Friendly Rivals Square Off on Sidelines

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Kevin Pelton, | May 29, 2008
For three years, Brian Agler was Dan Hughes' right-hand man in San Antonio, his trusted assistant coach. Now their relationship has changed, with Agler and Hughes becoming friendly rival head coaches of two of the Western Conference's top teams. On Saturday, their teams faced each other for the first time since Agler was named head coach of the Seattle Storm. Tomorrow, they'll match up again at KeyArena (7:00 p.m., 1150 AM KKNW, ).

"Obviously, with him being a part of us," said Hughes, "it's always a mixed feeling when you have someone that you've worked with or coached and then you coach against them."

"We're really good friends," added Agler. "I'm real good friends with (Silver Stars Assistant Coaches) Sandy (Brondello) and Olaf (Lange). We talk on the phone about our opponents and things like that, but I really don't sit there and think about him or that staff being down there and me being at the other end. I'm focused on the people on the floor and what they're trying to do against us."

"I thought he brought some things that made me better within the way that we looked at the game."
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty Images
Saturday wasn't the first meeting between Agler and Hughes as head coaches. They squared off five times earlier in their WNBA careers, when Agler was with the Minnesota Lynx and Hughes coached first Charlotte and later Cleveland. From that experience and Agler's success at the NCAA and ABL levels, Hughes valued Agler's input. In 2003, when he was out of the WNBA, Agler scouted for Hughes and the Rockers. Two years later, when Hughes accepted the head job in San Antonio, he brought Agler with him as his lead assistant.

"I thought he brought some things that made me better within the way that we looked at the game," explained Hughes. "At the same time, there's a commonality in our backgrounds and a little bit of our look at players. His offensive mind, quite honestly, was really attractive to me. He has a very distinct element of surprise and I thought it complemented me. I'm not always that way, and I kind of like that on my staff.

"We had a big challenge in San Antonio when I took over, and I kind of needed an ally, to be honest with you, someone that I knew was tough enough to stick around for a while and help us get where we needed to go."

For Hughes, Agler's experience was a valuable and somewhat unique asset. Around the league this year, only four assistant coaches have WNBA head-coaching experience (a group that includes the Storm's Nancy Darsch). Looking to best make use of Agler, Hughes made the natural comparison to the relationship on the coaching staff of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs between Head Coach Gregg Popovich and Popovich's lead assistant, former NBA head coach P.J. Carlesimo.

Before Carlesimo earned his own chance to be a head coach in Seattle with the SuperSonics, Hughes chatted with him to glean insight in how to deploy Agler.

"I thought P.J. really had created a working relationship with Coach Popovich that helped both of them," Hughes said. "So I sat down with P.J. and said, 'How does Pop use you?' He talked to me about it. I just thought it was really applicable to Brian and I, so I tried in our situation to apply as much of those thoughts as I could. I thought it was really helpful, to be honest."

Last summer, an unplanned situation helped bring Agler's skills and experience to the forefront. While working with players, Hughes tore his Achilles tendon and was forced to undergo midseason surgery in mid-June. Agler served as acting head coach while Hughes was recovering from surgery and played an increased role on the sidelines during games thereafter as the injury limited Hughes' mobility.

"You never plan for those things, but when they happen, I think Brian was really comfortable because it's kind of his sweet spot," Hughes said. "It's a natural for him to look at the game that way. For me, it allowed me the opportunity to know that some of those head-coaching thoughts were being dealt with. He naturally migrated to them. He's just spent so much of his life as a head coach that it was easy for him to carry it over. It was extremely comforting to me. Then the other staff that I had, I thought responded to Brian well in a way that just worked. There's no doubt that his background had a great deal to do with that."

"It was different, without question," said Agler. "Not many people go through something like that. It was a unique experience for me and obviously was one that worked out in a beneficial way. I'm glad I got that opportunity. I didn't want to get the opportunity in that kind of fashion, but it's nice to get a chance, even when it's unexpected."

The Silver Stars were able to maintain their momentum through Hughes' absence and finished the season 20-14, advancing to the postseason for the first time in five seasons in San Antonio. The rebuilding effort undertaken by the coaching staff got the Silver Stars to the Western Conference Finals, where they ultimately fell to the eventual champion Phoenix Mercury.

At season's end, another opportunity presented itself for Agler, with an important assist from Hughes. When Anne Donovan resigned as the Storm's head coach, Hughes immediately sensed that the position might be the right fit for Agler. He called Storm CEO Karen Bryant to suggest she consider Agler in the search for Donovan's replacement.

Friday's Storm game against San Antonio is Girls Night Out. Take advantage of a special $20 ticket offer that includes a great lower-level seat and a complimentary beverage.
"I thought a couple of things," recalled Hughes. "One was that I thought this was a good job and I thought it was a great fit for Brian. I also thought Brian had done a lot for us and for me. You want to work for those people who do that. Here was an opportunity that I thought was a good fit and a unique fit because it was a team that had some pieces in place, a great city and Karen who I really appreciated. Plus there were some Spurs people that I was familiar with there [with the Sonics]. I just thought it was a great opportunity and the fit would apply not only to me but to other people who were evaluating the situation."

That turned out to be precisely the case. A little over a month later, Bryant introduced Agler as the Storm's new head coach. In his role as director of player personnel, Agler wasted little time remaking the Storm's lineup by adding veterans Swin Cash, Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes. That has cast the Storm in a position of top contenders in the Western Conference - a spot also occupied by the Silver Stars, who have added former All-Star center Ann Wauters to the core of last year's conference finalists.

Somewhere along the way, Hughes and Agler could find themselves on opposite sidelines in the postseason. Yet even if Agler stands between him and advancing, Hughes won't have any regrets about helping his former assistant land another head-coaching gig.

"The fact that it made my job harder later, I didn't even think about that," Hughes said. "I just was happy that here was a chance to help Brian be a head coach again, which I knew had always been his goal. I hope I can do that for some other assistant down the road to get to that point. We'll compete against each other, but I guarantee you, every other game they play, I look at the score and if he's on the left side, it makes me happy. Not our games, but all the other games."