Points guard: Coach G never confines herself to the bench Photo: Jon Gardiner
Points guard: Coach G never confines herself to the bench Photo: Jon Gardiner

G Force

Gail Goestenkors: She's a juggernaut, the driving influence that brought the women's basketball team from doormat to stellar status.
Writer: 
June 1, 2003

Someone unfamiliar with women's basketball might never have heard the name Goestenkors. This would be forgivable: Goestenkors is an unusual name, German and long and pronounced a bit differently (guess-ten-course) from the way it appears. And it would be understandable, given that the coach has risen so rapidly to the top that one might have seen just a blue streak of success.

But in fact the name Goestenkors has become nearly as Duke as its three-syllable, Polish counterpart, having attained single-letter status--she is Coach G to players and fans--and the sort of emblazoned permanence that is the result of history-making achievement. Since Gail Goestenkors' arrival eleven years ago, Duke women's basketball has achieved a number of firsts: appearances in the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four, and national championship games; an ACC title; and a sellout crowd in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The 2003 Naismith Coach of the Year would be the very last, though, to say that she is satisfied with it all. Upon their return from Atlanta and a loss to Tennessee in the Final Four, Coach G and team were welcomed home in Cameron. They wore black warm-ups and moved slowly through the gym, taking the stage without a word or a wave. They seemed rather irritated, as though they had been dispossessed of a certain right and were impatient to take back what was theirs. President Nannerl O. Keohane read the year's report card: "number 1 or 2 the entire season, ACC tournament and regular season champs, broke or tied twenty-three team records and twenty individual records, Duke's first-ever first-team Associated Press Player of the Year selection in Alana Beard--wow, what a year."

After Keohane's introduction, Goestenkors addressed the crowd. "How many teams can go to the Final Four and come back angry?" she asked. The crowd, families of young parents and toddlers, professors, and students, whooped and hollered, but Goestenkors managed just a grin. She was grateful for the support, she said, but the pain was difficult to hide.

Goestenkors' office is on the third floor of the Schwartz-Butters Building. Trophies and signed basketballs crowd the top of a bookshelf and large framed pictures of past years' teams cover the walls. The room is immaculate except for a desk cluttered with scouting reports and a box of strawberry Pop Tarts. In one cabinet sits a stack of books typically assigned to players before the season begins.

Junior Iciss Tillis found Maya Angelou's Even The Stars Look Lonesome in front of her locker after practice. "She doesn't tell you why she's giving you the book. She just does," says Tillis. "She's got a game plan. If you follow her lead, if you go by her plan, you win."

Goestenkors is always reading something, usually a self-help book or a book on strategy by another coach, "to get in their heads," she says. "I minored in psychology, so I'm very into that component of coaching." In front of the desk, there is a couch that Goestenkors never rests on and behind it a wall-length window with a splendid view of K-ville. "It's going to be a good while with the students," she says, looking out over the lawn. "It's going to take until the women are dunking for them to come out like they do for the men, I think. That's very exciting for the students, you know. They like to see the dunks on the Sports Center highlights."

Hands-on: getting the best from Beard, left

 Hands-on: getting the best from Beard, left. Photo: Jon Gardiner

 

For Goestenkors, the greatest highlight thus far came in 1999 with her first win over Pat Summitt and the Tennessee Volunteers, a team that had won three straight national championships and was expected by most to win its fourth. Summitt, who is now in her twenty-ninth season, has long been the prototype for a women's basketball coach. Tall and striking, with a post player's physique, she is intensely competitive and unfailingly sportsmanlike. She's compiled more than 800 wins--only a handful of people have done this at any level--and, as a highly sought-after motivational speaker, commands more than $20,000 per engagement.

Under Summitt's aegis, the female head coach has come to represent more than a team. She, like her male equivalent, has become a paragon of corporate leadership and public-relations savvy, a link to the business world and beyond and, potentially, a very valuable asset to the university, be it Tennessee or Duke. Beating Summitt was an auspicious victory for Duke's first trip to the Final Four. In seven short years, Goestenkors had taken a losing program, the doormat of the conference, and beaten arguably the best coach in the history of NCAA women's basketball. Coach G had arrived.

