Coaching Issue Comes to the Forefront
When the Seattle Storm beat the Minnesota Lynx last Thursday at KeyArena, the topic of coaching was impossible to avoid. The day before, Los Angeles Sparks Head Coach Henry Bibby parted ways with the team in what Sparks President Johnny Buss termed a "mutually agreed upon understanding." That night, Storm Coach Anne Donovan became the fourth coach in league history - and the first female - to reach the 100-win milestone.
After the game, a key issue was the social importance of another Donovan milestone (last October, she became the first female coach to win a WNBA Championship).
"I downplay it [the milestones] because for me, personal awards don't mean a whole lot. Championships are what I'm about. At the same time, the big picture is that the more opportunities women have in this league, the more success we'll have for females."
When Trudi Lacey came to a mutual understanding of her own in Charlotte earlier this month (she remains the Sting's GM), it dropped the number of women coaching in the WNBA to four - Donovan, Minnesota's Suzie McConnell Serio, New York's Pat Coyle and Phoenix's Carrie Graf. If the playoffs started today, three of the four coaches would lead their teams there, while McConnell Serio (the odd woman out in terms of the playoffs with a young Lynx squad) was last year's Coach of the Year and Donovan is widely regarded as the best coach in the league.
Given the success of the active women coaches, it seems surprising that, of the 12 coaching changes made since the end of the 2003 season, only four of the new hires have been women. Besides Graf, three (Coyle, Shell Dailey in San Antonio and Karleen Thompson in Los Angeles (technically a co-coach with Ryan Weisenberg but performing the duties of a head coach)) were hired on an interim basis midway through last season; only Coyle got the job on a full-time basis.
During the Michael Cooper era, the Sparks had a stable coaching situation. Under Cooper, the Sparks won at least 24 games each season, and were on pace to do something similar before he left for an assistant job with the Denver Nuggets last summer. (It should be noted the Sparks actually played better in the regular season under Thompson despite the fact that DeLisha Milton-Jones was injured in Cooper's last game, a fact that was lost in the wake of Los Angeles' first-round playoff exit.)
With four coaches in the last two years, the Sparks seem to be returning to the instability that marked their underachieving first two seasons, when Los Angeles had three coaches during three seasons that resulted in only one playoff appearance.
Storm fans have gotten lucky in that regard. This franchise has twice done it right when it comes to hiring coaches. In Lin Dunn, the Storm got not only an experienced basketball mind but also the kind of dominant personality necessary to sell an expansion team to the city of Seattle. While there were some frustrating games along the way, Dunn's patience and handling of number one picks Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird set the scene for the Storm's current success.
There was an element of luck the second time around; had it not been for the uncertain status of the Charlotte Sting franchise after their NBA counterpart, the Hornets, moved to New Orleans, Donovan might not have been available. Still, only the Storm stepped up and made a play for Donovan. Last year's championship was the beginning of the reward for that decision. Even had Donovan not been available, the Storm successfully identified the second-best coach on the market as well: Mike Thibault was the runner-up for the job.
Thibault, along with Sacramento's John Whisenant, makes the point that this is not necessarily a male-female issue. Not only are they men, neither had coached women prior to their current jobs. I remember being skeptical when Whisenant was hired because of this point, but he quickly made it a non-issue, turning around the Monarchs 2003 season and leading them into the playoffs. Now, Thibault and Whisenant are considered two of the favorites for Coach of the Year.
"I'm not male-bashing," Donovan explained. "I think good men deserve opportunites, but good women also deserve them, and they could be successful given the right situation."
Background is an important issue. While Thibault and Whisenant did not have experience with the women's game (Whisenant was midway through his first season with the Monarchs organization and was scheduled to take over as the team's GM at the end of the 2003 season), they both were coaching lifers, not neophytes like Lacey's replacement in Charlotte, Muggsy Bogues. ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel also astutely makes the point that, after coaching in the CBA and other minor leagues, Thibault and Whisenant recognize the need for a WNBA coach to sell the women's game as well as trying to win games.
In another category are long-time NBA coaches who have come over to the WNBA. Currently, this group boasts Indiana's Brian Winters (another possible Coach of the Year award contender) and Washington's Richie Adubato. Adubato, who spent five seasons as an NBA head coach, is now one of the league's longest-tenured coaches. Also in this group is Chicago Coach Dave Cowens, who will join the WNBA with his as-yet-unnamed team next year.
Typically, the group that draws the most criticism is former NBA players without much coaching experience. While this group has its success stories, notably Laimbeer and Cooper (who did spend several years as an assistant with the Lakers, as well as one year on the Sparks bench before becoming head coach), it has also seen its share - or more - of mistakes. Voepel is unfairly critical of the notion that people like Bogues bring a "fresh eye" to a league that can be dominated by conventional wisdom and slow to change its perception of aging players, but the ex-NBAers who haven't taken the WNBA as seriously as Cooper and Laimbeer have often seemed out of touch with personnel around the league.
How about up-and-coming young coaches? This is an area where perhaps the media needs to turn their eyes on themselves. Potential coaching candidates really haven't been introduced to the public. Evaluating an assistant coach's ability to be a head coach is difficult at any level because such different skills are involved, but the media could do a better job of getting the word out about some of the better female assistant coaches in the league. (I'd mention the Storm assistants, but I selfishly don't want them to leave.)
The other issue I've never heard discussed anywhere is that few ex-WNBA players are going into professional coaching. Several of the NBA's recent first-time head coaches are players who were active after the WNBA opened for business. Nate McMillan, Sam Mitchell and Terry Porter all have retired since 1997, a group that will surely grow in the next few years. Yet there have only been two WNBA head coaches who also played in the league, McConnell Serio and Cynthia Cooper's brief stint in Phoenix. Even if we expand to include assistants, there are currently only four (Phoenix's Michelle Timms, Sacramento's Monique Ambers, San Antonio's Sandy Brondello and the Storm's Jenny Boucek).
Part of this is a numbers issue; with only two assistants per staff, the WNBA can't offer as many opportunities as college basketball. Also, many active players serve as volunteer or paid assistants for NCAA teams during their off-seasons (and as a head coach in the case of Dawn Staley), making the transition to full-time assistant at the collegiate level an easy one. And many players, like Stacey Dales-Schuman, have gone into broadcasting, another job they can do during their off-seasons while active.
As more of the WNBA's heady veterans conclude their playing careers and move into the coaching ranks, I'd expect the pool of qualified female coaches to grow steadily. Whether teams are open-minded enough to hire them is a different question, but women can at least count on a strong advocate in Donovan.
"Just keep talking about it," she said, asked what she can do for other female coaches. "Carrying the flag a little bit, make sure people recognize it."