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An Evening With Coach G

October 30th was the first session of a rather interesting continuing
education course at Duke: "Basketball: Everything You Always Wanted To Know."
It's being taught by Jacki Silar, the women's athletic director and former
assistant basketball coach, among many other things.

Silar started the class with a brief rundown on the NCAA and what it does.
The most interesting thing she talked about was the NCAA rules manual that
comes out every year. Yup, a new one is released every year, and every coach
must take a test on it as well. An NCAA newspaper that is published will
contain new wrinkles that the program is expected to know about. The NCAA
also produces guides for high school student-athletes and recruiting manuals
for the coaches that give detailed instructions on when one is able to
contact a player.

Tonight's guest lecturer was the amazing Coach G, who is remarkably warm,
personable and charismatic. She spoke for a long time about her journey
in basketball. As a youngster who shot hoops with her dad, she tried getting
involved in athletics in an era when it was difficult to do so for young
girls. She barely managed to make it on to her school's boys track team, and
only managed to get a single point the entire season--one third place finish.
The next year, when girls track was introduced, she won every meet, but she
said none of the wins were as satisfying as that single point, because she
had to work so hard for it. And that typifies what Coach G is all about--
hard work as its own reward.

She first got the coaching bug while still playing at tiny Saginaw Valley
State, where she coached a group of Catholic school seventh grade girls.
She had two stipulations: no one could be cut, and everyone had to play in
every game. So she had to learn how to use 17 players in every game! She
compared it to this year's daunting task of getting playing time for Duke's
stacked team. Gail realized that she was truly obsessed when her team was
down 15-0 at halftime of a playoff game. The team had gotten together the
night before for a slumber party and were rather lethargic as a result on
the morning of the big game. She was about to go scream at them at halftime
when her assistant took her aside and said, "Gail, they're SEVENTH GRADERS.
They're SUPPOSED to have slumber parties!" Coach G took a step back and said,
"My god, I'm turning into Bobby Knight!"

Gail had been an assistant at Purdue for five years when she realized she
was ready for a head coaching job. After a fortune teller in New Orleans told
her that she'd be moving to a new job in six weeks, she got a call from
then-assistant AD Joe Alleva and interviewed for the Duke job. She felt it
was a good fit both ways, despite being told by some coaches not to take the
job. She thought that there was a lot of untapped potential at Duke. First,
the academics at Duke meant that she'd get a crack at the top student-athletes.
Second, the history of success for the men was a factor. Third, Stanford had
just won the national title and Coach G pressed the similarities between
Duke and Stanford hard on her recruits.

Gail had very fond memories of her first year, despite the fact that it was
her only losing season. Coach G had never lost before at any level, so she
had a hard time coming up with the right speeches. After losing an ACC road
game that dropped them to 0-8 in the league, Coach G talked to her assistants
at the front of the bus. She said, "You know, at Purdue, even when we had
a little losing streak, there'd be one patsy that we knew we could beat. Who
is that team in the ACC?" Her assistants paused and said, "Uhh, it's us."
Coach G marched to the back and asked her team, "Did you know that the other
teams in the league think you're a patsy?" The team said, "Well, yeah." Gail
said, "Well, no more! From now on, if you play hard, you play smart, and you
play with class, you'll be a winner, no matter what the score." Gail
predicted that they'd go 5-3 in the second half (!) and she wasn't far off,
as they went 3-5 even as injuries to two starters made things even more
difficult. To this day, she considers her 1993 team to be the standard of
hard work that all of her other teams must live up to.

A few miscellaneous tidbits:

** She considers her pep talk before the 1999 East Regional Championship
against mighty Tennessee to be the best of her career. She had learned
that the Vols had already made airline and hotel reservations in San Jose
for the final four, and this was rather powerful as a motivational tool.
(I can only imagine what Van Gorp's reaction was like!)

