The pleasantries are the same as always, but there's not much reality behind them. You say, "Hi, how are you doing?" to Texas coach Gail Goestenkors. She says, "I'm good, how about you?"
You know, of course, that "good" is not how Goestenkors feels at all. It's the morning after her Longhorns lost 80-59 to Baylor in a game they never looked to have a chance to win. It dropped Texas to 15-12 overall, 5-10 in the Big 12.
The Longhorns are tied with Texas Tech and Oklahoma State one spot above the Big 12 basement, with only soon-to-depart-the-conference Missouri below them. Texas still has three regular-season games left: at home against Oklahoma and Texas A&M, two teams currently tied for second place in the Big 12, and what could be the program's last trip to Mizzou.
Save a really big finish by the Longhorns -- who haven't shown to date they have that in them -- this will be the first time since the 1993-94 season that Goestenkors will not have a team in the NCAA tournament.
That was her second season at Duke, which ended with a 60-45 loss in the ACC quarterfinals to Maryland. In 1995, Duke made the ACC tournament final, got an NCAA berth, and then played one of the most legendary NCAA tournament games: a 121-120 quadruple-overtime loss at Alabama.
Goestenkors hasn't missed an NCAA tournament since, even with her move to the Lone Star State in the spring of 2007 -- a relocation that so far hasn't worked out the way Goestenkors nor Texas had hoped.
A lot of Longhorns fans are upset, some extremely so. Women's basketball followers have been speculating whether Texas actually might pull the plug on Goestenkors and buy out the final two years of her contract, the type of action you just don't see very often in women's basketball. Especially not involving a coach with four Final Four appearances on her résumé.
Is Goestenkors' time about to end at Texas? Actually, I don't think so. The administration -- particularly women's athletics director Chris Plonsky -- went all-out to hire her and has considerable stake in seeing that she succeeds. Injuries are a big mitigating factor this season (we'll examine that in a moment). And even with the resources the school has, paying one women's hoops coach big bucks to leave while doing the same to bring another in is not really a fiscally reasonable thing for Texas to do now.
However, if the Longhorns are in the very same shape at this time next year, then you'd have Goestenkors potentially entering a lame-duck season probably without a contract extension. Which, recruiting-wise, Texas also can't afford to have happen.
That means Goestenkors will have to salvage what she can of 2011-12, then hope the injury bug doesn't bite so hard next season, which will also see the arrival to Austin of blue-chip recruits Imani Stafford, a 6-foot-7 post, and 5-7 guard Empress Davenport.
Admittedly, though, there's only so much "wait-until-next-year" promise that a program can live with, especially one with the resources and expectations of Texas.
"You're never as good as people think you are, nor as bad as people think you are," Goestenkors said. "We've listed all the things that have not gone right for us, but there simply are no excuses. I expect greatness from us. Nobody can put more pressure on me than I put on myself."
Goestenkors isn't focusing on the fact that the ice is getting thinner underneath her, but she does know it. The rest of this season and into next could radically impact her future, one she figured five years ago was relatively set.
What's gone wrong?
When Goestenkors arrived in Austin in the spring of 2007, she figured it was where she would retire. Where she'd achieve the one thing that eluded her at Duke: an NCAA title. Where she'd carve out her place in a Longhorns athletic department that she'd observed in awe from a great distance as an NAIA player in Michigan in the early-to-mid 1980s. That's when Texas athletics was very far ahead of the pack in its treatment of and goals for women's athletics, a beacon nationally.
As Goestenkors was agonizing over whether to leave Duke, Texas' offered salary -- a seven-year deal that would put her in the rare air of the million-dollar club -- clearly was a powerful factor, as it would be for most people.
Yet Goestenkors was also pretty impressed with the financial package Duke eventually offered to keep her. Money really wasn't the tipping point. It was the lure of being at a school she'd considered the pinnacle when the idea of coaching had taken root for her in college.
It sticks with me, something Goestenkors said in 2007 while wrestling with the decision, "This is so hard, but it's Texas, you know? Texas!"
Five years later, there are some Longhorns fans who wish Texas' appeal actually had not been so strong for her. They are disappointed with Goestenkors' results: A 99-62 record and four trips to the NCAA tournament, but no wins past the first round. And they're not very interested in going over any of the reasons why, because they've been hearing them for a while.
That said, they know there have been some crucial injuries, especially this season. Texas expected to have a 14-player roster that included eight guards. Injuries and illness whittled that down to seven players -- only three of them guards -- who've played in 25 or more of Texas' 27 games. Guard Chelsea Bass, who recently returned to the lineup, has played in 20.
