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Adubato’s Dismissal Reveals Pressure on WNBA Coaches

The audio tape still sat unplayed when the news came that the New York Liberty had dismissed Head Coach Richie Adubato. It was only a week before that when the tape was used to record a post-game interview with Adubato in Spokane. Then, Adubato was celebrating the end of his team's six-game losing streak as well as the 100th victory of his WNBA coaching career.


A week after getting his 100th WNBA win, Adubato was fired.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty
With the benefit of hindsight, what Adubato had to say that night has become almost eerie.

"It feels good to get the hundredth victory, and it feels good to get the losing streak away," Adubato said. "It feels good. It's been a long time coming."

After pulling out the victory over the league-leading Storm, New York lost in overtime at Los Angeles. Two nights after that, the Liberty was crushed 73-47 by the Sacramento Monarchs. And that was all for Adubato. On Saturday, Liberty GM Carol Blazejowski replaced Adubato on an interim basis with assistant Pat Coyle. Assistant Jeff House was also ousted in the house-cleaning.

"The trend of losing eight of the last nine games, I didn't feel right about it," Blazejowski told the New York media. "I know we've been on the road, but I watched the team and the way they responded and their body language, and I had concerns about how they were responding to Richie, and I wasn't sure if we were going to come out of it.''

Implicit in Adubato's dismissal seems to be some notion that the Liberty had underachieved, but any expectations placed on the team seem to have been generated more by its 6-1 start than by a star-studded roster. Amongst national prognosticators, only Ann Meyers predicted New York finishing higher than fourth in the East. (Meyers, like this site, which also ill-fatedly picked Adubato to win Coach of the Year, had the Liberty in third). Rebecca Lobo had New York out of the playoffs. So how much has the Liberty underachieved if it currently sits fifth in the East, a half-game out of a playoff spot and still a mere two games behind the East-leading Connecticut Sun?

Even that ignores that the Liberty has played one of the league's most imbalanced schedules, getting just six games at Madison Square Garden against 11 on the road thus far. Don Nelson of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks uses a simple formula to account for this disparity: road wins minus home losses. In essence, this creates an expected record based on the assumption that the home team will hold serve in every game, and compares the team's actual record to that expected record.

Here's how the WNBA's standings (as of Jul. 5) look using Nelson's rating:

East         +/-
----------------
New York      +2
Detroit       +1
Charlotte      0
Connecticut    0
Indiana        0
Washington    -1

West         +/-
----------------
Los Angeles   +3
Seattle       +2
Houston        0
Phoenix       -1
Minnesota     -2
Sacramento    -2
San Antonio   -4

Los Angeles and New York - the two teams who have played at least 10 road games - benefit the most from this measure, with the Liberty moving into first place in the topsy-turvy East. Now who's underachieving?

On Saturday evening, the WNBA cognoscenti at KeyArena seemed genuinely stunned by the news that Adubato had been fired. When he was told, Storm play-by-play announcer David Locke's mouth literally dropped. And coaches on both sidelines, the Storm's Anne Donovan and Sacramento's John Whisenant, expressed their surprise.

"I was surprised, disappointed," Donovan said. "I just never want to see one of my colleagues lose their jobs. I think it’s a difficult profession that we’re in, and there’s a lot of variables. (They’re) two starters down at the moment, been one starter down since the middle of their losing streak.

"He’s somebody that I have a great level of respect for. He’s got a great mind for the game, and he’s had tremendous success."

Adubato's firing also served as a cruel reminder that the WNBA's bottom-line mentality can, at times, be as harsh as in the NBA, where seven teams - including the Liberty's counterpart, the Knicks - changed coaches mid-season.

"This has got to be one of the toughest, most pressure-filled positions, no doubt," said Donovan.

"That's the difference. People ask about college versus professional, and (Duke men's Coach Mike) Krzyzewski is going through that at the moment, although $40 million makes that pressure a little bit easier. That's one of the advantages of college is you have more time, generally, to right the ship."

"I think in professional basketball, we're just like all the rest, you've got to win," said Whisenant. "The ownership, the fans, the press, they expect you to win."


Because of his unique role, Whisenant doesn't worry about being fired.
A season ago, Whisenant was on the opposite end of a mid-season change, replacing Maura McHugh and leading Sacramento to a 12-4 finish and a playoff berth. It's that kind of turnaround teams are constantly chasing with mid-season coaching changes.

The plan was for Whisenant to just finish out the season, then - as had been the case before he replaced McHugh - assume the duties of Monarchs general manager from Jerry Reynolds, who wanted to focus on working with the NBA's Kings. But the Monarchs principal owners, the Maloof family, kept at Whisenant until they finally convinced him to come back as coach in addition to serving as GM. As a result of that commitment, Whisenant says he feels little pressure despite Sacramento's slow start (and he certainly looked the part before Saturday's game, entering KeyArena wearing sunglasses).

"I have not felt that (pressure) specifically because I was brought in by the owners, who I know, to be general manager and evaluate this and get this franchise on a year-by-year winning note," Whisenant explained. "Even though I didn't intend to be the coach, I am the coach, and it will help me select the coach of the future for this team and it will help me, I believe, make me better suited if we make personnel changes over the off-season, who and where we need to go to get that done."

Pressure or no, Whisenant is already thinking ahead to a future away from the sidelines, in large part because of his desire to spend more time with his family than coaching allows him to do.

Donovan has had no reason to worry about her job since coming to Seattle, certainly not now with the Storm at 10-4, but things were very different three years ago, when she was in her first season with the Charlotte Sting. Charlotte opened the season 1-10, forcing Donovan to worry to some extent about her future despite the organization's commitment to her.

"I had a great relationship with the general manager there, with Felicia Hall, and we talked through it every step of the way," Donovan recalled. "She assured me that they were behind me, but you can't go 2-28 and expect to keep your job, it's just not going to happen. Same thing no matter what business you're in; if you don't have success, you're going to lose your job. At 1-10, it was still early, I still believed we could turn it around, and I believed that the people above me, management, had faith. I was being kept up at night because we were 1-10, not necessarily because I thought I was going to lose my job, but surely it was a thought."

It's hard to see the pressure on WNBA coaches lightening any time in the near future. The league's newfound parity meant every team in the league entered this season believing it could make the playoffs. Five of them won't, and the coaches of those teams could be in trouble. If Adubato, who is the third-winningest coach in league history and led the Liberty to three Eastern Conference Championships, isn't safe, who is?

For fans and the media, that's a rhetorical question - but for WNBA coaches, it's a very real one indeed.

More WNBA Analysis from storm.wnba.com