DURHAM, N.C. – True to her philosophy of ‘choice, not chance’, Joanne P. McCallie announced that she had stepped down as head coach of the Duke Blue Devils women’s basketball program on Thursday.
For those who follow Duke’s program closely, the announcement was not a surprise – more a matter of when, and not if, it would happen.
Where have I read this before?
Even as I glanced over at a hand-written note to me from Coach P – dated Mar. 25, 2019 – in hindsight I realized that her final statement was eerily prophetic.
“Thank you so much for your coverage of DWB! We are excited to “write” the rest of the story next season.”
Well, just over a year later, the final sentences have been written.
Referring to another written work on my shelf by McCallie, her book ‘Choice not Chance’, the script of the day’s events played out in my mind – a replay of what I had read.
In that book, Coach P’s philosophical premise was for people to “rise above being victims of circumstance and frustration in their lives.”
The action to take was “to make choices every day – choices that would give them control.”
McCallie, a three-time ACC Coach of the Year, took control of her situation.
Headed down that lonely road
She was entering the final year of her contract, a situation that didn’t seem to be headed in the direction of another extension or re-negotiation.
A situation that inevitably got out of her control, and one that she had somewhat similar previous experience with at Michigan State which she described in her book.
As such, the 13-year leader of the program which she directed to a 330-107 record, decided to move on by taking a higher road.
She could have obliterated it all, hanging on to direct a program for a final year that has faced imminent uncertainty from a recruiting standpoint following an investigation into her conduct three years ago.
Even while nothing punitive resulted, and a straight-faced contract extension was offered and accepted, the possibility of another re-do heading into 2020-2021 wasn’t.
The option of being bought out wasn’t a realistic one either.
So, during this unprecedented time as a global pandemic reshapes our lifestyle daily, McCallie told her team via a Zoom meeting of her decision, and then described it during the opening of a six-minute video posted via the Duke Women’s Basketball Twitter handle (@DukeWBB).
“I just had a very difficult conversation with a group of women that I love and adore, and admire”, McCallie began.
“It was very heartfelt and bittersweet. I am choosing to step away as head coach at Duke. As a coach, in the final year of my contract, uncertainty is natural. And it takes away from confidence and fun. I am pretty sure there’s a level of uncertainty amongst the Duke family. I want to bring clarity with great pride for all…clarity and principle, over uncertainty, must prevail.”
“Hello from Coach P. I hope you all are safe and healthy during these very challenging times.
I just had a very difficult conversation with a group of women that I love and adore and admire…” pic.twitter.com/5pN2Swdfau
— Duke Women’s Basketball (@DukeWBB) July 2, 2020
Writing the final chapter
An 84-77 loss in the ACC Tournament Quarterfinal round on Mar. 6 was McCallie’s final game as the Blue Devils coach.
As the Coronavirus pandemic took hold globally a week later, the chance of earning one more NCAA Tournament bid ended – and resulted in an 18-12 season finish overall, 12-6 in the ACC.
A valiant latter-season surge in conference play made it interesting, a 7-3 run that produced talk of Tournament possibilities.
The beginning of the 2019-2020 season showed promise as McCallie numerous times utilized most, if not the entire bench in various roles.
She presented a long, patched-together, but hard-working roster of players who had much work to do to bring it all together.
There were flashes of brilliance offensively and defensively as well as the opposite that left many doubting that not much more than average results would come of the season.
A tough winter stretch, losing 7-of-10 games affirmed that assumption.
But McCallie never quit asserting that her team was working to get better.
She never denied or sugar-coated her team’s losses, but she continued to point out that her players were still ‘writing’ the season’s story.
They made it interesting, and maybe could have provided some possibility that the coach could remain, if and only if her team earned a selection and made a deep NCAA Tournament run.
That dream was never able to be realized – no magical ending was written.
The stark reality of Coach P’s situation was more-or-less written on the wall.
It seemed like a repeat of her time at Michigan State, a messy contract situation that eventually afforded the chance to coach at Duke interestingly enough.
McCallie wrote it aptly in her book:
“As far as I was concerned, it had to do with taking responsibility as a leader…A leader must evaluate a global view as well as the individual fit within the working environment…you can win your argument but lose out in the long run.”
Now McCallie had to do the right thing for everyone involved at Duke, and it took courage accordingly.
She made the choice and left nothing more to chance.
“I hope my action allows the team to play free, without the burden and uncertainty of their coach’s future,” McCallie concluded.
“I have chosen to forgo the majority of my final year of compensation to support my staff during this incredibly challenging and transitional time overall. I am hoping to help pave the way for Duke to make an impactful selection for the fifth coach in Duke women’s basketball history.”
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960; @pksport