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Duke Fans Should Give Kara Lawson A Warm Welcome And A Long Honeymoon

It may take a while to get things heading in the right direction so Duke fans should be patient.

NBA Restart 2020 - All-Access
ORLANDO, FL - JULY 11: Assistant Coach Kara Lawson of the Boston Celtics at the hotel as part of the NBA Restart 2020 on July 11, 2020 in Orlando, Florida.
Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

Kara Lawson and Duke came to agreement on Saturday and she is now the head coach of the women’s basketball team.

She had a video meeting with her new team - she’s in Orland with the Celtics - and is clearly excited about her new position, saying this according to a Duke release:

“Well, it is a dream come true for me. I have wanted to be a coach since I was a kid. To have an opportunity to lead a group of young women at a prestigious university like Duke – I have run out of words; it is unbelievable and very exciting. I am thankful for the path that led me here and thankful for the belief of President Price, Kevin White, Nina King, Coach Krzyzewski, Coach Cutcliffe and everyone surrounding the program. Everybody I spoke with and had a chance to interact with, I immediately felt a great connection. It wasn’t a decision based on emotion, but there was a lot of emotion involved in it because of how excited I am and how ready I am to get started and to work with the players.”

A.D. Kevin White said this in his statement: “A highly-seasoned champion at multiple levels within the basketball landscape, Kara Lawson is the ideal fit for Duke University. Throughout the process, it became abundantly clear that her authenticity, passion, contemporary vision and unwavering commitment to the student-athlete experience align seamlessly with the values of the institution. With her high degree of emotional intelligence, Kara’s astute ability to connect with future, current and former student-athletes, as well as the passionate and dedicated supporters of Duke women’s basketball, will have an immediate and profound impact on the entire program.”

From here it looks like a pretty good hire although Lawson does not have college coaching experience.

Not everyone is as impressed.

Over at the Duke Chronicle, Em Adler sounds skeptical, mentioning (fairly) her lack of college coaching experience. She misses on some of her other points however.

She calls it White’s “most dangerous hire” which is probably fair but a little misleading.

In fairness to White, we don’t think he’s made a bad hire and Duke sports, generally speaking, are strong.

Her concern is mainly Lawson’s lack of experience and while, again, that’s fair, we’re not sure this is:

“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.”

First of all, we, meaning Duke partisans, need to get over this idea that “good” isn’t good enough. You’re not entitled to be good. UCLA used to feel that way and look where they are now. They went on a long walk in the desert and while Mick Cronin has made them feel better, he could still be a mirage. Being UCLA sucks right now.

You’re only good if you earn it and staying good is extremely hard. So give her a chance to build something solid and then, if we’re lucky, enduring.

We don’t know what she’s thinking of course but typically, new coaches prefer their own people and there’s no particular reason to expect her to hold on to McCallie’s assistants who have been on an interim basis since McCallie left anyway.

She might keep one or more. Steve Forbes kept Randolph Childress at Wake. Childress is a legend though and it was smart to hang on to him for at least awhile.

The closest thing she could do to that would be to bring back Lauren Rice who many felt McCallie made into a scapegoat.

As Adler points out, it’s not like the current staff has been hitting home runs in recruiting anyway. And transitions are always tricky. Duke might lose a couple of players. It’s not unheard of. Almost all of Danny Manning’s players entered the transfer portal before Forbes won them over. Who the hell knows?

As Norman Dale kindly reminded the crowd in Hoosiers when they chanted for Jimmy Chitwood, “this is your team.”

We hope everyone stays but if some think it’s in their interest to leave, that’s their decision. Lawson shouldn’t keep coaches around just to keep players around. That’s a horrible approach and an immediate way to undermine her authority.

What’s more likely is that she brings in a mostly new staff of her own people. What might be smart is hiring someone to bridge the gap between eras like say Alana Beard or Rice. It’d also be smart to figure out who the great recruiters are and hire a couple. That’s not a secret. Lots of people know who can get it done and she should be able to offer them a very competitive salary. Think Joy Smith, who toils for Clemson but who might like to come back to her alma mater.

