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Monday, March 19, 2012
Gail Goestenkors resigns at Texas

By Mechelle Voepel
ESPN.com

When talking last month about the present (painful) and future (uncertain, but still with a glint of promise) at Texas, coach Gail Goestenkors spoke the words of perseverence.

She said she had two more years on her contract, the support of the administration, and the belief that if the Longhorns could be healthy in 2012-13, the team could perform much better.

All that actually was true. The problem was, it sounded like she was trying to talk herself into something her heart didn't really believe.

Having known Goestenkors for 17 years, I couldn't help but think while listening to her, "Do you really want to put yourself through this for another season?"

Monday, Goestenkors announced that she didn't. She resigned two days after her Longhorns lost in the NCAA tournament's first round for the fourth season in a row.

"My heart's telling me it's time to take a break," Goestenkors said at a news conference Monday in Austin, Texas, "and that's what I'm going to do."

I know, I know … the cynics will say, "I could put myself through a lot to make $1.25 million a year. Where do I sign up?"

But her move from Duke to Texas five years ago was never about Goestenkors becoming a millionaire coach. It was the allure of working in a top-flight athletic department for a boss -- Chris Plonsky -- who truly loves women's athletics while still having the needed chops to be a business-savvy administrator.

However, after a 102-64 record in five years at Texas with no team advancing past the NCAA's second round, Goestenkors pulled the plug on herself. Plonsky was still behind her; she said so both publicly and privately during the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City. Plonsky voiced that sentiment once again Monday, saying this was entirely Goestenkors' choice.

While some might look for something more sinister here, I take Goestenkors at her word that she was dealing with a weariness that seemed more emotional than physical. At 49, she was feeling the affects of an adult lifetime in the rat race of college coaching. That fatigue was in her voice last month, regardless of the words she was saying.

Gail Goestenkors
Gail Goestenkors, who had two years remaining in her contract, was 102-64 in five seasons at Texas.

Would winning more at Texas have made a difference for Goestenkors? Sure, but it wouldn't have taken away the weariness. It would have just masked that it was there, and made it easier to endure.

Ultimately, knowing how she was feeling inside, Goestenkors refused to stay on when the results were not up to her standards and she wasn't sure she had the energy to change that.

Something she said back in February did sound like the "real" her, and that came through Monday, too.

"I expect greatness from us," Goestenkors told me a month ago. "Nobody can put more pressure on me than I put on myself."

Certainly, this wasn't an ending that she foresaw back in the spring of 2007 when she left the Duke program she'd built into a powerhouse in her 15 years in Durham, N.C. Goestenkors struggled with the decision to leave, but the challenge/opportunity that Texas presented was too compelling.

However, Goestenkors also was in a difficult place emotionally at the time when she had to decide that. Texas -- its women's basketball job open for the first time since 1976 with Jody Conradt resigning -- had the cash and the desire to make a major, big-name hire. Texas had its checkbook and arms wide-open to Goestenkors, while the Duke administration's attitude was a little more passive-aggressive. Sort of like, "Hey, we'd really like you to stay, but if you don't … you don't."

Adding to that, a national championship got away from the Blue Devils in overtime in 2006 in Goestenkors' fourth trip to the Final Four. That was an emotional crusher. Then in 2007, with the Texas rumors swirling, her No. 1 seeded team -- which had gone undefeated until the ACC tournament -- was upset in the Sweet 16 by Rutgers. And, of course, it was no ordinary upset -- the Blue Devils had a chance to tie or win the game with one-tenth of a second left and senior Lindsey Harding on the foul line. She missed both free throws, and Duke's season was over, 53-52.

Goestenkors, a perfectionist who doesn't cut herself many breaks, wondered again and again what she could have done differently to change the outcome in those seasons that the Blue Devils fell short of a national championship. So when an opportunity arrived to have a fresh start at a major program that had great women's sports history, it just seemed to her that it was serendipitous.

And who's to say that in leaving Duke, Goestenkors made a mistake? She certainly learned more about herself and had to stretch her coaching philosophy with the different situation at Texas. She left her comfort zone, and that always has some peril to it. But there is no gain without risk.

Once at Texas, Goestenkors was facing three conference foes that would go to the Final Four during her first four years in Austin: Baylor, Oklahoma (twice) and Texas A&M, which won last season's NCAA title. At least one of those schools is favored to go again this year, and all three are into the second round.

Goestenkors had to play those schools twice every regular season. Whoever comes into the Texas job will have to face recruiting against all three of them, although Texas A&M is leaving the league for the SEC.

I wrote last month about the recruiting issue that Goestenkors faced: She began in Austin with no one on her staff who had strong Texas roots/contacts, and that hurt in making connections with the many AAU and high school coaches who reign over their various fiefdoms in the state. Goestenkors has been playing catch-up with that ever since.

If all this sounds like I'm rationalizing or making excuses for her, I'm not. In the end, with the salary Texas was paying, big results quickly were required. Whether reasonable or not, those were the expectations Texas set up.

There will be plenty of speculation about where the Longhorns will turn now for the next coach to run the program. Expect that it will be a Southerner, or at least someone with very strong recruiting connections in the state. Will Texas hire a male coach for its flagship women's program? We'll see. There will be a lot of people interested in the job, that's for sure.

Goestenkors said she needs time away, to rest and re-evaluate her life. She's an inherently very kind and caring person, which some people don't realize because -- believe it or not -- she is also fundamentally pretty shy and can seem distant. Goestenkors has never been the kind of coach to sell recruits on how great she is or talk about her strengths with X's and O's, even though they are considerable.

Right now, she says she's "out of basketball," but time away might replenish her passion to coach. I suspect that it will, on the college or pro level. She's still got a ton to offer at either, if she chooses to go back.

Having talked over the years to other women's coaches who have left the profession -- either because they resigned or were let go -- I usually found that they had a sense of peace being away from the world in which so much revolves around the decisions of teenagers and the whimsical physics of a launched sphere either going or not going through a hoop.

Some of them, like former Missouri State coach Cheryl Burnett, have found that life beyond the sidelines had a lot of happiness and contentment to offer. Others took a break, felt better after time away, and then went back into the business.

Earlier this year, I spoke at length with Wendy Larry, the longtime Old Dominion coach who felt pushed out by her alma mater after last season. She still has the longing to coach, but by the same token … she said her eyes had been opened to what she'd been missing out on after decades of film work, rebound drills, scouting reports, phone calls to recruits, and bus rides to gyms.

"As a coach, when you're in that world, it's everything," Larry told me. "But when you finally step outside of it, that world seems really, really small."

Gail Goestenkors is an exceptional basketball coach who went to four Final Fours and has mentored a lot of successful young women. Her move to Texas didn't work out in terms of basketball victories. But for right now, maybe it's time she sees how big the rest of the world is.