Landing Gail Goestenkors is a home run hire for Kyra Elzy and Kentucky Women’s Basketball.
A member of the 2015 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame class, Goestenkors has the experience of five head coaches. It dates back to her unbelievably impressive stretch with the Duke Blue Devils from 1992-2007, in which she posted a 396-99 record (.800) over that span and made it to the Sweet 16 or further in the final 10 seasons she was in Durham, NC.
Included were two Final Four finishes and two NCAA Runners-Up finishes. Naturally, she won seven ACC Coach of the Year awards while also earning a Naismith Coach of the Year award in 2003 and an AP National Coach of the Year recognition in 2007. Yet somehow, her resume hardly ends there.
You have to include Goestenkors’ five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with Texas during the five seasons she was the head coach of the Longhorns following her tenure with Duke. She also earned six medal finishes as a coach with USA Basketball, four of them Gold with one coming as the head coach of the FIBA Under-19 Women’s Basketball World Cup in 2005. Then there was the two-year stretch as a WNBA assistant coach from 2014-15 and a four-year run working with ESPN as an analyst and commentator. She even co-founded her own basketball consulting agency, Coaching Full Circle, before returning to college coaching ahead of the 2020-21 season.
From her time at Duke coaching the likes of Alana Beard (the 2004 AP Player of the Year and eventual multi-time WNBA All-Star) to teaching players such as Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker with Team USA, Goestenkors was always bound to have her name enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
After a brief hiatus from coaching and spending some time in front of the camera, Goestenkors’ itch to get back into the college game eventually became too much for her to ignore. It began with a one-year run at Central Michigan this past season where she slid in as an assistant coach and helped lead the Chippewas to the program’s third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
Oddly enough, it was her ex-husband, Mark Simons, who was about to enter his second season as an assistant at CMU but would retire before the start of the year due to COVID-19 concerns, who reached out to and recommended that Goestenkors replace him on the staff. She accepted the position and quickly became the associate head coach to Heather Oesterle, who–much like current Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy will do this fall–was about to embark on her second season as a college head coach.
Now with over 30 years of coaching experience, including some broadcasting practice, Goestenkors joins the Kentucky Wildcats as an assistant coach under Coach Elzy. She brings an added layer of knowledge that only a handful of coaches in the history of basketball have been able to experience.
“It’s been exciting,” Goestenkors told KSR on Wednesday about being hired as an assistant at Kentucky. “I feel so blessed and honored to have the opportunity to coach with Coach Elzy. I think she’s got great vision. She and her staff, they’re so high energy. I had the opportunity to talk with them all during this process and I just love their energy, their passion, their commitment, their vision. It’s all good stuff, so it feels really good to be a part of their team now.”
Goestenkors is no stranger to Coach Elzy and the Kentucky program, either. During her time as an analyst with ESPN, Goestenkors said she was able to cover several games as the TV commentator when Elzy was an assistant at both Kentucky and Tennessee. She was able to go inside some of the practices, ask questions, and develop her own coaching brain even further.
“I got to know her a little bit more when I would just ask questions,” Goestenkors said about Elzy “I would watch their practices, I was always extremely impressed with her teaching and with her demeanor with her players, at both institutions (UT and UK). So I knew her out in recruiting circles, and obviously as a player. She was playing when I coached at Duke, we played against them. I’ve known her for a long time and now I’m getting to know her very well.”
Not only did Goestenkors and her Duke squad play against Coach Elzy when she was a college guard under legendary head coach Pat Summitt at Tennessee, but she beat the Lady Volunteers when UT was at its peak. Tennessee had a shot at a four-peat as NCAA Champions entering the 1999 NCAA Tournament but was bested by Goestenkors and the Blue Devils during the Elite Eight before Duke ultimately lost in the National Championship game to Purdue.
While Goestenkors admitted that she doesn’t remember coaching against Elzy in that game, she does recall that win as the “turning point” for the Duke program. The one that took them from a regular NCAA Tournament team to a national powerhouse that would contend with–and beat–the Tennessees and UConns of the women’s college basketball sphere. Following that loss in the national title game, Duke made at least the Sweet 16 over the next eight seasons. One of those trips included an Elite Eight win over Geno Auriemma and UConn in 2006 when Duke was the tournament’s top overall seed.
“I think anybody who’s a true competitor, you want to play with the best, you want to play against the best,” Goestenkors said. “So for me, as a young head coach, I was excited. We brought in Tennessee–every other year I said I want to play at home Tennessee or Connecticut and then I want to play the other one on the road. The ACC was obviously very good as well but if you want to be a national power you’ve got to play the national powers and it does make you better.”
Taking a program from last-place in the conference to the unquestioned favorite is a task that not many have been able to pull off to the degree of success that Goestenkors did at Duke. But it took a village.
“I think it was the people,” Goestenkors said about how she able to reach such success with the Blue Devils. “The people that I surrounded myself with; my assistants, support staff, we were all committed to the same goal and that was excellence on the court, classroom, and in the community. It was the people we were surrounded with and it was also the people we brought in. Very high integrity, high energy players that wanted to be the very best, again whether that was on the court, classroom, or community.
