Joanne P. McCallie is clearly comfortable and in command in her fifth year as the Duke women’s basketball coach.Almost without our noticing, she’s become a familiar, reassuring fixture perched in front of the Duke bench. Dressed in her customary black and/or royal blue, her dark, shoulder-length hair tucked behind her ears, signaling defensive alignments or clapping her hands supportively,
That comfort extends from court to personal life, where McCallie said she’s learned to navigate Durham’s odd arrangement of roads and to discover its many “unbelievable” restaurants, to engage with the larger Duke community and to shepherd her two children through difficult transitions.
You can read about it in “Choice Not Chance,” the new book McCallie said she “loved writing” with Rob Rains. It’s a mix of autobiography with basketball and life philosophy, all framed as a very open letter to her elder child, daughter Maddie, a high school senior.
“When you’re a mom and a coach and that’s all your child has known her entire life, you want to explain,” McCallie said. “You feel a need to share and explain because there are so many wonderful parts about having a life like that and there are definitely some down sides too.”
According to her mother, Maddie has amply lived up to the family’s values of thoughtful independence. “She’s her own cat,” McCallie said. Her daughter transferred from a private to a public school in Durham on her own initiative, then chose to attend Miami of Ohio, where she’ll play basketball starting next season. “I don’t think she was willing to give up her mom in exchange for a coach,” McCallie, apparently satisfied, said of the choice.
There were turbulent times, personal and professional, that attended McCallie’s arrival at Duke, however.
Son Jack, now 11, made the adjustment rather easily. Not so a daughter at the cusp of teenhood. Complicating the equation, McCallie stepped into the shadow of accomplished Duke predecessor Gail Goestenkors, who lifted the program to national prominence from 1993 through 2007. There were bruised feelings when McCallie left Michigan State, which she had taken to the 2005 NCAA championship game, and bruised feelings at Duke, where Goestenkors was well-liked and well-established.
McCallie’s book largely skirts difficulties encountered in taking over the Blue Devils, perhaps because she settled in quickly. Even her stuttering start — a 25-10 record, the most losses at Duke in more than a decade — was one most coaches would envy.
“My greatest strength,” McCallie wrote, “is my ability to motivate — to lead with passionate reason and great attention to detail while connecting the whole through common understanding and caring, thus believing that anything is possible if we capitalize on the collective power of the whole.”
Those traits and a devotion to what she called “the process” of team and player development soon lifted McCallie and Duke to a level few can match.
Each of her five teams has finished in the top 10 in the Associated Press poll and advanced to the NCAAs, extending Duke’s tournament run, the fourth-longest in the women’s game, to 17 straight years. The 2012 Devils also posted their 15th consecutive season of 20 or more wins.
Remarkably, despite routinely playing one of the most bracing schedules in the country, not since McCallie’s first month at the helm has one of her Blue Devil squads lost consecutive games.
None of McCallie’s clubs has finished lower than third in the ACC. Her first four teams reached the ACC Tournament final, winning in 2010 and 2011. This year’s club finished the regular season in first place before its elimination in the quarterfinals.
This season already has been unusually successful, even for a coach who’s won titles in four different leagues and taken three different programs (Maine, Michigan State, and Duke) to the NCAAs.
Duke’s 15-1 regular-season ACC record was McCallie’s best yet. The four defeats in 28 regular-season games came against teams ranked in the top 10.
“This is a powerful group,” the coach said. “This year’s team is quite a compilation of pretty savvy, street-smart kids. They’ve got the balance of the street smart and of course they’ve got the book smart. There’s a pretty good balance there, which makes them terribly dangerous and that’s what you’re looking to cultivate.”
Key to that competitive force is 6-3 phenom Elizabeth Williams, whom McCallie quickly developed into one of the ACC’s top scorers and rebounders and its shot-blocking leader. With her 116 rejections, a freshman ACC mark, Williams was selected the league Defensive Player of the Year. She is the third freshman ever voted first team All-ACC.
Sophomore Chelsea Gray, another All-ACC pick, unleashed her creativity as a playmaker to pace the ACC and set a new Duke record for assists with 201.
The defense-oriented Blue Devils’ only ACC loss came at Maryland immediately after stalwart Richa Jackson, a starter in 17 of the team’s first 25 games, was lost for the season with a knee injury. Earlier, promising freshman Amber Henson was felled by injury and guard Chloe Wells was declared ineligible for violating university policy after starting the season’s first 10 games.
“In my career, in 20 years, I’ve never, ever experienced anything of this sort. Not even close,” McCallie said.
The challenge caused McCallie to return to what she called in her book the principle of “right thinking,” sober analysis of a situation separated from emotional entanglement in matters beyond control.
“The right thinking element has gone great,” the coach said. “I think at the same sense, too, there’s the heart element. That’s harder. I would say we’ve done well, the team’s done extremely well under all these circumstances, without question extraordinarily well. But it doesn’t take away from the hurt. It still hurts. You can win a bunch of games, there are certain things that don’t go away. I don’t think people realize that.”
What also won’t go away is McCallie’s determination to keep improving on the court and to build fan support at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Never mind that Duke’s women averaged an ACC-best 5,361 spectators at home.
“I’m always wanting more,” McCallie conceded, already looking ahead to next year and heights yet to come. “We have every right to be healthy, and we have a terrific recruiting class coming in. We’re going to get a whole lot better, a whole lot better, and we’re determined to do it.
“We’re in that process now of getting better, but what I’m saying is we’re going to have some numbers next year and we’re going to have some players that are very special.”
The rest of the ACC should consider that fair warning.