The Long Path to Seattle
On Sunday, the Seattle Storm will begin the most anticipated training camp in the franchise's nine-year history. Since the Storm's 2007 season ended with a postseason loss to Phoenix, the team has undergone an ownership change and added three All-Star players. All eyes will be on newcomers Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes, legends who have changed teams for the first time in their WNBA careers.
The most important newcomer, however, might be the man tasked with the challenge of fitting these talents together and building a cohesive unit on the floor. Brian Agler is the third head coach in franchise history, returning to the role after four years as an assistant in the WNBA. When she introduced Agler, Storm CEO Karen Bryant - who led the search committee to find a replacement after Anne Donovan resigned as the Storm's head coach - cited the time Agler had put in to get another chance to lead his own team.
"I'm thrilled for him," said Bryant at the Jan. 9 press conference. "I think it's an opportunity he's earned, he's deserved. In dialogue with him, the reality is he's taken something meaningful from every experience he's had - Minnesota, Phoenix and San Antonio - and was really hungry to put that into play as a head coach again."
Agler's path to Seattle extends back well past the beginning of his WNBA career. It has taken him from standout player in small-town Ohio to time in the college ranks to the highs of his run in the ABL to the tougher times in Minnesota. All of it has played a role in building the philosophy that will guide Agler as he leads the Storm.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF A COACH
In his playing days, Agler was a point guard - and a good one. He played his college ball at Wittenberg University, a Division III school in nearby Springfield, Ohio. He started every game he played at Wittenberg and was voted an All-American as a senior, becoming the school's all-time assist leader.
"I played on some real good teams - played on a national championship team [as a freshman] and played on another team that went to the Final Four," says Agler, "so I feel real fortunate to have gotten that experience."
Agler wanted to stay in basketball, so after finishing his career at Wittenberg, he followed his former high school coach to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Junior College as an assistant. His introduction to the women's game came when the school had an opening for head coach of its women's team. The AD asked Agler to coach the team, and he accepted, based on his feeling basketball was basketball regardless of gender and the popularity of women's basketball in Oklahoma.
"Initially I wanted to stay involved with the men's program in some capacity, but you only have so many hours in the day," Agler explains. "If you want to do a quality job with your main priority, then you focus on it and that's what I did. It didn't take long for me to get away from the men's side of the game.
"Like anything else, you get involved with something and you work at it, you get competitive and you want to do well. You build your network and things sort of just went from there."
Agler quickly enjoyed success as a head coach. In his first year on the sidelines, his Northeastern Oklahoma A&M team went 22-9. Two years later, they went 30-2 and were ranked second in the nation. Agler climbed the ranks, moving to Division I at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and 1988 and going from there to Kansas State University in 1993.
Quickly, Agler established a reputation as a top defensive coach. His UMKC teams led the NCAA in scoring defense three straight years and set an all-time NCAA record during the 1990-91 season, allowing only 51.8 points per game.
As Agler's career progressed, coaching professional basketball was never something he considered. It wasn't an option.
"I think everybody that is focused and wants to be successful in a certain area, you obviously have to have dreams and a vision of where you want to be and what you want to do," he says. "I always had that, but I never thought that this would develop because at that point there were no women's professional leagues in this country."
That changed in 1996. On the strength of the popularity of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, which went 60-0 over the course of a year of training that culminated in gold at the Atlanta games, two rival leagues - the ABL and the WNBA - sprung into existence. It was the ABL that presented an opportunity for Agler, putting a franchise in Columbus, Ohio - 30 miles south of where he grew up. He was named the first head coach and general manager of the Columbus Quest.
"For me, it was an opportunity to go back home," Agler recalls. "At that time, I had family - I had two young kids. It was a chance for them to get back in a situation where they were close to grandparents and uncles and cousins."
The Quest had a hometown hero in Katie Smith, who had led Ohio State to the 1993 NCAA title game, and an Olympian in Nikki McCray. Yet there was little indication that Columbus was going to dominate the league as it did. Agler's first inkling came during the preseason.
