Stephanie White and Gail Goestenkors recently found themselves joking about something that wasn't so funny when it happened. It was the 1999 national championship game, when Goestenkors was coaching Duke and White was playing for Purdue. Both teams had played so well throughout the NCAA tournament that year. But on the programs' biggest night to date, their offenses sputtered.
"We were just talking about how we were hoping that someone -- anyone -- was going to score, because that game ... oh my gosh," said Goestenkors, whose Blue Devils lost 62-45 to the Boilermakers. "I remember I was thinking, 'Please let us hit 20 points by halftime.' Steph said she was thinking the same thing. It's funny, our paths have crossed many times."
That included in recruiting -- Goestenkors had tried to lure White to Duke -- and in USA Basketball. Now, they are working together, along with Gary Kloppenburg, as the staff of the WNBA's Indiana Fever.
White, whose status as an Indiana basketball legend goes back to her days at Seeger High in West Lebanon, Indiana, is in her first season as the Fever's head coach after serving as an assistant to Lin Dunn for four years.
Dunn, who retired after last season, did a commendable job of preparing White to take over. Then it was up to White to decide what kind of staff to choose. Some people, in being elevated to the top spot for the first time, might have opted for younger assistants who'd be prone to be more deferential -- just to make it a little smoother transition to being the one ultimately in charge.
That's not what White wanted, though. She went the opposite route. Goestenkors was a head collegiate coach for 20 years at Duke and then Texas. Kloppenburg, a longtime assistant in both the WNBA and NBA, also has WNBA head-coaching experience from his two seasons at Tulsa. White will turn 38 in June, while Goestenkors is 52 and Kloppenburg 62.
"I'm a firm believer that you surround yourself with people who have more wisdom and see different things," White said. "Not just people who agree with you all the time. I'm not going to get better as a coach, and neither is our team, if I'm not open to being challenged.
"Lin is the first person I worked with who was open for debate on everything; she always wanted to hear other people's thoughts. It really helped me in terms of who I wanted to coach with me."
Goestenkors and Kloppenburg were assistants to Carol Ross last season in Los Angeles. When Ross was let go in July, Goestenkors also left the Sparks. Kloppenburg finished out the season in L.A. but was happy to get the chance to return this year to Indiana, where he previously was an assistant from 2008-11.
That stretch included one year overlapping with White as a Fever assistant. During that time, Kloppenburg impressed White with his prowess in coaching defense at the professional level, so she was eager to bring him back to Indiana.
"It's a first-class situation, and I think Steph is going to be a terrific young coach," Kloppenburg said. "The players really respect her. She wants help with the defensive side, and she has no ego about it. So it's a really good chemistry."
White echoed that, saying, "Defense is not an area I'm as naturally drawn to, and we had lulled a little bit in our defense the last couple of years. I knew that's what Klop does, and I needed someone who had that strength."
As for the other assistant position, White sought someone who had extensive head coaching experience and was of a similar offensive mindset. Goestenkors was an obvious choice.
"She's someone who can help me in terms of developing rotations, game flow and timeout situations," White said. "As much as you feel you already know that stuff, it's good to have more experience with it. I knew that I also needed someone who could say, 'Why don't we try this?' or 'Hey, you're being a little crazy here.' "
White, who competed for the Fever four seasons before retiring in 2004, joins Phoenix's Sandy Brondello and Seattle's Jenny Boucek as former WNBA players who are now head coaches in the league. Last season, Brondello became the first former WNBA player to win the league title as a head coach.
"I think it's a natural part of the growth of our game; we're going to see more and more elite players move into coaching," Goestenkors said. "I saw [longtime WNBA star] Tina Thompson just took a job at Texas; I always thought she would be an excellent coach, and I think one day she'll be a head coach as well.
"Steph is extremely organized; her practices are very focused, productive, intense. I'm impressed with her. She's got such an incredible basketball mind."
Like White, Goestenkors also gives a lot of credit to Dunn in how she developed her coaching philosophy. Goestenkors was an assistant to Dunn at Purdue in the late 1980s and early 1990s before leaving to take over at Duke in 1992. Goestenkors then led the Blue Devils to four appearances in the Women's Final Four in her 15 seasons in Durham, North Carolina.
Her move to Texas did not have the results she was hoping for, and when she stepped away from coaching in 2012 despite time still on her contract, she said she was burned out and not sure if she'd return to the profession.
Last year, she enjoyed a brief return to the sideline with the Sparks, and now she sees this opportunity with the Fever as a perfect fit. Goestenkors is going to be inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in June but said she's still discovering more about the game.
"I think every college coach should come and watch pro workouts," Goestenkors said. "There are so many nuances to the game that a lot of college coaches are not aware of. The defensive schemes, in particular, the offensive reads, the misdirection ... it's much more cerebral at the pro level."
White, Goestenkors and Kloppenburg know they are overseeing the end of an era; Fever superstar Tamika Catchings is in the last two seasons of her contract, and plans to retire in 2016. Catchings has been the face of the franchise since she was drafted in 2001 (even though she didn't play that season, due to injury) and it's difficult to imagine what the Fever will look like without her.
Also, Indiana -- the 2012 league champion -- has made the playoffs the past 10 seasons in a row, the longest active streak in the WNBA. In other words, with so much sustained success for the Fever, is there just a little fear on White's part ...
"That you don't want to be the one to screw it up?" White said, smiling. "Sure, I think naturally you think about that. We've had Tamika her entire career. We haven't had that person who's groomed to be that next franchise player after her. And we know the expectation always is to compete for championships.
"We have to do it collectively, with multiple, versatile lineups. That's going to be my greatest challenge -- for our staff and our team. We are in the process of changing our identity. Tamika and I actually talk about it all the time, even where we want the Fever to be long after we're both gone. I'm so connected to this franchise emotionally."