She’d also be wise to hire an older coach as a mentor like a lot of younger coaches do. That person could help her learn the ropes about how to run the less glamorous parts of a college basketball program: administrative skills, office organization, monitoring academics and also learning lessons from someone else’s mistakes.

Those are things for her personal transition. She certainly has a learning curve.

The other thing we disagreed with Adler on was drawing a connection between the Goestenkors era and the McCallie era, saying this: “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.“

Goestenkors was just one tier below Pat Head Summit and Geno Auriemma. She remains, by far, the best women’s coach in Duke history.

McCallie was a solid coach and we don’t have anything against her. But there were things that were...weird.

Not long before she got to Durham, her husband had a bizarre episode at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. It wasn’t her fault and she wasn’t yet the Duke coach but it was just disconcerting to read about it.

It also wasn’t her fault that the fan base, which adored Goestenkors, was slow to warm to McCallie. Frankly it was ugly at times and could have really damaged the program (the airport incident didn’t help here). There was no way for her to be Goestenkors personally or stylistically.

Goestenkors has a warm personality and people are drawn to her. McCallie is not nearly as inviting. Again, not her fault, but it is what it is.

Then there was a high school player who had her offer yanked. It wasn’t a very Duke thing to do and speaking only for ourselves, it was offensive. McCallie had made a commitment to her and she wasn’t willing to keep it. We hated that she did that. It was unworthy of a Duke coach.

And then there was the review.

In 2016, Duke saw two players transfer and parents express concerns about how McCallie was treating their children. Another player transferred midway through the following season.

McCallie never recovered and finished her Duke career with 15-15 and 18-12 seasons and sharply declining recruiting. You can be sure that her rivals turned the review against her on the recruiting trail. What mom wants to hear those sorts of rumors?

The other difference between Goestenkors and McCallie is stylistic. Goestenkors was a wonderful offensive coach and a good defensive coach as well. McCallie’s style reminded us a lot of Gary Williams. The offense was almost always ugly. His teams were beautiful at times on defense and worked incredibly hard but the offense lacked imagination.

McCallie’s offense just never charmed us.

The most important thing about this hire is that it succeed. Adler’s belief that Duke should be an elite program is probably best put this way: Duke could be an elite program (again). All the elements are there for Duke to succeed.

It wouldn't be the first program to fall though. Fans of a certain age remember picking up Sports Illustrated and seeing these words start an article: “Duke. Now there’s a proud but forgotten name. It used to stand for excellence in college basketball the way the letters UCLA do today.”

That was about the men’s program, in 1978.

UCLA fell. UNVL fell. Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion fell.

It takes a lot for a program to build greatness, much less sustain it. We are optimistic about Coach Lawson though. She has a lot to prove but we think she’s very capable.

One reason why we’re particularly optimistic is something perceptive Kevin White said:

“With her high degree of emotional intelligence, Kara’s astute ability to connect with future, current and former student-athletes...will have an immediate and profound impact on the entire program.”

You can hire people who can teach you things about running a program. We didn’t know McCallie personally but we never heard anyone talk about her emotional intelligence and if you don’t have it no one can teach it to you.

We don’t know what anyone else thinks but we’re optimistic and excited about this hire. She’s young for a head coach and has worlds of potential.

What we hope most of all though is this: despite our reservations about McCallie, she wasn’t treated fairly when she first got to Duke. The fans were angry that then-AD Joe Alleva didn’t do more to keep Goestenkors and some of them took it out on the new coach.

We really hope that Lawson is greeted with open arms by everyone. We should all want her to succeed.

Whenever there is a new coach, he or she deserves our support and in fact needs it to build a program.

She is not Joanne P. McCallie, which we see as a positive. She is also not Gail Goestenkors, which we don’t see as a negative.

She’s an intelligent and capable woman who has a chance to become a world-class coach. Duke fans should welcome her with great warmth and do everything we can to help her establish herself.

Because if we’re lucky, her run at Duke could one day rival that Mike Krzyzewski. And remember that Coach K took a few years to get things going.