The WNBA: Coaching’s Last Frontier – July 2007

Linda Hill-MacDonald joined the WNBA as head coach of the Cleveland Rockers in 1997, the league’s inaugural season, in spite of historical precedence. “I knew that there had been many other attempts at the professional level in the past, and there was a risk involved,” acknowledged Hill-MacDonald, now head coach at Buffalo. That the league was backed by the NBA helped counter fears she might have had about its longevity, but history told her the leap to the professional world could be temporary. So what exactly drew her to the pros?

“I’ve coached at every level,” she explained. “I started at high school where, if you’re fortunate, you have one or two good athletes on your team and you try and build a successful program. Then moving on to the college level, where you have to fight for the athletes and you have to build a team through the recruiting process. But in the WNBA, the best of each of the colleges [were] going to make up these teams. That was something that really appealed to me. Would coaching at that level be different because of the level of talent?”

For Carolyn Peck working at the professional level was part her long-term career plans. “When I started coaching,” explained Peck, now an ESPN analyst, “Pat Summitt gave me my first opportunity. She sat me down and she said, ‘Carolyn, where do you see yourself in the next five to ten years?’ And I wanted to be the first female assistant on an NBA staff. It wasn’t one of those things where [I was there] ‘just because I was a woman.’ I was looking at it from being a coach. I felt if you could turn around an 84 game season, the preparation and the games you were going to see and the basketball you were going to learn…it felt like getting your Ph.D. in basketball.” When Orlando decided to commit to a WNBA franchise, she believed in the organization and accepted the role of coach and general manager of the expansion Miracle in 1998, and began the job after her Purdue team won the 1999 NCAA championship.

Hired by the New York Liberty in 1999 as an assistant to Richie Adubato, Patty Coyle was elevated to the head coach position mid-way through the 2004 season. When she decided to make the jump, she’d been coaching college for 16 years and was starting her seventh year as head coach at Loyola. “I felt a little stagnant in college,” she admitted, and “I just felt intrigued by this opportunity. More importantly,” Coyle explained, “to come in and work for someone like Richie Adubato, who had 40 years of coaching experience – 20 years in the NBA – I just felt like he had a wealth of knowledge. Learning from someone who had been in the game for 40 years was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Now in its 11th season, the WNBA coaching pool has been through its fair share of growing pains, much of it having to do with mastering the differences between the college and professional game. While it almost universally agreed that there’s a willingness to learn at both levels, it should come as no surprise that the WNBA game is faster and more physical one, played by players with good basketball I.Q’s.

“At the college level,” said Dawn Staley, who played in the WNBA while coaching at Temple, “if you don’t have the talent you may have to explain every option of every play. At the WNBA level, they see those options plus more. They’re able to create their own shots.” Also, noted Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault, “in the college game, I always felt like you could kind of lose somebody defensively and help somebody else. In the pros, there are so many good players it’s hard to do. You could say, ‘Well, that’s their weakest link.’ But their weakest link was a college First Team All-American.”

In terms of X’s and O’s, WNBA coaches have more control over time outs and, said Thibault, “there are a lot more pick and rolls in the game — probably double the amount than are in college. The footwork is different than what [the players] ran when they ran just a motion offense in college.” Playing four quarters with the 24-second clock mean more possessions, and the shot clock, plus the new 8-second backcourt rule, has sped the game up a notch.

“You have to be able to prepare more quickly,” added Hill-MacDonald. “There’s no doubt about that. With the onslaught of games once the season begins (34 games in three months), it comes fast and furious. It demands of you long hours, a lot of perseverance, and working through a lot of fatigue. I don’t think it’s for the faint hearted. If you’re not prepared, you’re not going to succeed. That’s the bottom line.”

Something a coach has no control over is the ridiculously short preseason and the fact that many veterans arrive late to camp because of overseas commitments. “There’s no time to develop chemistry and to me that’s the one thing that hurts the league more than anything else,” reflected Nell Fortner. Now the head coach at Auburn, after spending three years coaching USA basketball (culminating in an Olympic gold in 2000), Fortner became the Indiana Fever’s head coach and GM in 2001.

“It’s not the talent,” continued Fortner, “the talent is there. It’s the lack of time to develop your chemistry. And you only get chemistry through going through a preseason: you’re working hard, you’ve got the two-a-days and you’re suffering and,” she laughed, “you hate the coach. They don’t have the time to go through the fire. And then all of a sudden, bam, you’re playing games. And let me tell you something, those early games? They mean something when you’re fighting for a playoff spot.”

“I’d say to coach at the WNBA level, it’s more about managing people than it is about the actual X’s and O’s,” reflected Hill-MacDonald. “Managing the professional athlete is challenging because they come in and you spend two to three hours a day with them and they’re gone. It’s a little more difficult to develop that team chemistry that you can develop at the college level because you have more time with those young women and you can do team building activities with them.

“You’re dealing with players who are adults and they are now moving into the adult part of their lives and establishing careers as professional athletes,” commented Fortner. “They’ve got a huge life outside of playing basketball. They might be married. They might have children; they might have family members living with them. They’ve developed who they’re going to be, pretty much, and you don’t have any of that at the college level. Those kids are looking at you and pretty much drawing off of you everyday they’re on campus.”

