Duke women’s basketball wanted Kara Lawson years ago. In the late 1990s, the school was in the recruiting battle for the prep guard. Her mother — valuing Duke’s academic reputation — favored the Blue Devils. Lawson favored Tennessee. But the Lady Vols weren’t sure they were going to get her.
As longtime Tennessee assistant (and later head coach) Holly Warlick tells it, after a visit to Knoxville, Lawson’s flight home was delayed. With time to kill, she called Pat Summitt and Warlick to keep talking. It further cemented the bond that Lawson already felt with the Lady Vols’ staff, and she went to Tennessee.
Two decades later, Duke blue is her color. The school announced Saturday that Lawson was taking over the program. Duke got the buzz it was hoping for: Following her college and WNBA playing days, her broadcasting work and her season as an NBA assistant with the Boston Celtics, Lawson is a known name with a well-respected knowledge of basketball.
But with little coaching experience overall, and none in the college game, Lawson will look to get up to speed quickly, something she has a reputation for doing. What should be her biggest priorities?
Picking her staff
It’s vitally important that all coaches surround themselves with the right people, but this is especially crucial for someone in Lawson’s position. She played for one of the greatest coaching legends in Summitt, was a pro player and an Olympian, and then dissected the sport as an analyst for many years. She knows X’s and O’s, and how a program is supposed to run. But now she has to be the boss — which means being on top of everything, but also knowing you can’t do everything. You have to delegate wisely.
She’s not in the position of having a staff to move with her, so she has a lot of deciding to do on personnel. Will she retain any of former coach Joanne P. McCallie’s staff? Among McCallie’s three assistants, none had been in their current jobs before before 2016. Wanisha Smith is a former Duke women’s player, while Jim Corrigan played for Duke’s men.
Will Lawson look to the former Lady Vol coaching tree? Maybe someone like past teammate and current Kentucky associate head coach Kyra Elzy, who played at Tennessee from 1996-2001? Elzy is a top recruiter with 18 years of experience as an assistant at Western Kentucky, Kansas, Kentucky and Tennessee.
For that matter, might Lawson be interested in bringing her former coach Warlick, who had so much success as Summitt’s top assistant for so long? Warlick, who was let go by Tennessee as head coach in 2019, said if Lawson called, she’d go to Duke as an assistant. But she knows a lot will be swirling in Lawson’s mind as she makes these decisions, and she offers some friendly advice.
“It’s not just basketball, of course; there’s a lot of stuff you have to deal with as a head coach,” Warlick said. “You know your strengths, but what do you need to get better? And you have to learn to trust. You have to get people who want to be a part of your program. They don’t want your job, they just want to help you. Your staff is a big key to what you’re going to be able to do.”
Getting back to truly elite recruiting
Under Gail Goestenkors, the Blue Devils greatly expanded their recruiting level starting in the mid-1990s, and they built to where they could go after the best players available. That continued under McCallie for several years, but Duke has fallen off some in that regard.
Lawson was a strong student who had a businesslike approach to school and basketball while at Tennessee. She can relate well to the high-level academic achievers Duke will pursue. But any coach will tell you it’s a different world now with young people and how you connect with them. Again, Lawson has been around the sport as a broadcaster, so she knows this, but she’ll have to be the deal-closer on recruiting, and then develop and nurture those players.
Connecting with the fan base
A lot of Duke fans were interested in seeing Goestenkors return, and not just because of the success she had with the Blue Devils from 1992 to 2007. They want to again feel that kind of excitement and closeness to the program they felt during her time there.
That buzz waned in recent years as the results did, and Duke’s attendance declined with it. That’s something Lawson must look to get back. Cameron Indoor Stadium can be one of the most incredible sports arenas imaginable for women’s basketball, too, just as it is for the men’s game. It happened before, and it can happen again.
It will require winning results, of course, but also Lawson connecting with the fan base and making them feel part of the program. Lawson’s personality can seem ultra-serious, and she might need to make herself more accessible to people who really want to get to know her. This takes work and it takes time commitment.
Summitt was a master at this; she had charisma, but she also devoted herself to connecting with people. Nobody can be a replication of Summitt. But Lawson can look to just how much Summitt gave to this part of the job as a great inspiration.
“To get her program where she wants it to go,” Warlick said, “Kara’s going to have to spend a lot of time in the community. And get that support.”
Turning Duke-Carolina into a real rivalry again
It’s not just the Duke faithful who want the North Carolina matchup to really mean something again. Almost anybody who watches women’s basketball wants that. It’s great for the sport: a fierce rivalry between programs eight miles apart.
That’s not to overlook the other team in the Triangle, NC State, which has been the best of the three programs the past few years and won the ACC tournament title this past season. The Blue Devils-Wolfpack and Tar Heels-Wolfpack matchups should be a big deal, too.
But with North Carolina also under fairly new leadership — Courtney Banghart took over before the 2019-20 season — it’s the perfect time to start a new era of the rivalry.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Duke vs. UNC in the heyday of that rivalry on the women’s side was that the teams really didn’t care for each other. There was a crackling tension with Goestenkors and Sylvia Hatchell on the sideline and so many terrific players — several of whom went onto the WNBA — passing through Durham and Chapel Hill.
Lawson knows rivalries. As a player she was a part of the greatest one in women’s basketball history: UConn vs. Tennessee. That got so intense in part because both programs went after some of the same talent, but also because they brought out the best of each other’s competitiveness.
Making the Blue Devils a fun team to watch
Goestenkors’ Duke teams at their best were known for a crisp offense that was a joy to watch. Yes, her Blue Devils defended, but they also moved the ball and shot well. They had the kind of offense that not only drew in fans, but helped Duke become a national contender that could compete with the likes of UConn and Tennessee.
McCallie’s teams were not known for their offense; they had more of a grind-it-out style. That had its effectiveness, too, but ultimately Duke regressed as a national power.
Lawson played for coach who stressed defense and rebounding in Summitt, but the vastness of her experience should be a real strength in how she develops Duke’s style.
“She’s played in a bunch of different systems and had experience under a bunch of different coaches,” said Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird, who played against Lawson in college and the WNBA, and with her on the U.S. national team. “What I have found is you just kind of take a little bit from all those coaches. Because you got to play in the style, you know what works, what doesn’t work. And you can easily relay that. Kara being a point guard, she has that mindset.
“I actually think her being announcer for all these years doesn’t get talked about enough. When you’re an announcer, you’re exposed to a lot — you’re in shootarounds, you get to listen to different coaches and are constantly analyzing the game in the way a coach would.
“I think one of the hardest things for a head coach is subbing, but Kara has experienced that a little bit already as an assistant with the Celtics.”