"I sort of probably listened to too much of the hype, which was that we weren't going to be very good, we didn't have any post players," he says. "We went and played an exhibition game against Colorado down in Missouri. Katie Smith wasn't there and Andrea Lloyd was not quite ready, so they weren't playing. I just remember we went out first half and I think we were down two points at halftime. Colorado was supposed to be pretty good. I went in the locker room feeling, 'Hey, we're right there. This is where we want to be.'
"I went in there and all these players were just extremely upset about why they were letting this team stay so close to them. When I knew and saw that reaction and they went out and really controlled the game in the second half, I knew this team had a chance to be pretty good."
Pretty good, it would turn out, was an understatement. Columbus went 31-9, winning the Eastern Conference by 10 games in a 40-game season. No other ABL team won more than 25 games. Agler was the league's Coach of the Year, and McCray took home MVP honors. Richmond took the ABL Finals the distance, but the Quest prevailed 77-64 to win the inaugural ABL Championship.
"Record-wise we were substantially better than a lot of people, although playoffs it does get tighter," Agler says. "It was huge for us, and looking back it was one of the best things that happened in my coaching career."
After the season, the rival WNBA signed McCray away from the ABL, but the Quest only got better. Columbus went 36-8, posting the league's best record by nine games. After falling behind Long Beach (and star center Griffith) 2-0 in the ABL Finals, the Quest won three straight games to repeat atop the league.
By that point, it was becoming clear that the WNBA was going to win the battle between the two leagues. Knowing the end was near, Agler joined the high-profile players like McCray who had changed leagues. On Nov. 3, he was named head coach and general manager of the expansion Minnesota Lynx.
"Being a general manager in that league at the time, there was a strong sense that it was going to be difficult for us to make it," Agler says. "At the same time, I didn't want to come out publicly and say anything at the time because I didn't want the ABL to fold; I wanted it to maintain its longevity. I just knew chances were that was not going to happen. That was what I based that decision on, really, the financial stability of the league at the time."
The next month, the ABL folded. Even though Agler had his new job lined up, the news still hit close to home. His wife, Robin, had continued to serve as the Quest's general manager, and most of his players were still playing in Columbus. The ABL remains a fond memory for Agler.
"Whenever I get in a lengthy conversation with anybody who played in the league, our conversation always goes back to ABL days," he says. "It was just a joyous time for women's basketball. It was an opportunity for them to stay in the country and play, play in front of friends and family and make a decent living."
When the WNBA dispersed the former ABL players, Agler was reunited in Minnesota with Smith. She was one of five former Quest players on the Lynx's roster in 1999, making it a reunion of sorts. Smith would enjoy great success in Minnesota; her average of 23.1 points per game in 2001 was at the time the WNBA record. The team started promisingly, going 15-17 each of its first two years of existence, but was unable to move forward because of injuries. In July 2002, Agler was replaced on the sidelines by assistant Heidi VanDerveer.
Almost immediately, Agler begin thinking about his next opportunity.
"Whenever something doesn't work out that you've put a lot of time into, it's hurtful," he explains. "You sit back and think about all the options you have ahead of you, but you also think about things you would have done differently. I felt like I had a really good grasp on women's professional basketball in the country and I also felt like the way things ended up in Minnesota isn't really who I am and what I can do.
"I felt like I wanted to give myself another opportunity, but I also knew to do that I would have to make some adjustments, some sacrifices, and still no guarantee you'll get that chance. I decided to make it a try."
STAYING IN THE GAME
Agler spent the 2003 season scouting for Cleveland and Phoenix before returning to coaching in 2004 as an assistant to Mercury Head Coach Carrie Graf. The following season, he joined Dan Hughes' coaching staff in San Antonio.
"I really appreciate (former Phoenix GM) Seth Sulka and Dan Hughes sort of keeping me involved, because assistant jobs in this league are good jobs and there's a lot of people that want them," says Agler. "I just appreciate those two gentlemen keeping me involved and appreciating what they thought I could bring to the table."