“I remember a player telling me one time when I coached in the league, ‘I don’t really need to be asked how I’m doing every day. All I want to do is come in here and play basketball and go home. It doesn’t matter to me that you know anything about me.’ Let me tell you something, that affected me,” said Fortner, “because that’s not me at all. But I do know this: I think that being in the league, it’s a great gig. You’re coaching basketball, and if that’s what you want to do, that’s where you need to be. You get to coach basketball, you get to evaluate talent. You don’t have to worry about them off the floor, what they’re doing, who they’re hanging out with. That’s not your job.”

Looking back on the league’s first season, when all eight of the head coaches were drawn from the women’s basketball ranks, it’s no wonder that much has been made of the influx of ex-NBA coaches and ex-NBA players-turned-coach. Some have suggested that the NBA “fraternity” was simply using the WNBA as training ground — ignoring (or discouraging) qualified coaches with roots in women’s basketball — and for some it’s created a disconnect between the two coaching communities.

“I’ve had some heated arguments with people about this discussion,” said Coyle. “When this league started, there weren’t any women coaches that had head coaching experience at the professional level. And I’ve got to tell you, it’s so much different than college. I felt that the men that were hired had been successful at the NBA level, and I thought it was one of the best things that happened to the women’s game. Sitting 11 years later, we’re better for it,” said Coyle. “They brought the approach that it was just about the game. The way you treat the players, it’s just so different. At this level, you don’t have to worry about the kids going to class. You don’t have to worry about parents or recruiting. It’s so much more of a business.”

For Peck, balancing the business side of the General Manager with the coach’s seemed, initially, at odds. “As a coach you develop a relationship to get your players to play hard for you,” explained Peck, “then you’ve got to make a cut or a trade or waive somebody. The women in the WNBA now, because it’s had its longevity, understand that it’s a business. It’s not like college, where you develop that family atmosphere and you go to war together and you play hard for each other. You still are doing that, but if there’s a decision that needs to be made that will make your organization better, that’s a business decision and you leave it at that.”

Intriguingly enough, the newest WNBA coaches seem to reflect a successful professional learning curve. While Minnesota’s Don Zierden traces his roots to the NBA, Chicago’s Bo Overton’s resume straddles both men’s and women’s college basketball. Jenny Boucek, coach of the Sacramento Monarchs, spent seven years as a WNBA assistant, including time with Seattle Storm’s Anne Donovan and Ron Rothstein of the (now defunct) Miami Sol. The Houston Comets’ Karleen Thompson has been with the WNBA since ’97, serving as an assistant since 2002 under Los Angeles’ Michael Cooper and Houston’s previous coach, Van Chancellor.

But there’s no guarantee that trend will continue. “I’ve got to tell you,” said Coyle, “in the last two or three years I’ve had assistant jobs open, and I haven’t had any women apply. Which is shocking.” Though, perhaps, not surprising. “I think this is the root of it,” posited Coyle. “When I decided to make the jump from college to the pros, I wasn’t concerned about whether or not I was going to have security. At this level, you might get a two-year contract. In college, people don’t want to leave the security. The guys are a lot different. And I’m more like a guy in the sense that I’m thinking, if you get the job done, you get rewarded. And if you don’t get it done, then that’s on you. That’s the mentality at this level.”

So, what’s at stake for the college coach, and how concerned should they be about the WNBA’s success or failure? “On the whole,” asked Fortner, somewhat rhetorically, “how important is it, really, to the collegiate game? Is it going to affect our game if the league’s not here anymore? No, I don’t think it will, because we’ll still have college scholarships and women will still be playing college ball.” Of course, it would be a basketball tragedy for any fan of the game to never see a 26-year-old Candace Parker, and all the talented players who’ll follow her, play the game on American soil.

That being said, the college game has benefited from the WNBA as a motivation. “Kids coming up today don’t know anything but the WNBA,” said Fortner, “so it’s a tremendous motivational tool for them through the year to stay focused, to become the best they can be.” There’s also no denying the recruiting value of having a player in the WNBA. To that end, Staley believes that “as college coaches we need to know what’s going on at the next level so we can prepare our kids a lot better for what they’re going to face – the physicality, the speed. We really have to do a better job at teaching our kids how to work as a team and to instill individual work ethic. Because once you get to the next level, what you put in to it as an individual is what you get out of it.”

There are growing opportunities for coaches at both levels to meet, exchange ideas about the game and develop a mutual respect for each other’s professions. “I go out and see college games all the time,” said Thibault. “Last year just during our training camp, we had somewhere between 10 and 15 college programs come in to watch our practices and to dialogue back and forth about [different tactics]. You’re seeing more of that, and I think that the perception that the pros just roll out the ball has gone away.”

In the past, several factors have contributed to a lack of collegiality between the two coaching communities. Schedules that were out of sync, disparate backgrounds seemed to discourage connection, and the ever-growing pressure of growing a college program made huge demands on an individual coach’s time. In spite of those realities, Seattle’s Donovan can’t help but feel disappointed in what she sees as a lack of support from the college ranks. “I don’t know how much they watch the game, how much they really play close attention to it. I can speculate about why that is, but I’ll leave that alone and just say it’s frustrating. Because this is a great game. Pity the person that’s still looking at this league ten years ago when it started out. They just gave up on it back then? Where would we be in women’s basketball if we had all done that back then? The game has grown, the talent has grown, the coaching has grown. And it’s a game that needs to be promoted within our own ranks.”

“It’s about supporting the game,” concluded Coyle, “Women have to support women. Because if we don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it.”


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