After a 10-day, nationwide search, Duke went outside the program, and outside the box, to fill its women’s basketball coaching vacancy.
The Blue Devils introduced Kara Lawson as the fifth head coach in the team’s history, and the program’s first African American head coach, on Monday.
Lawson had a long, successful playing career, making three Final Fours in four years at Tennessee, winning a title and making the All-Star team in the WNBA, and also winning Olympic gold.
“Kara is a highly seasoned champion at every level,” Duke AD Kevin White said. “She has a peerless track record of success. If you don’t know that at this point, you’re living under a rock. It’s very clear if you’re paying attention.”
What Lawson didn’t have was much experience coaching, and none at the collegiate level. She coached 3-on-3 basketball for Team USA and spent the last season with the Celtics, one of four female assistants in the NBA.
“It was the sum total of all of Kara’s experiences,” said Duke administrator Nina King, who was involved in planning the search. “While she hasn’t been a college coach, she spent thousands of hours at practice, talking to coaches, around student-athletes during her time as a broadcaster. During her time as USA Basketball 3-on-3 coach, she’s been with college student-athletes.
“So she’s not coming into the college scene from scratch. It’s just different and unique experiences. We were kind of looking at the total package, and Kara had it all for us. In evaluating all of our candidates, they all had unique experiences and characteristics. For us, Kara just rose to the top.”
Lawson also had no connections to the Duke program, even apologizing for not wearing school colors to her press conference, which was done on Zoom from her Celtics hotel room in Orlando, Florida, where the team is preparing to resume the season.
“I didn’t have any blue in the Bubble, so I did my best,” she said.
Still, despite the lack of experience, Lawson emphasized that coaching was in her blood.
“This is a dream come true for me,” she said. “I’ve wanted to be a coach since I was a kid, and I guess you would say I took kind of a circuitous route to get there. But I’m here now and so excited about the opportunity to help shape young women, help grow their games, grow their personalities and help them mature throughout their college years.”
Lawson has gotten support from some of the biggest names in Duke athletics.
“I do want to thank Coach K (men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski) and Coach (David) Cutcliffe,” she said. “Their impact on me, not only through the process but relationships I’ve had with both Coach K and Coach Cutcliffe over the years. I couldn’t be walking into a situation any better as a first-time head coach than to have those two men as mentors. I’m looking forward to learning from them and being part of the Duke athletic department.”
She also got the blessing from a former player of Coach K’s that she’s gotten to know in her year in Boston.
“Jayson Tatum is obviously very excited,” she said. “We started off our practice around the circle and JT gave a great intro on how excited he was for me to be at Duke now.”
Lawson beat out a crowded field to win the Duke job, although administrators wouldn’t mention the names of any of the other candidates that were considered.
“We vetted and evaluated over 20 serious candidates,” King said. “From there, we had conversations with six and then invited two for finalist interviews before announcing our selection.”
Three members of the team, senior Jade Williams, redshirt junior Mikayla Boykin and junior Onome Akinbode-James, also assisted in the search.
“Mikayla, Jade and Onome all participated,” King said. “When Kara became our top candidate, we had them spend some time having a conversation with Kara so that we could get their feedback. This day and age, we certainly want student-athlete feedback in a lot of parts of the process, and we really valued what they had to say. They obviously had a great conversation with Kara and are all-in.”
Lawson has been busy talking to players — past, present and potentially future — to build bridges to the program’s history and top high school recruits.
She’s also preparing to leave the Celtics and the NBA Bubble behind.
“I think it’s the relationships that makes basketball special,” she continued. “I’ve built a lot of deep relationships with these guys. I think any coach that’s leaving a place and going to another place knows that feeling, and it’s hard to leave. Certainly, the relationships that I’ve built all over the roster and all over the coaching staff — yeah, it’s difficult.”