Gail Ann Goestenkors was born in Waterford, Michigan, forty miles north of Detroit, in 1963 to Martha and John Goestenkors. She was the third of four children, two older brothers and a younger sister. Her father, an electrical engineer, played basketball in high school and coached his sons, Greg and Glen, in summer leagues at their school gym, his little tomboy, Gail, in tow. "I would mess around with a basketball on the sidelines while they played their games," Goestenkors recalls. "As I got older, my brothers decided to play football instead, but basketball was my passion. My dad and I really shared that. He was my first coach."

Sports consumed Goestenkors. She was fast and she was tough. When the neighborhood boys tried to play football in the park without her, she showed up anyway. When she learned that there was no girls' track team at her new junior high school, Goestenkors ran with the boys. During summers and on weekends, she held a part-time job for pocket money, cutting lawns and bagging leaves with her brothers. Deciding that the work was not enough of a workout, Goestenkors wore a pair of ankle weights.

In high school, the svelte, loose-limbed point guard--who also happened to be the homecoming queen--played with her head as much as her heart. She knew where to be, or where to tell someone to go, at any given moment, and seemed to have a sixth sense about her, an oddly acute awareness of all that was going on, as though she had already played that particular game before. It wasn't until her sophomore year that Goestenkors realized that basketball, even girls' basketball, offered something more than fun for the best players--it could pay your way to school. "A girl on our team got a scholarship, and I thought that was just incredible. After that, I made it my goal to get a scholarship."

Playing suddenly became more than a game. It was an avenue, albeit one that had yet to open for Goestenkors.

No one was interested. Following her junior season, her father drove her to schools all over the Midwest. The trip was long and discouraging, a string of rejections. The coach at Michigan had been blunt, her mother recalls; not only did she say no to the possibility of walking on, she told Goestenkors she simply was not Division I material and never would be. Several years later, having walked on at Saginaw Valley State University, Goestenkors led the team to a win over Michigan's Lady Wolverines; it was, she told her mother, the sweetest victory she'd ever tasted.

Goestenkors earned a full scholarship by the middle of her freshman season and from that point on, as her former coach Marsha Reall puts it, "Gail absolutely took over." Goestenkors was captain of the squad her junior and senior year, earned All-America honors, was named conference MVP, and was selected to the Academic All-Conference Team. "She was a little raw at first," says Reall. "She was not the greatest shooter in the world. But she was fast as anything. She was our stopper. We designed our entire defense around her. We called it 'the box and none,' a two-two zone with Gail going wherever she wanted. She just had such a good feel for the game that I let her call the shots." In her four years, Goestenkors led the Cardinals to a 114-13 record, with a second-place, a third-place, and two quarterfinal finishes at the NAIA National Championships. She remains one of the greatest players in SVSU history, ranking second in steals (348), assists (469), and games played (127).

Along the way, however, Goestenkors had an experience that wouldn't show up in the record books. She volunteered to coach a junior-high girls' team in the area. The season was to have a greater impact than Goestenkors could have ever known. One day, Reall says, she went to watch one of her point guard's games. "You should have seen these kids in the huddle. Their eyes were just fixed on Gail. She was so intense, so fired up to win. She had these seventh-graders running an offense, and if they missed something she'd really let 'em know. I told her, 'You know, I'm not sure I could play for you. What if I messed up?' "

It isn't easy playing for Goestenkors. She is a competitor and a perfectionist. When she disciplines her players in practice, she uses the "sandwich approach." The bread is a positive comment and the meat is "something that needs to be said." In the heat of battle, though, there isn't always time for the bread. "That's when trust really comes into play. They understand that I love them. I care about them. I want what's best for them. But sometimes what's best for them is for me to get on them."

Goestenkors' reputation as a thinker and a leader extends far beyond the confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium. One of her biggest fans, Kristina Johnson, dean of the Pratt School of Engineering, has applied lessons she learned from Goestenkors directly to her own work. "Gail taught me how to recruit," Johnson says. "We were jogging together one day, and I was telling her about this professor I wanted to get who had yet to make a visit. She said, 'You have to go get him. You learn so much about a person face to face. And it shows them how dedicated you are.' So now we do what Gail does. We're the only engineering school I know of that employs the basketball recruiting strategy. It just works."

The strategy has worked time and again for Goestenkors. Before this season began, she flew to Columbus, Ohio, to visit Brittany Hunter, the number one high-school player in the country. Hunter will arrive in Durham this summer. She is six feet, four inches and has a rather unladylike habit of pulling the rim down as she puts the ball through it. "They're going to love her here," says Goestenkors. "She dunks."