When Duke announced its new women’s basketball assistant coaching staff under new head coach Kara Lawson one week ago, the lineup brought with it a certain black and gold hue.
Lawson, an Alexandria native who was most recently an assistant coach in the NBA with the Celtics, hired Beth Cunningham, Tia Jackson and Winston Gandy to be part of her squadron in Durham. Both Cunningham and Jackson began their collegiate coaching careers at VCU.
Cunningham was the head coach at VCU from 2003-12, after two years on David Glass’ staff, when she became the program’s all-time coaching wins leader and led the Rams to their first NCAA tournament (2009). Jackson was an assistant under Glass from 1996-99.
Both have gone on to success elsewhere. Cunningham joined Muffet McGraw’s staff at Notre Dame (2012-20), her alma mater, and went on to help the Fighting Irish to five total Final Four appearances, including four trips to the national title game and a championship victory in 2018. Jackson has been an assistant coach at Stanford (1999-00), UCLA (2000-05), Duke (2005-07), Rutgers (2011-15) and Miami (2015-20), and was the head coach at Washington from 2007-11. She’s been to a total of nine NCAA tournaments, including a national title game appearance with Duke in 2006.
Both look back at their time in Richmond fondly, as they team up to try to take Duke back to the heights at which it has soared before.
“Just so many great memories,” Cunningham said of VCU. “And certainly it’s some place that’s always going to be a special place for [my husband Dan and I]. And then, to have the opportunity to take a program and really build it from the ground up like we were able to do is something that I was really, really proud of by the time we left there.”
Cunningham and Jackson didn’t overlap at VCU, but Glass — born in Petersburg and a 1986 VCU graduate — was the common denominator. Glass was an assistant coach at Notre Dame before he was hired as head coach at VCU in 1996. He recruited both Cunningham and Jackson, before Jackson chose Iowa. Cunningham (1993-97) and Jackson (1990-95) had successful playing careers with the Fighting Irish and Hawkeyes, respectively.
“He gave me an opportunity and a platform to learn, and learn kind of as a green, starting-my-career-out coach,” Jackson said of Glass. “I was very green. But he allowed me to use my instincts and trust the fact that building relationships was a strong strength of mine. So I was able to do that, and relatively well. So, kudos to Coach Glass for giving me that opportunity.”
Cunningham then took over for Glass in 2003, beginning a tenure during which she went 167-115 overall and, in addition to the 2009 NCAA tournament appearance, took VCU to the WNIT in 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
The hiring of Lawson at Duke, the first Black head coach in the program’ history, was announced on Friday, July 11.
It was a quick turnaround from there to bring Cunningham and Jackson into the fold.
Early that Sunday, Lawson called McGraw, who retired in April. Then Lawson called Cunningham to gauge her interest in coming to Duke. The two talked again that night, and Cunningham accepted the position. She was on the job by that Wednesday. Jackson started shortly thereafter.
As Jackson put it, it’s been an “insane” past several days for them, attacking recruiting and beginning to build relationships with the current players.
“I’m excited to just feel the players and understand what they need and be able to get the best out of them coming up,” Jackson said, while on a break during her Wednesday-morning trip to Durham, from Florida.
Duke is a program that enjoyed perennial deep NCAA tournament runs in the past. From 2002-13, the Blue Devils made six Elite Eights and three Final Fours, including the 2006 national championship game appearance. They also won six ACC tournament titles.
Cunningham said they all feel that Duke has everything in place to win national titles. Those, and conference championships, are the goal.
Lawson, the new boss, is someone who Jackson said has a “heck of a mind on so many levels, not just basketball.” That’s what the staff is looking for in its players.
“And with that said, that will take care of where we’re headed,” Jackson said. “Whether it is exemplary of what we did in the past, or it goes further and beyond that.”
Cunningham and Jackson will be helping to steer the ship, with careers that bloomed at VCU.