The Connecticut Sun Infrastructure: All in the Family

The Connecticut Sun’s retooling roster will be noteworthy to track as free agency continues to unfold, but the revamp and reconstruction of its staff has gone under the radar. Sun President Jenn Rizzotti, a former W player herself, has noticeably prioritized players’ requests for more former players on the bench and staff.

Hiring Stephanie White as Head Coach and a former player was intentional to a degree, as Rizzotti puts it. As soon as she knew White was available, she made the call.

“Jenn told me how important it was for the players to have former players on staff. And I got that. They wanted to know that we (coaches) have been in their shoes and their situation,” says White.

White understands the grind of the W. She can appreciate the nuances of the league and the perspectives of players, as she played for the Charlotte Sting and Indiana Fever over a five-year professional career from 1999-2004.

She coached the Indiana Fever to a Finals appearance in 2015, her first year as a head coach, after a decade of collegiate and professional assistant stops, including becoming the first former W player to work as an assistant coach for the Fever.

White returned to the collegiate ranks as the Head Coach at Vanderbilt and continued her broadcasting career with ESPN. But, as much as she appreciates the college game, she missed the W.

Time off from coaching since she and Vanderbilt parted ways in 2021 was a necessary refresh.

“You get so focused in the micro and get tunnel vision at times as a coach,” says White.

Solely broadcasting allowed her to view the bigger picture, expand into the macro, and appreciate the nuance of what players and teams do well. There was less emphasis on the constant growth and improvement on the margins and more appreciation of what makes the game enjoyable.

It also made her miss coaching. She loves the practices and feels most at home in the gym. White didn’t know she wanted a career in coaching until she stepped onto a practice court as a coach for the very first time.

“When Jenn first reached out, I was so excited about the opportunity… There’s a window of opportunity right now with the roster and the players we have, and I’m looking forward to that challenge,” says White.

“It’s important for someone like me, who’s further removed from my playing days, to have younger coaches who can be a conduit and a buffer. It’s important to have former players who are mature enough to handle that in the coaching role but also understand how to communicate with both sides.”

That made some of White’s hires simple.

Briann January and Abi Olajuwon both played for White, January with the Fever, and Olajuwon with the Chicago Sky when White was an assistant. White also brought Olajuwon to the Fever’s training camp roster when she was Head Coach. White had remained in consistent contact with Olajuwon and January even when she wasn’t coaching them or coaching in the W at all.

White had even tried to bring January onto staff at Vanderbilt while January was still in the league.

January spent two seasons as an assistant at Arizona State, her alma mater, and found her love for coaching before she was even done playing. Ask anyone around the W who knows January, and her addition to a coaching staff just months after retiring as a player comes as no surprise.

As a former player for the Sun herself, January had a conversation with Rizzotti after she made the decision to move on in 2021.

“I hope this is a temporary thank you and goodbye,” said Rizzotti to January, “because I’d really like to have you back as a coach one day.”

Rizzotti came calling this fall and made good on her word.

“We kind of spoke it into existence,” laughs January. “I couldn’t ask for a better position to start my professional coaching career.”

January told Rizzotti straight up during that call in 2021 that she’d love to be back and ‘on her side again.’

Coming into the year with the added benefit of having played alongside this core group for two seasons, January serves as that sort of bridge between the roster and coaching staff. She has a special connection that few can hope to replicate.

“I feel I have an advantage in knowing what motivates them, how to make them their best selves and perform at their highest level,” says January.

January sees herself as a future Head Coach in the W and is eager to learn and grow in every facet as a coach. Her preparation as an athlete was unparalleled, as Rizzotti details, and multiple members of the staff echo that they already see that from January in staff meetings.

In speaking with January, it’s clear how her attention to detail which made her one of the great defenders of the last decade will mold her into one of the most promising coaching prospects. She pores over wanting to learn the Collective Bargaining Agreement inside out, asking questions about how each member of the front office does their job and understanding each player’s process.

Ushering in the next wave of former players into the ranks of coaching staffs and front offices is as important to the Sun as furthering synergy with the current roster. It’s all about balance and ‘pulling up’ players and new coaches from within.

“Mentorship’s just important (to White) as getting over the championship hump,” says Olajuwon.

Olajuwon has spent her last decade since retiring as a player getting into the collegiate coaching ranks, most recently with Texas Christian. Much like White, she also never expected to get into coaching but fell in love with the mentorship aspect. She found a further appreciation for her former coaches once she took her first job, a position with Cal State Fullerton in 2014.

She knows how hard it is to make it to the league and even more so how difficult it is to find staying power as one of 144.

“Abi played three years behind one of the best to ever do it collegiately in Courtney Paris (at Oklahoma). Paris got drafted, and then Abi made an immediate impact as a senior and wound up getting drafted herself,” says White.

Her colleagues describe a hungry worker, someone with a deep desire to learn more and more about the game, and a fantastic communicator.

“Anyone who is willing to put in the extra work and wants to be uncommon amongst the uncommon, I’m here for them,” says Olajuwon.

Across the board, the Sun are viewed as evolving. They have a competitive edge and window right now. They’re ready and excited to get to work.

“We have a young staff that’s filled with unique experience and a wealth of knowledge,” says January.

Rizzotti wanted to emphasize the possibilities that are open to players once their careers are over. She started coaching collegiately in 1999 when she was still playing for the Houston Comets at a time when it was uncommon to hold a coaching job simultaneously, a path further trailblazed by Dawn Staley.

This off-season has seen a wave of former W players re-enter the league in a non-playing capacity, and the Sun positioned themselves at the forefront.

“There are a lot of great people and women in the WNBA,” says Sun Assistant General Manager Morgan Tuck.

“Whether you come in as a coach, or player development, or on the front office side, it’s really appreciated that the league is buying into and seeing the value of players, not just as athletes.”

Tuck, who formerly played from 2016-2019, retired prior to the 2021 season due to recurring knee injuries. That led to a position with the Sun a few months later, becoming the Director of Franchise Development and operating primarily on the business side.

The transition out of playing and into post-professional life outside of being an athlete was difficult and overwhelming. Still, it was eased by working for an organization she’d already been a part of.

“I was nervous; I’d never worked in an office: What does working hard look like? How do I improve at my job,” says Tuck reminiscing.

After Darius Taylor’s hiring to be the new General Manager of the Sun, Tuck received a promotion to Assistant GM alongside her Franchise Development tag. Growing up, she loved the idea of being a GM. Watching the Miami Heat assemble and seeing Pat Riley at press conferences introducing the Heatles, Tuck thought that was the coolest possible job outside of playing.

She’s still learning on the fly as one of the younger execs in the league (Tuck won’t turn 29 until just before the season at the end of April), but she’s eager to keep growing in the job.

Tuck has known Taylor for nearly a decade, as he recruited her while he was an assistant coach under Dawn Staley at South Carolina. 

She’s already learned a great deal from Rizzotti over the past year, who helped out on the basketball side quite a bit last year as the Sun didn’t have an Assistant GM on staff.  

While this is a young staff, they have deep roots in basketball and in one another.

Using the momentum of last year, Connecticut has built a staff to be excited about immediately and for their future growth and development. 

Spurred on by a new wave of former players in all facets of the organization, the Sun is not seeking to ‘reinvent the wheel’ but to add some tweaks along the way as they broaden their horizons off of their strong foundation.

WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.