If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112.
Joanne Palombo-McCallie isn’t the head coach of a Division I women’s basketball program for the first time in 28 years.
She has been one of the nation’s most successful basketball coaches with a 646-255 record and 21 NCAA Tournament appearances in those 28 years during her stints at the University of Maine, Michigan State and Duke University.
The Brunswick native and daughter of a U.S. Navy pilot stepped down as Duke coach last summer when she and the university’s athletic administrators mutually agreed to part ways with one year left on her contract.
But her road to success wasn’t always smooth due to her bipolar disorder, which was diagnosed while she was at UMaine. Palombo-McCallie has been using her free time to tell her story and to call awareness to mental illness in her new book “Secret Warrior: A Coach & Fighter On and Off the Court.”
Palombo-McCallie describes living with the disorder and how she got her life back on track with the help of medical professionals, the right medications and a strong support system.
“I was diagnosed with it when I was 30. So I was a late bloomer,” Palombo-McCallie said. She was midway through her eight-year stint at UMaine at the time, and was a new mother, having given birth to daughter Maddie a year before.
“It caught me off guard. It took me a bit to figure out what was going on. All of a sudden, everything was out of control,” the 55-year-old Palombo-McCallie said.
After her initial episode with the disorder landed her in the hospital, she had one more episode a few years later but wasn’t hospitalized. She hasn’t had another episode since.
“There is some bad stuff in the book about it but also some real good stuff. It tells how I came out the other side. That’s what’s important. You have to find a way out of the depths,” she said.
Bipolar disorder is marked by dramatic mood swings and can include depression and manic behavior. Palombo-McCallie credited a Bangor doctor and an incredible support system of University of Maine personnel, as well as her family, for her recovery.
“There were a couple of very difficult times for me and my family but a huge underpinning of this book is about the loyalty element. My Maine teams and the people at Maine were so incredibly supportive,” she said. “They had such great leadership and to handle things the way that they did is something I will never forget.”
Her former players like Cindy Blodgett, the school’s all-time leading scorer, and current UMaine head coach Amy Vachon, the school’s all-time assists leader, are included in the book as well as many others.
Palombo-McCallie said a doctor told her that once she was able to control her bipolar disorder, she would be better than ever and she has found that to be true.
She said she began thinking about writing a book about her bipolar disorder more than a decade ago. And when COVID-19 canceled the college basketball season in March, that seemed to be the perfect time to begin writing it, Palombo-McCallie said.
Her Blue Devils were 18-12 at the time but 12-6 and third in the powerhouse Atlantic Coast Conference. She said she felt they had the ingredients to make a good run in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.
“So I left on a high note,” she said.
Not only did Palombo-McCallie have some unexpected free time on her hands, she noted that mental health has been a very important issue these days as people deal with the impact of the coronavirus.
“It has affected a lot of kids, but kids will listen to coaches,” she said. “Coaches can motivate kids and explain things to them.”
Palombo-McCallie includes a lot of valuable information about mental illness in her book and tries to motivate people to address it and get help, because it can be devastating to the victims, their families and their relationships.
“I had someone who has read the book tell me they felt like they gained an understanding of bipolar disorder and how the brain works,” Palombo-McCallie said.
After writing the book, she needed a publisher, so she signed on with Koehler Books Publishing from Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Palombo-McCallie looks back on her coaching career with great fondness.
“It has been a fantastic ride. I can’t say enough about the student-athletes and the people I have been associated with. It has been incredible. I am very grateful. And I’m happy I was able to write this book,” said Palombo-McCallie, who became the first Division I women’s coach to win championships in four difference conferences: the North Atlantic Conference, America East, the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference.
She was a six-time conference coach of the year and a national coach of the year once.
Palombo-McCallie led Duke to four straight Elite Eight appearances in the NCAA Tournament from 2010 through 2013.
She stepped away from a job that paid her $900,000 a year to write the book, and received a severance package of $300,000.
“I couldn’t do both [coach and write the book],” she explained. “It was time to pass the torch and invest in the book.”
Following the 2015-16 season, she was the target of an investigation after three former players claimed she had mistreated them. She was exonerated of any wrongdoing but she said it was a painful process. Facing the adversity that comes with bipolar disorder made her stronger and more resilient and helped her deal with the allegations, she said.
She is currently promoting her book and intends to use money raised from it to establish a foundation that would call awareness to mental illness.
Palombo-McCallie and husband John live in Durham, North Carolina, and just moved into a new house on a golf course — which has made her husband very happy, she said.
She hasn’t ruled out coaching again, but is wrapped up in the book and the foundation.
Daughter Maddie lives and works in Charlotte, North Carolina, and son Jack is a junior at his mother’s alma mater, Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois.
You can pre-order Palombo-McCallie’s book through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It will hit the bookstores on Feb. 16, which just so happens to be her mother Christina’s birthday.