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Inside the W: Whalen Tackles New Challenge In 15th Season

Lindsay Whalen said it’s been “the craziest two weeks” of her life.

The four-time WNBA Champion, who has been on the floor for more wins than any player in WNBA history, chose this craziness.

She saw the opportunity of a lifetime – a lifetime that has thus far been committed to bringing basketball excellence to her home state of Minnesota – and true to style, she drove straight for the rim.

Along with helping lead the Lynx this season, Whalen is now the new head coach the University of Minnesota’s women’s basketball program. Giving her a chance to transfer the leadership and competitive fire that have led to WNBA titles and Olympic gold medals, and to bring it to a new generation of players.

It is her dream job, and now she’s living the dream.

“I’ve been preparing for this my whole life,” Whalen said.

Whalen made the choice after the Lynx won the 2017 WNBA title, to forgo playing overseas for the second-straight year. In the offseason that followed the 2016 WNBA season, she embarked on an internship with the Minnesota Lynx, learning the general manager role and all of the things that go into that job. This winter, Whalen said she learned how to edit video, and got herself a little side hustle as a broadcast analyst for Minnesota Timberwolves games.

She has always thought about coaching, but the opportunity hadn’t yet presented itself. Until it did.

The news that Minnesota Gophers head coach Marlene Stollings would be heading to Texas Tech got around to Whalen and Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve. Reeve immediately thought that Whalen should reach out to her alma mater.

“I told her she should want that job,” Reeve said.

Whalen responded “Really?” and then Reeve suggested she get her resume together. Whalen didn’t have one.

Things moved quickly. Reeve took a call from Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle.

The next thing Whalen knew, she was in the university president’s office making her pitch. And then suddenly, one of the most beloved athletes in Minnesota history found herself in front of a podium being introduced as the Gophers’ new head coach.

At that introductory press conference, Whalen said, “I’m ready to get started.”

Ready or not, she has begun.

Whalen has been living off a long to-do for the past two weeks, leaning heavily already on her two newly hired assistant coaches, Kelly Roysland (her former college teammate at Minnesota) and Carly Thibault-DuDonis, the daughter of Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault.

She made those hires, has hit the road for recruiting, attended the Big Ten women’s basketball coaches meetings and is communicating with her new players at Minnesota.

All the while, she has been preparing for her new WNBA season with the defending champion Lynx as they try to be the first WNBA team to repeat as champions since Los Angeles did it in 2001 and 2002.

She is maximizing every hour of the day, making phone calls, taking meetings, doing interviews, watching video and planning.

Whalen didn’t seek this opportunity, so she admits she wasn’t quite ready for the scramble that has taken place since the day she was introduced as the Gophers’ head coach.

“In some ways, it’s easier because I just don’t know what I don’t know,” she said. “I didn’t know a lot of this stuff was my responsibility and now I know. It’s a steep learning curve, but I’m just going into it, treating every day like a new and interesting challenge. But most of the things I’m doing, I’m definitely learning as a I go.

“I’ve been able to make a lot of progress. But I have been preparing for this my whole life.”

Whalen will start her 15th WNBA season, physically and mentally ready to take the floor and lead her teammates to another title run. She imagines that she will give everything she has to each of her roles during the course of the same day.

“For these last two weeks, I only had to focus on my job as a head coach,” Whalen said. “I will be learning that transition. Going to practice, and then at night, getting on the phone, working. I won’t be watching as much Netflix and hanging out, that’s for sure.

“I’m going to make it work, no matter what.”

She will have Reeve’s support, her mentorship, and her time.

“Not everybody could handle this, but Lindsay can,” Reeve said. “To manage all of her jobs, to be a point guard, the leader of a very good basketball team, and to be a leader of a great program, that takes a special person. I’ve told her that when you get overwhelmed, ultimately you will do what you have always done as a player, focus on what’s next.”

Whalen joked that Reeve might get tired of all of her questions.

“She’s been my mentor and coach for eight years, and that will probably take on a whole new life,” Whalen said. “I’m going to tap into her knowledge, and experience and mind.

“Our point-guard/coach meetings might go on a little longer now. I’m going to be picking her brain. I’m so thankful that I have her, and that every day I’m going to see her and talk to her.”

Reeve said she expects that Whalen will continue to give the Lynx her full attention during this season, that she will be the same relentless competitor that she’s always been.

“Great players always have a fear that what they are doing is not enough,” Reeve said. “So they do more. I know that she is going to be able to compartmentalize, and capitalize on this moment.”

Whalen said it’s all worth it for a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“I always hoped at some point that I might have a chance of coaching at the U of M,” Whalen said. “And then it comes up and I’m thinking ‘Whatever I have to do to get the job, I’ll do it.’ Once the opportunity presents itself, you have to take it.”

Whalen has already spent time talking to Dawn Staley, a fellow Olympic gold-medal winning point guard who was playing in the WNBA for the Charlotte Sting when she took the head coaching job at Temple back in 2000. Staley was a player-coach for seven seasons.

Staley gave Whalen two big pieces of advice: “She said, ‘Hire a great staff, people you trust.’ And, ‘Play has long as you can. Make sure it’s out of your system.’”

Staley told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Whalen is well-suited for this.

“My interaction with Lindsay is an incredible basketball mind,” Staley said. “She understands how she wants to do things. She just needs someone to do all the administrative work to keep her focused on the right things.”

Whalen, who announced this year that she will no longer play internationally, knows that at 35, she has limited time left in her playing career.

The player who has won more WNBA games than any other in league history doesn’t know how her new job will impact the balance of her legendary playing career.

“I’ll probably know the answer to that in the middle of the season, maybe toward the end,” Whalen said. “I know I’m toward the end of my playing career, so we will see how this goes, how it feels, how I’m managing both things. I think a lot of it is going to come down to the young women on my team (at Minnesota). How are they doing, how are they developing. Whatever is in the best interest of the program.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.