** After the first few weeks of practice, she meets with the players to
discuss their roles. These individual meetings are brutally honest, and
then she meets with the players as a group so that everyone knows their
role. Roles can change based on injury or a willingness on the part of
the player to improve on their weaknesses.

** Michele Matyasovsky and Rochelle Parent have just started to practice
with the team. Michele tore some ligaments in her hand and Ro had a severely
sprained ankle, so Gail is bringing them along slowly but with the
expectation that both will get big minutes.

** Coach G is having trouble defining roles right now because the overall
talent level on the team is so even. Right now, Iciss Tillis is starting
at center, but Coach G wants her to stay in the paint a big more than she
is. And LaNedra Brown, Olga Gvozdenovic and Lello Gebisa have all improved
to the point where no one of them has been able to overtake the other. Coach
G said it's going to come down to the little things, like who hustles the
most, who sets the screens, etc.

** Duke uses an interesting system designed to promote team unity and
togetherness. Each player on the team has a "buddy" that they're
responsible for. She usually would partner a player who was unlikely to
see much playing time with a more established player. Both of their roles
were equally important regardless of how much they played. The example
she gave was Takisha Jones buddying with Michele Van Gorp. Kisha's job
was to be the best leader and support system she could be, in addition to
being responsible for her on the road and vice versa. Kisha got into the
role so much that she felt that every basket that Gorp scored, she was
scoring as well. When Duke goes into a timeout, the players coming in
are to be immediately encouraged by their buddy--a "get 'em next play" if
they're not playing well, or keeping them pumped up if they are. The coaches
huddle while the players are huddling, and Coach G asks the assistants if
they have anything to add on offense (Joanne Boyle) or defense (Gale Valley).

** Gail has a masters degree in sports psychology and will be putting it to
good use this year. With so many players with so much talent, she plans to
go to a trapping-and-pressing style. But she knows that not everyone will
be happy. She hopes that by using an uptempo game, it'll at least involve
everyone to some degree. Interestingly, when speaking of motivation, she
said that every player reacts differently. There's one player, whom when
Gail scolds her for playing poor defense, will grit her teeth and go out
and sink three consecutive three pointers. There was another player who,
if you yelled at her, would "cry and have to go home." So she learned to
lay off of her. The rules were the same in terms of player behavior, but
the key to success is knowing what buttons to push.

** The team sets its own goals every year. Last year, after a year of
talking about how winning the NCAA title meant only winning six games,
Peppi Browne suggested that they should try for the ACC title, since it
was only three games! This year's team has modest ambitions:

1. Win every home game.
2. Win every tournament they're in.
3. Win the ACC regular season.
4. Win the ACC Tournament.
5. Win the national championship.

Up until Georgia Schweitzer, the other players had been satisfied with
"go to the final four". Georgia said that she had been there, and now she
wanted to win the whole thing! The other members of the team fell in line.

** When Tom Butters was interviewing Coach G for the Duke job, he asked her
two questions she wasn't expecting:

What do you think your players would say is your worst quality?

What do you think your players would say is your best quality?

To the first, she replied that they'd say she worked them too hard. To the
second, she said that they knew that she really loved them. And this is where
she and Butters connected, because he didn't simply want an X's and O's
genius, he wanted someone who would take care of the players. Gail's
discussion of her own growth as a person who has been able to open up to
her players more as she grows older, and the way that old players show
up to team functions was moving. Having them here, talking to the current
players about what their experiences here meant to them is important for
all generations of Duke players.

A few other notes:

** Coach G will be at the ESPN taping this Thursday night in Cameron
and will address the crowd.

** The women's first exhibition game, against Athletes in Action, will be
this Friday at 7:00pm in Cameron. The exhibition games are free.

** Georgia Schweitzer is writing a diary at this year.

** Chelsea Whittaker, the 5-9 frosh guard expected to start at point this
year for Virginia, has an unusual leg problem and will be out for the
first few weeks of the season. Another frosh, 5-6 Safiya Grant, has taken
her place. This leaves UVa dangerously thin at the lead guard spot.