One-on-One with Corey Gaines
After two seasons as an assistant under Paul Westhead with the Phoenix Mercury, Corey Gaines will take over as the team's new head coach in 2008. Gaines, 42, spent three years in college at UCLA before transferring to Loyola Marymount, where he played under Westhead. Drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics in the third round of the 1988 draft, Gaines played parts of five seasons in the NBA with the Nets, 76ers, Nuggets and Knicks. He later spent time both playing and coaching with the ABA's Long Beach Jam, where he was reunited with Westhead.
Now he takes over for a revolutionary coach with the star-laden defending WNBA champions. How will Gaines adjust to his new position in the desert? And will the new man in charge enact any changes to the Mercury's run-and-gun system? Gaines spoke today with Adam Hirshfield of WNBA.com.
WNBA.com: First of all, congratulations, Corey! How does it feel to be taking over as head coach for the defending WNBA champions? Are you feeling any pressure?
Mercury Head Coach Corey Gaines: "Not really, no. I look at it like this: Having won a championship, the bar has been set really high with this team. My job will be to keep that bar high, to maintain that level, so that we have a chance to reach our goal again."
WNBA.com: What do you think will be the toughest part about taking over with this team in this situation? Is it difficult coaching stars of the magnitude of Diana, Cappie and Penny?
Gaines: "The good news is that I was an assistant with the Mercury, so I know everybody already. The bad news, I guess, is that people will talk about how I'm stepping up to the next level in coaching and the expectations are a lot higher.
"Believe me, I'm not taking anything away from Coach Westhead, but even as an assistant I was very much involved in running the offensive side of things. And it's funny because everyone thinks that we won this year because of our offense. But really, if you ask Coach Westhead, it was our Rover defense, which caused teams a lot of problems. People think we don't practice any defense, that we're all offense all the time… but it's not like that. Yeah, we're a run-and-gun team. But no, I'm telling you (laughs), it's the defense that really confused teams.
"As far as taking over for Coach Westhead, though, I just have to keep the same level of play. It obviously helps to stay injury free and have a little luck in there, too. But my job is to make sure our team has the opportunity to win.
"I remember playing for Pat Riley in the NBA Finals with the Knicks versus Houston. It came to Game 7 and as great a coach as Riley is, you just need some stuff to fall your way. When you get down to 10 minutes to play and a championship on the line, come on! Let's go! There's only so much a coach can do at that point. It's out of their hands to a certain extent.
"Seriously, on a team like this, your main job is almost not to mess things up! One thing I learned from Coach (Westhead) is not to out-think yourself. You don't have to be the smartest guy out there. Do what you do. Do what the team has done to get to where it is. Don't change up everything just because you're trying to look smart as a coach. Just do what you do."
WNBA.com: You've been associated with Paul Westhead since your days back at Loyola Marymount, about 20 years now. How much has your coaching style been influenced by him?
Gaines: "Well, let's just say that I've learned a lot from him. I've learned what he likes to eat. I knew before everyone else that he needed a new pair of dress shoes. I can tell you pretty much everything about him.
"Yeah, Julie Brase-Hairgrove and I knew about the shoe situation before it became such a big deal. But when you're in a situation like that -- fighting for a title -- you need to keep everything in perspective, and you want everyone to be happy and everything to go smoothly, so we didn't tell him about it. Non-matching shoes? Not a big problem in the grand scheme of things. Now if Diana is missing a shoe? Then we have a problem."
WNBA.com: How do you feel your time in the NBA prepared you for coaching at this level?
Gaines: "Obviously, playing a game before you coach it helps you understand the game a lot better. It's not mandatory, but it definitely helps. If you played the game you're coaching, you know what your players are going through. For example, I understand the sport of soccer, but if I wanted to go coach the game right now, I'd probably have some trouble understanding the players.
"It also helps to have played with stars like Charles Barkley in Philadelphia, Reggie Miller in college at UCLA, Patrick Ewing in New York. Coaching wise, I've been under Pat Riley, George Karl and Coach Westhead. The X's and O's are important, but a lot of your success also depends on how well you deal with the players and how you can focus everyone's energy toward a common goal. Every coach does that a different way. Phil Jackson hands out motivational books. That's his way. Riley's way was to promote the idea that it's us against the world. That's another way. I'll have my own way."
WNBA.com: What are the biggest differences in your mind between being a head coach and an assistant coach at this level?
Gaines: "In theory, there's more accountability as a head coach, but Coach Westhead certainly wasn't afraid to give us a lot of responsibility. He would give us every opportunity to do our jobs. There were plenty of times where I would call out plays.
"But as a head coach, you do have the final decision… the buck stops with you. An assistant can come to you with a suggestion, but that's the easy part (laughs)! There's no pressure on the assistants! The real pressure is on the head coach because if it goes badly, he's the one who took the advice! But you're the head coach and that's what I've signed up for. I'm ready for the responsibility."
WNBA.com: The Mercury obviously found a lot of success playing Westhead's run-and-gun, offensive-minded system. Will you be employing the same basic game plan?
Gaines: "Yes, we call it "The System." And let's put it this way: I KNOW NOTHING ELSE! Why would I change things? Like I said before, do what you do. I can't coach Phil Jackson's triangle offense! I don't know it! You have to coach something you know… something you believe in."
WNBA.com: And have you given any thought to your assistants? Will Bridget Pettis and Julie be staying with the team? How do you see the different coaching roles being broken down?
Gaines: "As of now, Bridget and Julie are both on board. Both are excellent assistants and both will continue to do their jobs well. Last year, Julie was involved in defense and did a lot of scouting of the other teams around the league. Bridget was more hands-on with the players and helped out with them on a personal level."
WNBA.com: Speaking of the different coaching roles, how are you breaking things down this offseason? Are you going overseas to scout? Or are you sticking around here to check out the college seniors?
Gaines: "It will run a lot like it did last year. I made sure to see the players over in Europe and a lot of the top college players. You can never see players too much. You can train too much, you can practice too hard, you can think too much about an upcoming play or shot… but you can never do too much scouting."
WNBA.com: Are there any major changes you're planning on making with the roster this offseason? The elephant in the room is the potential of being without Penny Taylor if she stays in Australia. Is that even on your radar at this point?
Gaines: "Well, we obviously want Penny back. She's a big part of our style of play and our System.
"But the collective bargaining agreement hasn't been settled yet, so we don't know what the salary cap will be, we don't know who's going to be a free agent, we don't know who's going to play and who isn't. We don't know who's going to retire, who's going to have a baby. We don't really know anything, so it's too early to say which players we'll get and how we'll get them."
WNBA.com: Is there a player currently on the roster who you feel needs to step it up next season and take on a bigger role?
Gaines: "Everybody! The rest of the league is going to be shooting for us next year. Everyone is going back to the drawing boards this offseason trying to figure out how to play against us. We're the big cheese and everyone's going to be trying to bring us down. All of our players are going to have to be at the top of their games."
WNBA.com: So heading into your rookie year as a head coach, what are your hopes for next season? Is another championship on the horizon for the Mercury?
Gaines: "The bar has been set high around here. My goal is to keep the bar high and to keep us ready and able to reach that goal once again. That's the main thing."
WNBA.com: What do you have to say to Mercury fans who have been waiting in anticipation for this announcement?
Gaines: "I want to tell them that we're going to keep The System in place. We're going to keep playing at an up-tempo pace. And we're gonna try to go even faster. I learned that from Coach: You can never go fast enough."