The key injury was to freshman Cassie Peoples, ranked as the nation's No. 7 guard in her class by ESPN HoopGurlz, who was expected to run the point. Peoples tried to play after having surgery on her left leg last summer, but had to shut it down after just six games.
Tiffany Moore played in four games before her season was ended by a serious allergy problem. Her fellow sophomore guard Shanice McCoy never saw the court this season after suffering a torn ACL late in the summer.
"It's been challenging, and very difficult," Goestenkors said. "Then you add in [post player] Cokie Reed, who was injured last year and is not back at 100 percent still. It's been tough trying to rearrange things and put people in positions they're not really comfortable with."
But frustrated Texas fans will say injuries happen to every team. They'll point to Oklahoma, which lost Danielle Robinson to the WNBA and then two players in the preseason to ACL injuries, yet is still tied for second in the Big 12 and sure to make its 13th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
There is, in fact, a lot of other success to point to around Texas, which further fuels Longhorn fans' ire. Coach Kim Mulkey's Baylor team is unbeaten and gunning for that program's third Final Four appearance -- which would tie it, historically, with Texas. Texas A&M won the NCAA title last season. And while coach Gary Blair's Aggies have had their ups and downs in their last season in the Big 12 after losing two starters to the WNBA, they are tied with OU in second place behind Baylor.
In early January, Goestenkors got her first victory as the Longhorns' coach over Texas A&M, which briefly appeased fans after a 0-2 start to Big 12 play. But then the Longhorns lost six of their next eight, including a four-game skid that tested even some of the staunchest Texas loyalists: losses to rival Texas Tech, Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas.
The latter three are from what used to be considered the "weaker" Big 12 North, when there really were 12 teams in the conference and they were divided (not in the standings) for scheduling purposes. With the departure of Nebraska and Colorado, the league went to a full round-robin schedule. The coaches have acknowledged it has made the league even more of a grind.
"You can ask any coach in the country, they don't want to play 18 games in their league," Goestenkors said. "You've added more travel, plus now we have no bye week."
Texas got victories at home against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, but then lost a second time to Kansas State this past weekend. Tuesday, the Longhorns fell at Baylor by the same 80-59 score as their loss to the Green Giant in Austin in mid-January.
So here we are, with a lot of Horns fans feeling miserable and, as mentioned, plenty of speculation over Goestenkors' tenure in Austin.
Tough league to join
Goestenkors, however, is not the only Big 12 coach who left a comfortable job to come to what she thought was a dream position in this league, only to end up losing a lot of sleep once she got here.
Tuesday night, while Baylor thumped Texas, Kansas beat Texas Tech. Just three days earlier, the Jayhawks -- still reeling from the ACL injury to top scorer Carolyn Davis -- had lost at home to Missouri, which previously was winless in the Big 12. It potentially could be the last rendition of the longtime "Border War," since Mizzou will join the SEC next season.
Seconds before tipoff of that game, Davis -- one of KU's heart-and-soul players, along with Angel Goodrich -- had fallen to the floor when her injured knee buckled while she was in the huddle. With Davis in tears on the bench, the Jayhawks took the court -- and played zombie-like defense. Which actually might be an insult to zombies; the Tigers shot 60 percent overall in the first half, 75 percent from behind the arc.
A spirited second-half rally wasn't enough, and Kansas fell 70-65.
"It was a dagger," KU coach Bonnie Henrickson said of the loss, as she and her players looked like they had each been stabbed by one. "It was about the most upset locker room I've ever been in."
Which is saying something, considering the Jayhawks have lost three WNBA-caliber players to ACL injuries in the past four seasons: Danielle McCray (who's now with the Connecticut Sun), Davis and junior guard Goodrich (twice).
Also, KU's NCAA tournament skid has continued under Henrickson. The Jayhawks haven't been in the field since 2000, and that was something Henrickson -- hired from Virginia Tech in 2004 -- was expecting to remedy pretty quickly.
Yet even though the Jayhawks frankly looked dead in the water on Saturday, they pulled what was to most Big 12 followers a stunner Tuesday. It was at the expense of the team that had lost by only five points to Baylor last Saturday: Texas Tech.
For the first time since 1978 -- when KU was led by a soon-to-be-legend named Lynette Woodard -- the Jayhawks won at Texas Tech. They'd been 0-for-Lubbock in their entire time in the Big 12 before Tuesday.
Which leaves KU 18-9 overall and still clinging to the NCAA bubble, with games left against Baylor (uggghh), Oklahoma State (still dangerous) and Oklahoma (a team that Henrickson hasn't defeated while at KU). If the Jayhawks can win one of those three, they'll be 8-10 in the conference. Then they'll have to win at least one Big 12 tournament game and hope.
