Coach Abe and Coach P: Longtime Friends Facing-Off at Duke

By: Dave Vatz

ALBANY, N.Y. – On Thursday, two head coaches and friends that have been together through the years will have their teams face-off at Cameron Indoor Stadium, marking another step on the journey that started over 20 years ago.

The University at Albany women’s basketball team, coached by Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, will face Duke University, led by Joanne P. McCallie, on Thursday in a game of teams that have combined to win five conference titles in the past four seasons.  The two are great friends in a very competitive field, continuing that friendship that has spanned many years and states across the country.

Many refer to the two by their nicknames: Abrahamson-Henderson is known as Coach Abe, and McCallie is called Coach P, both referencing their maiden names.

In 1992, a 26-year-old Joanne McCallie (then Joanne Palombo), a Northwestern graduate and assistant coach at Auburn, took over as head coach at the University of Maine, a strong program in the North Atlantic Conference, now known as the America East.  McCallie hired Abrahamson-Henderson (then Katie Abrahamson), an Iowa graduate who had just finished her graduate assistant position at Duquesne, as a full-time assistant.

“I was really enthusiastic as a new head coach, and when I saw Katie’s resume, I knew her from being an All-American in high school,” says McCallie. “I did not know her personally, but when I interviewed her, she was great, and she came on-board.”

“She knew me as a good player, and she needed a post coach,” reflects Abrahamson-Henderson. “She liked the way I played and the fact that I had a tough mindset. She did a phone interview with me and we just clicked.”

In their second year together, the Black Bears went 20-9 with 12-2 conference record, earning the North Atlantic regular season championship.

“We both had some great tutelage under our belts, playing for Hall of Fame coaches,” says Abrahamson-Henderson. “We wanted to outwork people, and we got kids to fit her system and turn the program around.”

The following season, Abrahamson-Henderson moved on to become an assistant coach at Iowa State.  Each coach found strong success in their separate paths: McCallie’s Black Bears won four-straight conference championships, a feat yet to be repeated in the America East, while Abrahamson-Henderson helped Iowa State earn four straight appearances into the NCAA Tournament, including an Elite Eight appearance in 1999 and a Big 12 title the following season.  Though the two were on their separate ways, they kept in regular contact.

“We would talk often, I was always calling me for advice.  Joanne is a great role model and a coach with great vision,” adds Abrahamson-Henderson.

The 2000-01 season brought both coaches back to the conference of their alma maters.  McCallie was hired to be the head coach of Michigan State, and a month later, brought Abrahamson-Henderson in to be an associate head coach.

“I learned a lot from Bill Fennelly at Iowa State, a lot, but I wanted a new challenge,” says Abrahamson-Henderson. “I fell in love with Michigan State, and we went in and rebuilt another program.”

McCallie built a strong coaching staff that year, as all three of her assistants in that season currently run programs of their own.  Abrahamson-Henderson is at UAlbany, Felisha Legette-Jack is currently the head coach at Buffalo and Janel Burgess leads Grand Valley State.

“It was great fun; we were older, wiser and had more experiences, yet we were in the same boat, starting a program from the bottom and waiting to rebuild it,” says McCallie. “We recruited some great kids that helped us get to the national championship in 2005.”

From year one to year two, Michigan State made strong strides, earning 19 wins, a nine-win improvement from the first season, and WNIT semifinal berth.  The two helped build a foundation that saw Michigan State earn NCAA berths for five consecutive seasons from 2003 through 2007.  The Spartans continued to rise, and in the 2004-05 season, defeated Tennessee to earn a place in the NCAA Championship game, falling to Baylor.  This season, McCallie was named the Associated Press National Coach of the Year.

But Abrahamson-Henderson was not there on the Michigan State sidelines, having earned her first head coaching job at Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) for the 2002-03 season.  In her five years with the program, the Bears earned three Missouri Valley Conference titles and had a pair of 25+-win seasons.

After the 2006-07 season, McCallie took the reins of a new program, being named head coach at Duke.

Meanwhile after a year at Washington, Coach Abe returned to the Big Ten as the associate head coach of Indiana University for two seasons, until returning to the head coaching ranks, taking over at the University at Albany in 2010.  Abrahamson-Henderson credits McCallie for helping her with both head coaching jobs.

“She is a great recruiter, and a very selfless person,” says Abrahamson-Henderson about McCallie. “She is a like a sister, she wants to help out all those who have helped her along the way, and she knows I care about her and her successes.”

That year, Duke and UAlbany met at Cameron Indoor Stadium.  It was Abrahamson-Henderson’s first year, and the schedule had been set before she came to UAlbany, except for Duke.  That game was added on.  It was also the first time Abrahamson-Henderson and McCallie met as head coaches; Michigan State and Missouri State did not play each other during their tenures.  An upstart Great Danes team that had started 6-1 but coming off a defeat to Syracuse, was defeated by fifth-ranked and undefeated Duke 83-47.

“What's nice about coaching against a former assistant is she knows that we're serious about the game,” said McCallie after that same game. “There's no time for thinking about anything but the game when it's going on. She's well aware and she's doing a terrific job in her first year. I'm excited for her. That team's got some nice fight. I hope they win the league."

That UAlbany team included young players like Ebone Henry and Julie Forster, key pieces to a program that won America East championships in 2012 and 2013.

McCallie’s Duke teams have seen strong success as well, winning three ACC titles and earning NCAA Elite Eight berths each of the last four years.  With Duke’s win over Oklahoma on December 8th, McCallie earned her 500th win as a head coach.

“All my former players and coaches are a big part of that milestone, and Katie is a part of it,” says McCallie.

Meeting up in 2013, only the UAlbany coaching staff remembers that game from 2010.  Abrahamson-Henderson, assistant coach Mary Grimes and then director of operations Tahnee Balerio were in Durham for that game, but a completely different roster of players will see Duke for the first time.  A different story for the Blue Devils, with current seniors Chelsea Gray and Tricia Liston having led Duke with 15 points each in that 2010 game as freshmen.

But for this contest, though the coaches are friends, it is about the game, not themselves.

“When you get into the competition, that is what it is,” says McCallie. “We will focus on our team, Katie will focus on hers.  That is a great way to coach, and that is how it is.  It is nice to see each other and say hello, but it is still in-season, and it is not as fun seeing each other in the offseason.

“It is about the quality of the experience for our players, and that is why we both do this game,” adds Abrahamson-Henderson. “It is not about her and me, even though we like to see each other.  It is a great experience for our team.”

Both are very busy with being coaches and having families, but the friendship remains strong.  But one place they will not meet up, is in the pool.

“She is a fantastic swimmer, she could have been one in college even before basketball,” says McCallie. “We did some swimming together at Maine, and her strokes were so good, in part because of how tall she is.  We never raced, no need to; we know what would have been the outcome of that.”

“We used to workout all the time at Maine, and I got her into swimming, and we even implemented swimming workouts in our players at Maine,” says Abrahamson-Henderson. “But she knows she could not beat me, ever.”

On Thursday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, both coaches will focus on one objective, trying to win the game.  But no matter what, the ties of friendship will remain strong between these two great head coaches.

Credit Duke Photography for the picture of Coach Joanne McCallie and Greg Fisher for the picture of Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson.  Special thanks to Lindy Brown and the Duke sports information office, which contributed to this piece.