SHIFTS IN THE WNBA: Look who’s coaching now – WBCA July, 2009

As the WNBA moves into its thirteenth year, the growth and evolution of the league is reflected as much in the coaches patrolling the sideline as it is in the players playing the games. When the league started in 1997, there were seven female coaches and one male. Almost five years later, the numbers had all but flipped. Now, in 2009, the pendulum seems to be swinging back.

“You are seeing a shift,” agreed Patty Coyle, now in her fifth full year as head coach of the New York Liberty. “When Richie (Adubato) came into the league (1999), Ronnie Rothstein (2000), and Bill Laimbeer (2002), I thought they were great for our game. Here were guys who — with the exception of Laimbeer – had coached in the NBA for a long time. That helped shape this league, in the sense that they had coached at the pro level and there weren’t any women, at the time this league started, who had.”

“Now you see the people who were their longtime assistants — me, Julie Plank (Washington Mystics), Jenny Boucek (Sacramento Monarchs), and Jennifer Gillom (Minnesota Lynx), who was an assistant just recently — that have put in their time and now are getting a chance.  I think it’s great and well deserved.”

Add Lin Dunn (Indiana Fever) and Marynell Meadors (Atlanta Dream) to names mentioned, and now women lead six of the league’s 13 teams.

THE RISE OF THE “NEW” GUARD

Boucek started in the WNBA as an unpaid assistant for Nancy Darsch and the Washington Mystics in 1999. She’s spent her career coaching in the WNBA because, she said,  “It captured my heart.” After four years starting for Debbie Ryan’s Virginia Cavaliers, graduation in 1997 found her back on the court, this time wearing a Cleveland Rockers WNBA uniform.

“Just being part of the inaugural season and seeing the potential of this league to impact the country culturally really hit home with me as a young lady. Grown women were crying at our games,” remembered Boucek. “Little girls, who were wide-eyed, now have a different perception of themselves and their potential, their dreams and their opportunities, not just in sports. They see women getting opportunities that they only knew men to have.”

“And now we have a whole generation of guys who grew up with the WNBA that now have a completely different view of women, too,” she continued. “They grew up looking up to women, respecting women, coming to the games, putting on the jerseys, painting their faces. Now they have a different respect for women that, I pray, will affect their relationships as husbands as fathers. It’s a different generation coming up now with a different view of women.”

Gillom was also a member of the WNBA’s inaugural season, but the journey to top position in Minnesota was not as direct.  The two-time All-Star ended her career in 2003 at the age of 39, then coached the girls high school team at Xavier College Preparatory (Phoenix, AZ) for four years. She joined the Lynx staff as an assistant last year, but after Don Zierden unexpectedly resigned, she was elevated to the head position days before the 2009 season opened.

“When I was playing in the WNBA I used to think that I would coach someday. I always had that thought, even as young as sixth grade,” said Gillom, “But man, I did not in my wildest dreams expect to be a head coach this fast,” she laughed. “Seriously, I thought I still had more to learn before I got to this level. I even thought that I had to put in my time at the college level in order to get to the WNBA as a head coach.” Fortunately she discovered that, when thrust into the role, “I actually I knew more than I thought I did. But, had I not been one of the elite players in the league, I don’t know, would it have happened? It’s hard to say. It makes you wonder. It makes you wonder a lot.”

In contrast to Gillom’s experience, Plank’s move into the ranks of professional basketball and up to the head coach position in Washington seemed to have been a smooth series of steps. “I had been in the college game for a long time (1984) and I was interested in having a different challenge,” explained the first-year head coach. “I’ve always been intrigued by working with the very best players and coaching at the highest level and I had great opportunities in college both at Stanford and Vanderbilt.” Then, in 1999, Plank had the chance to serve as assistant coach with Nell Fortner and go to the 2000 Olympics. “With her going to the WNBA with the Fever [in 2001], I just thought it was a natural progression to continue to coach those players who were going from the Olympics to the WNBA. I have been here ever since.”

THE “CHANGING” OF THE “OLD” GUARD

Currently head coach of the Dream, Meadors established the basketball program at Tennessee Tech, and has helped start three WNBA franchises – Charlotte (’97), Miami (’99) and Atlanta (’08). “I think that that has been my call of duty,” she quipped, “to be a starter person.”

That, as well as being an assistant with several of the league’s teams, has given Meadors plenty of opportunity to see how coaching has changed at the professional level. “When we first started this league, we were all college coaches and we ran the college plays,” she explained. “None of us do that anymore. We’re all running sets. We’re always trying to get the ball to the people that we know that can hit the shot.”

“It’s more sophisticated,” added Dunn who, after a long career in the college ranks, has been coaching professionals since 1997. “In college you’re going to defend the two-man game maybe two ways. We’re going to defend it six ways. We’re going to have a counter to every play that we have. We don’t have two offenses, we have 15. It’s like the difference between Basketball 101 and Basketball 505. These players are sophisticated, smart and intelligent, so they grow their knowledge of the game. It’s just more. Much more.”

