Bill Little commentary: A new place to play
It was snowing in the township of Waterford, Mich., Thursday -- the kind of day that would have kept the young girl and her dad off the driveway, where the basketball goal was.
But it's okay.
Gail Goestenkors has a new place to play now.
And yet, inside the immensely successful, all grown up woman who just became one of the highest paid women's basketball coaches in America, is the little girl who wanted her dad to notice her.
She has parlayed a passion for the game into success at the highest level of her sport, and as the snow fell in her hometown just north of Detroit, the one-time tomboy was announced as the new head women's basketball coach for The University of Texas.
Goestenkors' odyssey to this time and place began as the "little sister" who watched her dad coach her older brothers, Greg and Glen, in summer league play.
"They both played, so I was a little gym rat who followed my brothers and my dad to the gym and started playing when I was real little. My dad had played high school basketball, and basketball was his passion. My brothers chose to pursue other sports. But I knew to get my dad's attention, we both shared the same passion, so he and I worked together in our driveway almost every day," she said.
In the cosmic, they will tell you there comes an alignment of the planets, where perfect things seem to happen. And so it seemed Thursday, as Gail Goestenkors' world and Texas Longhorns women's basketball melded.
For more than 30 years, from the beginning of the sport and its infancy at Texas, Jody Conradt had nurtured the Texas women's basketball program. She became the face of the sport, and her class embodied its very best things. Chris Plonsky had seen much of this. From her time as the women's sports information director through her tenure as the women's athletics director, she had studied her sports, and she had been cognizant of time.
She knew, as some point, her friend and mentor would eventually decide to step down as head coach at Texas. So when Jody announced late last month that she was leaving, Chris had a short list of candidates to replace her. And at the top of that list was Gail Goestenkors, who at that point was coaching the Duke Blue Devils to an unbeaten regular season.
As with all things, destiny makes an interesting traveling companion. But for two missed free throws at the end of Duke's 53-52 loss in the regional tournament to Rutgers, Goestenkors might well have been at a parade celebrating a National Championship on Wednesday, instead of on a plane to Austin, getting ready to meet her new team at Texas.
All her life, Gail said, she had an image of what The University of Texas was all about. Last week, she had come to Austin to check it out. Plonsky said she hadn't come to visit; she had come to validate.
But for Gail, it was never about the money, and it wasn't even about finding out about the world class facilities. She had seen the facilities, and the money was going to be good wherever she was.
She knew "what" The University of Texas was. Now, she wanted to find out "who." And that is really where her decision was made.
This was about "eyes."
The first thing that you notice about this electrical engineer's daughter is that she is a perfect combination of spirit and determination, of grace and roll-up-your-sleeves work. Of passion, and compassion.
The guess here is, you can tell Gail Goestenkors a lot of things, and she will listen. Just don't tell her that she "can't." She will be kind, and she will be firm. She will be clear, and she will be driven. She will win big, and care deeply.
She learned at an early age that she had to fight for what she wants, and she learned that teamwork wins and selfishness doesn't.
Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the Salk vaccine which offered the world a cure for the crippling disease polio, once said, "There is no such thing as failure, only giving up too soon."
Gail never gave up.
When she entered the ninth grade in high school, she played on her first school team. Her coach had never coached basketball before, and he didn't know anything about doing it. So he went out and bought a playbook, and he and his little point guard Gail sat down and read it together to decide what kind of offense they should run.
"The coach was a great guy, but he didn't have a feel for the game," Gail recalls. "So I got to call time outs, and I think that's where I started to get a feel for coaching."
Her parents had told their kids they would pay for one year of college, and if they wanted more, they were going to have to earn their way.
"I worked my tail off," she said. "I wanted so bad to get a scholarship, because they were just starting to give scholarships to women to play basketball. One of my teammates, when I was a sophomore, got a scholarship, and it opened my whole mind up to that you could play college basketball and you could get your education paid for. I knew I had to pay for school, so I was heartbroken when I did not get a scholarship out of high school."
The search for a college took her and her dad on a tour of schools in the area, and she eventually wound up at Saginaw Valley State.
"It seemed like a good fit," she says. "It was a little over an hour away, so I could still get home. I was a nervous wreck the first couple of weeks that I was there, not knowing if I was going to make the team or not."
But not only did she make the team, she made the team. The coach put her on scholarship after the first semester, and she went on to lead Saginaw to a record of 114-13 over her four years there. That included trips to the NAIA National Tournament each year. Her junior year she coached a seventh grade team, and from that point, she was hooked on coaching.
She began as a grad assistant at Iowa State, then took a full time job at Ball State, but moved to Purdue quickly when her former coach moved from Ball State to Purdue.
"I had never visited Purdue, and was on the road recruiting. They sent me some Purdue shirts, and I kept on going," she said.
She helped build Purdue into a Big Ten power, and then, 15 years ago, decided it was time to test her wings and she landed as the head coach Duke University. The numbers there were amazing, including an overall record of 396-99. Her last seven Duke teams all had at least 30 victories.
Quickly in her visit to Austin, she began to touch and reach out to people. And two of the ones who would reach back were coaches who had followed the path Gail was considering -- Mack Brown and Augie Garrido. Brown came to Texas after great success at North Carolina in 1998, and Garrido had become the Longhorns baseball coach in 1997 after a tremendously successful career at Cal State Fullerton.
Both had followed, in a sense, legends. And both liked what they saw in Gail Goestenkors. Mack visited with her in Austin, and kept text messaging her all weekend. Garrido met her on her visit, and then spent a good half hour with her on the phone prior to his game with Oklahoma on Saturday (March 31).
So in the end, with two of the world's best recruiters helping, Plonsky would say that this hire was not about her, it was about The University of Texas. While the eyes of Texas were on Gail, her eyes were on the people of Texas.
"My relationships have always been very important to me," she said. "When I was on a team, I was always the team captain, bringing people together, trying to help our teams be better than people thought we could be. I was named Most Valuable Player on my team and in my conference, but I was not the best player...not even close, talent-wise. But it was the intangibles, and the way I was able to bring the team together, that people saw."
It was a whirlwind return to Austin as Gail Goestenkors came to accept her new job, but the most important time for her was the time she spent with her new team on Wednesday.
"I talked to the team about getting to know them, each individually. They have to learn to trust me, and I have to learn to trust them, because without trust, when tough times come, we will fall apart. But to earn trust, you have to spend time to get to know people. And once you get to know 'em, and once there is trust, then I will know how to best motivate each person, because everybody's motivated differently.
"So that's my goal, to find out how to motivate each person, and then the team as a whole."
Her dad's retired now, and the basketball goal in the driveway in the township of Waterford, Mich., is touched gently by the snowflakes falling from a spring storm. Gail Goestenkors no longer has to worry about money for a scholarship, or making the team.
Yet in the mist, through the picture of the all-grown up lady who is the National Coach of the Year and the new head basketball coach at Texas, you can still see the little girl with the big basketball, saying, "Hey, Dad, look at me now."