Joanne Palombo wasn’t old enough to drive. She wasn’t old enough to vote. She wasn’t old enough to hold an after-school job. But early in her playing career at Brunswick High School, she was, as Ed Feeney saw first-hand, old enough to possess a highly competitive drive.

The former Portland High coach saw a basketball player whose vision encompassed the entire court, who utilized her teammates, who could handle the ball, who could shoot, and who made the best decisions in the flow of a game.

“There wasn’t much she couldn’t do,” Feeney said. “But she didn’t try to be flashy. She was a real team player. She was a fierce competitor, the same as she is right now when she’s coaching.”

Now known as Joanne P. McCallie, she is one of the nation’s most recognizable women’s basketball coaches at one of the nation’s most recognizable academic institutions. Years later, McCallie’s competitive fire still scorches.

Basketball was a manifestation of McCallie’s fire and her passions — the sport took her from a military family that moved around the country before settling in Maine, to suburban Chicago, and to college towns such as East Lansing, Mich., and Auburn, Ala. The passion has manifested more passions in her. Because of basketball, she discovered a love for working with people and teaching life lessons.

“You have to follow your passions,” McCallie said. “You must think deeply and often about what your passions are. If you follow your passions, only good things will happen. If you’re following things for the reward, then that’s going to be an empty existence.”

But each summer, her passion brings her back to Maine, to spend time with her family and friends. Today, McCallie, 45, will be the keynote speaker at the All-Sports Awards Ceremony, an event honoring the high school MVPs chosen by The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 28 sports.

Amy Vachon, the former Cony standout who played for McCallie at the University of Maine, pinpoints a constant for McCallie through the years — the value she puts in maintaining the roots of her formative years.

“She doesn’t forget where she’s from,” said Vachon, recently named an assistant women’s coach at UMaine.

THE DECISION TO COACH

Feeney coached at Portland for 28 years and faced Brunswick twice during McCallie’s high school years. He regarded McCallie as a student of the game, a trait that carried into her coaching career — a career that didn’t come without a push.

As a player, McCallie dedicated herself to the game. Her high school coach, Fred Koerber, first encouraged her to go into coaching, but when she graduated from Northwestern in 1987 with a degree in political science, she was uncertain of her first career move. The orthodox progression would be to pursue playing overseas, which in the late 1980s was one of the few post-collegiate avenues for women’s basketball players.

McCallie joined Joe Ciampi’s staff at Auburn in 1988 as a graduate assistant, after a year of working in sales and marketing, and she worked toward a master’s degree in business administration. She discovered that as a coach, she had the ability to empower the women she worked with as basketball players and as individuals. She discovered a belief in finding a way to help each person unleash not only their strengths and skills, but their character.

“I want my players to be fighters,” McCallie said. “In life, you’re measured by what you do when things aren’t going your way. And there are times when things don’t go your way. I’m in this for all the lessons. I love success, but I’m also one who learns from mistakes and failures and I try to respond.”

COMING HOME TO MAINE

These were qualities that 26-year-old Joanne Palombo brought to Maine in 1992 where she began her head coaching career. Maine had a track record of success, but McCallie brought basketball intelligence, personality and charisma. She brought a strength for recruiting both in-state and out-of-state players, and helped shape Maine into one of America East’s premier programs and a rallying point for the state.

Cindy Blodgett was the face of Maine high school basketball and was one of her recruits. Vachon was another recruit who committed to play at Maine in the summer of 1995, prior to her senior year at Cony. Vachon doesn’t remember which schools recruited her, but she remembers McCallie’s distinctive pitch. Other coaches would ask recruits which schools they were considering, then go into a subtle tirade against those schools. McCallie, Vachon said, instead sold her own school.

“It was always pro-Maine,” said Vachon, who played at Maine from 1996 to 2000 and who coached McAuley to the Class A high school state championship this winter. “She told me, ‘this is why you want to come here.’ Coach P is really good at having you feel like you’re the most important person in the world, and to this day, I don’t think she’s lying.”

But success bred opportunities, and after Vachon’s senior season, McCallie left Maine to become the head coach at Michigan State.

“I thought, this is a great opportunity for her,” Vachon said. “But that’s what happens when you’re a good coach. And no one wants you to leave.”

AN INTRIGUING MOVE TO DUKE

In the spring of 2007, “Coach P” took over for “Coach G.” After seven seasons at Michigan State, where she took the Spartans to the 2005 NCAA championship game, Duke named McCallie as the successor to Gail Goestenkors, who left Duke after 17 seasons to take over as the head coach at the University of Texas.

McCallie’s arrival at Duke was the culmination of what she described as a 24-year intrigue with the Durham, N.C., school. McCallie went to Northwestern instead of enrolling at Duke in the fall of 1983. She kept the thought of Duke in the back of her mind, while Goestenkors established the Blue Devils as one of the nation’s premier programs, with 13 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and four Final Four appearances.

But McCallie couldn’t ever imagine having a chance to occupy the Duke job — a destination, not a stepping-stone.

“Having the opportunity to come here was the ultimate challenge,” McCallie said.

“My husband and I thought it was a remarkable opportunity and a different one. We had to rebuild Maine. We had to rebuild Michigan State. And Duke was having great success. It was going to be an intrinsic job. No one person would make an extraordinary difference.”

McCallie’s challenge is to continue to create a higher standard at Duke. At the same time, McCallie pinpoints her own pinnacles: the women she’s groomed into WNBA players and college coaches, or into business leaders or future doctors; and the fact that her team’s grade-point average at Duke hovers above 3.0.

And the fact that the process — which began in Brunswick when she first handled a basketball — is part of her passion.

“If you’re pursuing something of a great passion, it’s clear in your energy every day,” McCallie said. “And you have to love the process.”

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be reached at 791-6415 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: rlenzi