“We were committed to just bringing in the very best people to our program and once you get it going, they helped us bring in other great people and great players and it just snowballed. The expectations of excellence snowballed. It was a lot of fun but it took a lot of work to get to where it was. When we first got to Duke they were last place in the ACC, I think people forget that. We only had eight scholarships. You were allowed to have 15, we only had eight. So it was a long hard process to go from last place to consistently being at the top of the ACC and a national power as well. But I attribute all of the success we’ve had to people, to relationships, to shared vision.”
Joining Coach Elzy’s staff, Goestenkors hopes to be one of those people at Kentucky, someone who shares the same vision as everyone else: to win national championships in Lexington. After a rough rookie season in 2020-21 where the pandemic surely did her no favors, Elzy comes into year two still ahead of the curve.
“To trust herself. She’s got such good instincts, she’s a great person, she’s an excellent coach,” Goestenkors said about what advice she’ll give Elzy early on. “I think she’s real hard on herself, and [she needs] to trust herself and know she’s so far ahead of where any of us were at this stage of her career. So she’s way ahead of the game. She’s very open, she’s receptive, she wants to be great and she’s a player’s coach. Those players they love, they trust her, they respect her, she’s ahead of the ball game.”
It also helps that Elzy has a staff around her that features the likes of assistant coach Niya Butts (who spent eight seasons as the head coach at Arizona before coming to Kentucky) and Lin Dunn (a Hall of Famer in her own right who is currently the special assistant to the head coach at UK). Goestenkors actually coached under Dunn from 1986-92 when the latter was a successful head coach at Purdue, and part of that past relationship parlayed into them linking up again nearly 30 years later.
It was actually former Kentucky Women’s Basketball head coach Mickie DeMoss who reached out to Goestenkors about the position at UK.
“I didn’t even know there was an opening,” Goestenkors added. “I thought when Coach Elzy got moved into the head coaching position, I thought that position was filled as an assistant. So all year long I didn’t know it was open and then I was actually talking with Mickie DeMoss and Lin Dunn, and Mickie is a mentor of Coach Elzy’s, having coached her at Tennessee as well. So Mickie was talking about what Coach Elzy was looking for and all the sudden I said ‘Well I didn’t even know she had an opening,’ and she said yes and I said ‘Wow, you think she might be interested in having me come on board?’ and she said ‘I believe she would. Let me talk to her.’”
Goestenkors will add to that vast experience already on staff. There were glimmers of greatness from last season’s squad, but the consistency was missing. Goestenkors wants to bring that stability, something she is very familiar with creating thanks to her time at Duke.
“I told Coach Elzy I was really impressed with how she handled everything,” Goestenkors said about Elzy’s rookie season as a head coach. “Watching them play, they had some games where–South Carolina where they’re so close to beating the very best but it was not consistent, so them learning how good they can be and carrying that. The great teams have that consistency about them, and just getting comfortable with having that kind of superstar with Rhyne Howard and being able to play with her and through her and not just watch her. I saw moments of greatness so it’s just expanding those moments.”
During her time at Duke, Goestenkors dealt with several future WNBA players, most notably Alana Beard. Goestenkors knows how to develop relationships with those stars and, more importantly, how to properly use them within the flow of an offense. She told KSR that Elzy wants her to run the offense during practice, specifically with wing players such as Rhyne Howard, Treasure Hunt, and Blair Green.
Last season, Kentucky noticeably struggled on the offensive end of the floor near the end of the season, at times relying far too much on Howard to make a play. As of right now, Goestenkors plans to speed up the tempo a bit more and utilize this team’s current strengths, which are getting out in transition and putting Howard in scoring position.
“She definitely wants me to do the shooting drills,” Goestenkors said of what Elzy envisions moving forward. “Work on getting shots out of our offensive sets, maybe tweaking some of the things we’ve done offensively in the past, looking to run a lot more, score in transition a lot more. They were very successful and very good when they scored in transition but just a little bit more of that, because once the defenses get set they really focus on Rhyne. So it’ll really help her a lot if we can score more in our initial fastbreak or our secondary break. I will be working with the wings, but whatever coach needs me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Goestenkors said that her desire to return to coaching college hoops resided in her connection to the players–or lack thereof. She missed being able to develop relationships with young women and watch them grow on a personal and athletic level. Essentially, she wasn’t able to help people in the way she knew she was capable of.
“When I went from ESPN–I enjoyed it, being an analyst, but it didn’t fill my heart,” Goestenkors explained. “I didn’t feel like I was helping anybody, so then we started our consulting company and we really started to feel like we were part of a team, but we couldn’t get on the floor to help the players. We were just helping the coaches, so there was that piece that was still missing in my heart. I love working with players. I love helping motivate, inspire, teach, and so I knew I wanted to get back on the court and be a part of a team, I still had so much left to give.”
Coach Elzy could have easily chalked her first season as a head coach to somewhat of a fluke; the restrictions from COVID-19 along with having just 13 days from the time that Matthew Mitchell announced his retirement to the start of the regular season put her in the most unique of situations. But great coaches recognize when they need an extra voice of reason in their ear, and who better to bring in than one of the best to ever do it at the college level.
It wasn’t just a home run hire by Kentucky, it was a bottom-of-the-ninth-inning grand slam.