The WNBA’s compact schedule is also incredibly demanding on coaches. “Where the college games are played over a six-month period, we are putting them in a four-month period,” explained Plank. “In college you have a six-week training camp and here it’s a three-week period. In terms of the scouting of teams, you play two games a week in college. In the pros, we may play 3 or 4. It’s that same pressure to prepare, only speeded up. You need to be very organized. You have to be able to go from one thing to another quickly. You have to be very concise and precise in your planning. And I don’t want to say it isn’t teaching, because it’s very much teaching. But it’s also more strategy and tweaking. What you do game to game, how you’re going to adjust and how you are going to change things.”

“With Richie, when I first came into this league I thought, as a college coach, I had a pretty good grasp of the game,” said Coyle. “With his knowledge and just his whole way of doing things, what I learned was I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. That really opened my eyes. I think when I was back in college, not that I was ‘stagnant,’ but I was stagnant. Or maybe I’ve matured and opened my eyes to the fact that there’s a lot of different ways to do things. I look back to a year ago and I’m a different coach. Five years ago? Forget about it. Coming into this league? It’s like night and day. My coaching style, being around people that I’ve been around, it’s just constantly evolving and for the better, in my opinion. For the better.”

“I know that there are college coaches that would love the challenge of coaching in the WNBA,” noted Dunn. “Who would love the challenge of coaching the very best players.  You know, those plays that you run? They work a lot better when talented players execute them. Trust me,” she laughed. “But, not only are you leaving one style of the game to move up to another one, but taking the risk of doing it with limited security. In the WNBA, you win or you leave. You win or you get fired. You get better or you get fired. That’s just the way it is. In college, you play hard, you go to class, you go 0-and-3, you’re not going to be fired. In the pros you might. Men or women, that just the way it is.”

PLAYER TO PLAYER DISCONNECT

Something that has surprised Boucek is how unfamiliar many of the newly drafted college players are with the league’s players. “I have a few that were fans growing up and they love talking about old players that played in college or the WNBA,” said Boucek. “But most of them have never even heard of stars that have been through this league. They don’t know them. And it never even occurred to them that they should know them.”

Her solution? “We have named our post moves after older [female] post players. One of our moves is Katrina [McClain] and one of them is Lucy Harris. I make them Google the names of the players and learn their women’s basketball history.”

“They have great players to look up to,” she added. “You don’t make it to the top 11 players on 13 teams and not be elite in every way. Not just talent. You have got to have great character, great perseverance, great work ethic. These are incredible women. They are great role models for college kids, for high school kids. They play hard, they play the right way. There’s no margin of error. If they don’t, they are not going to stay in the league.”

“I don’t know where the disconnect is, but it could only help the college game if college players were watching these players.”

BUILDING ON SUCCESS

“I think initially people wondered if a women’s professional league would last,” said Dunn. “Now everyone at all levels — family friends, college coaches, high school coaches, everybody that has any interest in women’s basketball — has seen the positive impact that the women’s professional game has had on our sport.” That, of course, won’t guarantee the continued existence of the league – a league that has lost it marquee franchise in the Houston Comets and reduced rosters to 11 to address the current economic challenges.

“I think everybody that is in there now, we all have passion for the game and we have passion for the WNBA,” said Meadors. “That’s why we’re trying to make sure that it’s still around 20 years from now. I know the WNBA is going through some growing pains just like the NBA did when they first started. I think it’s just a matter of staying after it, staying the course and keep trying to make a better.”

But, added Dunn, “I sometimes don’t think that the college coaches realize how fortunate they are to have a women’s professional league and how that motivates young girls, motivates high school players, motivates their players to continue to continue to get better, to continue to strive for the next level.” Those same coaches, she’s noticed, are recognizing the cachet of having a player enter the WNBA. “Let’s take a Kristi Cirone at Illinois State,” she posited. “How did that impact that team and that league, that she was striving for the next level? Megan Frazee at Liberty. How did it affect her team, her conference?”

“That brings you additional media attention, gives value to your program, and you use it in your recruiting,” noted Dunn. “I walk into your locker room and there’s a huge photo of the player that got drafted. Now my question to you is, ‘What are you doing to make sure we’re around 10 years from now?’ We are helping you. You must help us. You must support us. You must invest in our future.”

“I want them to come to the games,” said Dunn. “I want them to buy season tickets. I want them to talk about the women’s professional game anytime they can. Talk about the positive impact it’s having on our game.  Share that with corporate sponsors. The last thing we need is a college coach saying, ‘Well I can’t stand the WNBA. I don’t go to the games.’ How does that help? I would never say that about a college game because I love women’s basketball.”

“They stand to lose enormously if this league doesn’t make it. If I were them, I would be doing everything within my power to make sure we make it. And you can quote me on that.”

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