"I've experienced the NCAA tournament," said Henrickson, who took the Hokies to the Big Dance five times in her seven seasons as Virginia Tech's head coach. "I want these kids to experience it. And for the fans, who've been so loyal, to enjoy in those moments as well."
Meanwhile, Texas Tech coach Kristy Curry has seen this season slide into the nightmare realm. The Lady Raiders were unbeaten in nonconference play, with their best win coming against Penn State. But Big 12 play turned sour for Tech after two victories. Tech lost its next five in a row, and now has won just three of its past 13.
Tech didn't make the NCAA tournament in Marsha Sharp's final season (2006), nor in Curry's first four after coming in from Purdue, where she coached in the 2001 NCAA championship game.
Texas Tech returned to the NCAA tournament last year after an 8-8 Big 12 record, and it seemed perhaps the program had turned a corner. This season, though, it again appears Tech -- 17-10 overall and 5-10 in the league -- has run into another wall.
"I saw Kristy's face after [Tuesday's] game," Henrickson said with genuine empathy. "I know that look. I've had that look myself. Before the game, we both knew, 'We have to beat you to keep our hopes alive.'"
The bottom line
This is not to make excuses or drum up phony sympathy for Goestenkors, Henrickson or Curry. Or any other coach who is feeling heat (not in any kind of pleasant, next-to-the-fireplace way).
Part of the evolution of women's basketball has been more fans, more expectations, higher salaries and that brings the reality of "win or else." It's a hard bottom line with coaches who are good people that do really care about kids. But it's a realistic bottom line, nonetheless.
"I understand it, I do," Henrickson said. "But the only thing -- and the most important thing -- I can do is work as hard and efficiently as I can with the kids I have in the program. Nobody wants success more for these kids than I do."
In the cases of Goestenkors, Henrickson and Curry, there are some things that they share in common: injuries, recruiting misses, and even the fact that their predecessors were each at their respective schools for more than two decades before they took over. There was a lot that Texas' Jody Conradt, Texas Tech's Sharp and Kansas' Marian Washington had in place for a very long time, and change always brings some pain.
There are other things that are more specific to each current coach's troubles. Goestenkors, for instance, has been criticized by some Texas fans as being "distant" or "aloof." When she took the job, a colleague of mine who was a native Texan and knew Lone Star State prep basketball very well said that Goestenkors would struggle to connect with high school and AAU coaches, as well as recruits' parents and fans. Why?
"She's a Yankee," my friend said about the Michigan-native Goestenkors. "She's been in North Carolina, but being at Duke is not like being in the South. It's not like being in Texas. She doesn't know how to just shoot the breeze with people down here, and you need to do that. You have to ask about their kids and their mama and their hound dog and the Cowboys and the weather and the whole thing."
When I pointed out that Goestenkors had become a superb recruiter while turning Duke into a destination spot, my friend still shook her head.
"It's not like recruiting against Gary and Kim and everybody else here who knows Texas people," she said. "I'm telling you, she doesn't know what she's in for."
My friend was right, and you can say in retrospect that Goestenkors should have either kept someone from Conradt's staff or hired a Texas native right away. Goestenkors readily acknowledges now that was her biggest mistake when she took the job.
"I didn't know the state when I came in," she admitted. "We've worked our tails off to do that, and we feel good about where it's going. It takes time to develop relationships, whereas if I would have hired someone who was involved with all those coaches in the state, it would have speeded up the process."
One could say the administration or other coaches at Texas should have been more pro-active about advising her in that regard. But when you hand over that big a check to a coach, maybe you figure you don't need to issue any instructions with it.
Not all Texas fans are willing to write off Goestenkors, though, nor do they think it's impossible for her to become "more Texan" as the years go by. Some see her "getting it" with staff changes, such as bringing former Longhorns star Edwina Brown -- a native of the state -- aboard as an assistant coach. They are willing to hang in there, at least a little longer, although they aren't having much fun.
And even those fans who are about ready to grab the pitchforks and chase Goestenkors out of the state -- not literally, of course -- they can still be won over, but only by one thing: winning. If Goestenkors' team was leading the Big 12 right now, those fans wouldn't care if she didn't even know the Cowboys were in the NFL (which she does, of course).
"A big thing is players have to get healthy," she said. "Cokie, Cassie and Tiffany Moore are the three highest-ranked kids we've signed, and none of them have really been healthy.
"Growth sometimes is painful, and we're going through growing pains, still. I know some fans are having trouble with patience, and that's OK. I'm impatient, too, and I'm frustrated. My biggest concern is my players. So I go to work every day giving my all in trying to help them."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.