Hughes, Agler and company undertook a major rebuilding job with the Silver Stars, who were 21-47 under three different coaches in the two seasons before the new staff arrived in San Antonio. It took time to turn around the Silver Stars, but the team dealt for veterans Becky Hammon and Ruth Riley last off-season and added Erin Buescher as a free agent. The result was a 20-win season that earned Hughes Coach of the Year honors. Agler deserved a share of the award. He not only served as an assistant but also acted as head coach for seven games when Hughes was recovering from Achilles surgery, leading San Antonio to a 6-1 record.
At season's end, Hughes more than returned the favor. When Anne Donovan resigned as the Storm's head coach, Hughes called Bryant and encouraged her to consider Agler. A little more than a month later, he was introduced as the Storm's head coach, getting the opportunity he had sought.
"I knew that the team itself was good, had a strong foundation with Sue (Bird) and Lauren (Jackson)," Agler explains. "I also knew that if it stayed in Seattle, that the fanbase here was just tremendous. Very supportive, very loyal fanbase. I experienced that first-hand in both the ABL and the WNBA coming into this arena. So that's sort of what attracted me to it. I had good communication with Karen, felt good about that. All those things were positive things about the job."
All of that was true before Agler, also the team's director of player personnel, got a chance to remake the team's lineup. The Storm added Swin Cash from Detroit in a trade, then signed Swoopes and Griffith as free agents.
"It's a process, putting a team together," says Agler. "It is a process. I don't think anybody really envisioned it would play out this way; I didn't. But it did and we're glad that it did and we're going to make the best of it."
As the additions have been made, expectations have been raised. Agler dismisses the hype, but also believes in the lineup the Storm has assembled.
"I hear all the hype and things like that and I can't tell you whether it's legitimate or not, because it's all going to have to unfold on the court," he says. "I do know that the addition of Swin and Sheryl and Yolanda is going to be beneficial. There's no question. They're good players, they're good people, they're hard workers. By putting them with Sue and Lauren, I think it's a good fit. How it plays out on the floor, that's up in the air, because no one knows. But you have to have a plan and you have to go in and tweak it here and tweak it there, so I feel good about it. "
AN EVOLVING PHILOSOPHY
The WNBA of 2008 is very different than the league was in 2002, when Agler was last a head coach. The talent level has continued to improve dramatically, as the league gets more athletic and rookies come into the WNBA having grown up watching the league. Rules changes have also altered the landscape, most notably the shift to a 24-second clock before the 2006 season that has increased scoring.
All of that factors into a dynamic coaching philosophy for Agler, one that is constantly in evolution.
"Whenever you coach a team and you have success and you see players improve and you see a team improve, you know something's right, and I've been through that," Agler says. "But I also think the game is always ever-changing. The players are getting better, the rules change a little bit. Different things happen, so you have to always stay on top of it and you always have to have the ability to tweak what you're doing to benefit the game itself and the team that you have.
"So I don't think you ever stop trying to get better and understand the game more and see how your approach can improve. We do that on a daily basis. We talk as a staff daily about 'How are we going to do this and are we doing it the right way? Can we do it better, can we do it differently?' Those types of things."
At the same time, Agler has a different perspective thanks to his time as an assistant coach.
"Being an assistant coach, you get an opportunity to look at the game differently," he explains. "You look at your opponents differently; you look at your own team differently. You get a chance to study teams in a different kind of way. You also get a chance to be involved with different approaches on a day-to-day basis. Collectively, all those things adjust how you look at what you're doing. I don't think there's any question that being an assistant coach for those four years has helped make me more ready to do a better job in a head-coaching position"
The bottom line is that the Agler fans remember from Minnesota won't be identical to the one who coaches the Storm.
"I do think that our day-to-day operations would be different," he says. "I have a better sense from a player standpoint what would help them be successful consistently - how we practice, when we practice, how long we practice. Also, philosophy-wise, especially at the offensive end. Things we can do to create good opportunities for our best players to score. Defensively, probably won't change a whole lot. Probably a little bit more open-minded on defending some different things and different teams, but I think we'll be pretty consistent that way."
Agler has had time to think about what he would do in his next coaching opportunity. Now he is just days away from being able to put that philosophy into practice, and he can't wait.
"I'm anxious to get out on the floor," he says. "I'm ready for the 20th when we start training camp and I'm also really ready for when everybody gets here."