This was planned as the story of a 50-year-old coach who uses her celebrity to help raise awareness and funds to combat a deadly disease that haunts her life and scarred her body. The fact her 2016 team failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in her nine-year tenure, the first time at Duke since 1994, only made it a more compelling tale of struggle and challenge.
But things have a way of turning out differently than we expect.
Joanne P. McCallie’s Blue Devils finished 20-12, tied for seventh in the ACC. The 24-year head coach cited an uncommon litany of injuries – seven players missing a total of 72 games – that handicapped her 2016 squad. Often stodgy on offense but tough defensively and on the boards, her team nevertheless ranked in the top half of the ACC last season in virtually every offensive category. “I will be proud of this team forever,” she said of its response to adversity.
More generally, she noted ACC competition had grown more bracing with the addition of Notre Dame, loser of a single league contest in three conference seasons to date, and of Louisville and Syracuse, the latter a contestant in the 2016 national championship game.
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“The bar has been raised dramatically,” said McCallie, who led the Blue Devils to four straight Elite Eights from 2010 through 2013 and ACC titles in 2010, 2011 and 2013. From 1995 through 2015 Duke was a fixture in national polls, regarded as a half-step behind the game’s powers. “The bottom line is, it’s so hard to have been at the top of a mountain and then another mountain gets presented,” said the three-time ACC Coach of the Year. “And then that mountain requires greater resolve, more fans, it requires more of everything. That’s an ultimate test.”
Still, a chorus of postseason criticism stung, leading “Coach P” to lament the influence of the “weak-kneed,” the “fair-weather nature of people, the people who want to be so negative and attack and tear down.”
Looking for a cure
McCallie readily discussed her battles with skin cancer and spoke passionately of the need for early detection. According to the surgeon general’s website, nearly 5 million Americans are treated annually for skin cancer. Incidence of the disease, often caused by preventable exposure to the sun or use of tanning beds, is rising. Melanoma, which represents 2 percent of all skin cancers, is invasive and potentially deadly. Nearly 9,000 Americans die annually from melanoma, a leading type of cancer among U.S. adolescents and young adults.
McCallie eagerly anticipated serving as keynote speaker at a fundraising dinner called “Taste for a Cure,” benefiting the Melanoma Research Alliance and the Polka Dot Mama Melanoma Foundation. The May 1 event in Oxford sold all 200 tickets by mid-February. As for her personal experience, the coach pointed to a faint mark on her forehead where a malignant growth was removed several years ago. She mentioned the 26 stitches in her back to close surgical incisions to remove malignant cells consistent with melanoma. Then she turned her head to reveal a still-vivid scar on the right side of her neck, a souvenir of February surgery to remove similar precursor cells.
The emotion was frustration and anger, and we didn’t go to the NCAA tournament, and the coach is horrible.
Duke women’s basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie
The day following McCallie’s mid-season surgery, Duke lost to Florida State. McCallie hastened to say that while players win and lose games, she wondered if her heavily medicated, debilitated state hurt the team against FSU and in a subsequent loss at Wake Forest. “The problem was, I couldn’t turn my head,” she recalled. “It felt like you had a neck brace on with a razor blade in the neck brace.”
A few weeks after that initial late-March interview, Duke announced an evaluation of its women’s basketball program by a university human resources officer from outside athletics. “Coach McCallie is aware of the situation and eager to assist,” read a university statement.
So much for the story of a regrouping coach and her favorite charity, a narrative overtaken by unspecified allegations of McCallie mistreating players and assistant coaches.
Vote of confidence
Transfers out of the program – notably Azura Stevens, an All-ACC sophomore from Raleigh and the league’s No. 2 scorer – punctuated a sense of unrest. Multiple sources reported at least one former Duke star wrote to university president Richard Brodhead detailing dissatisfaction with McCallie. Once the investigation was announced, McCallie’s program became fodder for ESPN TV’s “Outside the Lines,” which conflated Duke’s self-appraisal with other troubling situations involving women’s basketball coaches.
The issue of verbal abuse and mistreatment by coaches is both vexing and enduring. Some of the most prominent men’s coaches of recent vintage have unabashedly berated and intimidated players. Women aren’t immune to embracing similar tactics. For too long we’ve accepted that dressing as a corporate executive on the sidelines, and preening about service as an educator, entitles highly-paid coaches to launch verbal assaults on amateur players.
Whatever the allegations against McCallie, after nearly a month of investigation, including interviews with program participants past and present, Duke athletic director Kevin White issued a vote of confidence. Probably working to McCallie’s benefit, all practices were open and taped. A Duke administrator assigned to her program is routinely present at team functions.
“Joanne P. McCallie is, and will be, our head women’s basketball coach and we support her,” White said in a statement. “The purpose of this evaluation, which Duke Athletics initiated with an outside party, was for Duke women’s basketball to get even better. I have discussed the results at length with Coach McCallie, and we are indeed in a position to improve Duke women’s basketball for present and future student-athletes, coaches, and staff alike.”
Emotion over reason
Amid the turmoil, which McCallie admits has hurt recruiting, the team added transfer Sofia Roma from Wagner. Duke also retains, among others, junior stalwart Rebecca Greenwell, stellar Maryland transfer Lexie Brown, daughter of former pro guard Dee Brown, and highly rated freshman signee Leonna Odom.
At this spring’s ACC meetings, coaching colleagues offered McCallie congratulations, presumably for keeping her job. She has three years remaining on her contract. Most expressively supportive was North Carolina’s Roy Williams, a recent veteran of being battered in public estimation.
In an exclusive interview shortly after the school released its findings, McCallie traced her difficulties to unspecified “internal and external entities” within the Duke community and to the elevation of emotion over reason. “The emotion was frustration and anger, and we didn’t go to the NCAA tournament, and the coach is horrible,” she explained.
McCallie, known to direct cutting comments at individual players, flatly rejected the charge that she is verbally abusive. “That’s what you say in this day and age if you want to upset the apple cart and have an investigation. You have to use those key words,” she said. “That’s the society we live in today.”
The coach did not act either particularly chastened or vindicated. She did say she’s learned from the evaluation and is moving on. “It’s so strange, crazy, you just don’t know what’s really up or down,” she said of her time in limbo. “Fortunately I’m through that now. That was not a good place to be.”
Asked for further comment, White cited his statement, then added in an email: “Moving forward with great enthusiasm.” Meanwhile McCallie’s latest bimonthly skin exam showed no signs of melanoma.