women’s basketball at Maryland and in that same year, the Terrapins advanced to the Final Four for the first time in eight seasons.
But rather than staying in the college game, Gandy ventured to the NBA, working with All-Stars such as John Wall and Bradley Beal as the coordinator of player development for the Washington Wizards.
While the NBA and women’s college basketball are certainly different, Gandy sees being involved with the former translating well to the latter.
“I think the way you coach NBA guys and how you coach women's basketball players is very similar,” Gandy said. “The way you talk to them, the way their minds work, I would say women's basketball is probably a little bit smarter. But I think that, as a coach, all you can ask for is somebody that wants to learn, wants to get better every day, and those are typically the ones you want to work with.
“So whether you got the NBA, the WNBA, college, high school—whatever level you are, I think as a coach, all you can ask for is that they want to get better.”
After three years in the NBA, Gandy returned to the college game, serving as an assistant coach and associate head coach at Rice until he was hired at Duke.
Jackson, meanwhile, holds the distinction of having the most coaching experience of anyone on the Duke women’s basketball staff. She’s coached at VCU, Stanford, UCLA, Rutgers (where she coached alongside Stringer) and most recently, Miami.
With so many different perspectives across so many different programs, Jackson certainly has a lot to share with the current Blue Devils, but she prides herself on always working to learn more.
“I'm learning [at] every stop,” Jackson told The Chronicle. “Every place I've been, I've learned, I'm growing. [I] try never to get complacent, always just feeling like I want to gain the knowledge, always got my learning cap on and just wanting to grow.”
But perhaps the most interesting part of Jackson's past to Blue Devil fans is her role as an assistant coach at Duke from 2005 to 2007. It was during those years that the Blue Devils had some of their greatest successes to date.
In the 2006 campaign, Duke advanced to the National Championship Game for just the second time in school history, and the next season became the first ACC women’s basketball team to register an undefeated regular season.
So, it’s safe to say Jackson has received a warm welcome back.
“Duke kind of speaks for itself,” Jackson said when asked about her return. “With the academic prestige, the history of the sport programs that are associated with the university, it's kind of a no-brainer. I've had a great experience here with the people in the past, so just very fortunate to be back. You now insert Kara Lawson to that and it's a pretty remarkable combination. She's a rockstar in my eyes.””
Lastly, Cunningham began her coaching career as an assistant at VCU, eventually assuming head coaching duties, leading the Rams to their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance in 2009 and leaving as the program’s all-time leader in wins.
After her time at VCU, Cunningham returned to her roots and settled back down at Notre Dame as an assistant coach under McGraw, helping lead the Fighting Irish to one of the best stretches in NCAA history from 2013 to 2019: six conference championships, five Final Four appearances and one unforgettable national championship in 2018.
In a year already mired in uncertainty, Duke women’s basketball is set to begin a new era.
And while even more uncertainty is definitely not what fans want in these trying times, things appear to be trending in the right direction for the Blue Devils, with the coaching staff doing their part to bring the program back to its previous heights by just trying to get better each and every day.
“Even in our short amount of time here, [we’ve] just seen tremendous growth with our young ladies,” Cunningham said. “Just looking forward to the opportunity—I see how much they've grown in such a short amount of time, and I know that we'll continue to grow and develop them. So I think the most exciting thing is just seeing them get better every day, and I think that it's been very visible.”
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's women's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.