One of the most beloved sports figures in Minnesota history has a new job in her old place of work.

Lindsay Whalen’s illustrious college basketball career included a Final Four run, playing in front of record-setting Gophers crowds, racking up record-setting statistics and sparking interest in the game for a generation of young players. Minnesotans of all ages fell in love with her passion, small-town roots and quiet but undeterred confidence.

Fourteen years — and four WNBA championships with the Minnesota Lynx — later, Whalen will be back at Williams Arena, coaching the Gophers while standing under her No. 13 jersey that hangs from the rafters.

“Becoming the head coach here at the U and being a Gopher again is a dream come true,” Whalen said through the Gophers on Thursday. “At every level, basketball has given me so much.”

Only a couple weeks removed from the start of Lynx training camp, the 35-year-old Hutchinson, Minn., native plans to keep one chapter of her career open while turning the page to another. Whalen will play point guard in the summer and coach Gophers basketball in the fall, winter and spring.

The rare player-coach scenario became a reality Thursday when an afternoon tweet from the university announcing the hire rocketed across social media.

“It’s a shot in the arm for the program,” said former Gophers coach Pam Borton, who coached Whalen from 2002-04. “It’s a shot in the arm for the state of Minnesota and for college basketball.”

Whalen, a staunch supporter of her alma mater since she finished her career as a three-time All-America star and the program’s all-time scoring leader, replaces Marlene Stollings after the fourth-year coach took the same position at Texas Tech this week.

As part of Whalen’s agreement to become head coach, pending approval from the U’s Board of Regents, she will continue to play for the Lynx, who open the regular season on May 20. The last possible date for the WNBA Finals is Sept. 16 — about two weeks before the Gophers begin fall practice.

“I’ve learned from so many great players, coaches and mentors, and now I have a chance to share that knowledge and help shape the new generation of Gopher stars,” Whalen said. “I’m ready to get started.”

After she met with Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle in his office earlier Thursday, Whalen strolled over to the new Athletes Village practice court to surprise players during an afternoon team meeting. “The reaction was pretty great,” said team spokesman Karl Anderson.

After a tour of the facility, Whalen did video spots with the Gophers, which were promptly sent off to be featured at the spring football game a few hours later at TCF Bank Stadium. Outside the new athletics complex, the Gophers sports community celebrated.

“Lindsay Whalen is a winner. End of story,” men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino said by phone.

‘A perfect fit’

In four seasons as the U’s starting point guard, Whalen set the all-time scoring record with 2,285 points (later topped by Rachel Banham). Just as impressive as her Gophers statistics was how attendance at Williams Arena jumped, from an average 1,087 during her freshman year to 9,866 during her senior season.

In the 15 seasons since, the Gophers haven’t gotten past the Sweet 16 in six NCAA tournament appearances.

“The university made a statement with this hire,” said Janel McCarville, who played with Whalen both with the Gophers and the Lynx. “This is someone who wants to see the program succeed and isn’t going anywhere when it does reach success.”

After that run with McCarville and the 2004 team, Whalen was the No. 4 pick in the WNBA draft by Connecticut. Minnesota had to say goodbye to its favorite homegrown basketball player. Each season she was on the Sun, the Lynx would heavily promote their home game against Connecticut, even featuring her in ads.

She was a Sun for six seasons, and then a 2010 trade with the Lynx brought her back to Minnesota. Lynx attendance figures have been up ever since. Victories, too.

In the past six Lynx seasons, Whalen has been the veteran point guard and heartbeat of a talent-loaded team that has collected four WNBA trophies.

Rebecca Lobo, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, expects Whalen to be just as successful on the sideline.

“I’m thrilled for her,” said Lobo, now a women’s college basketball analyst. “And for the U It seems like a perfect fit. She’s always seemed to be a coach in the making and everything that is good about Minnesota sports.”

Whalen inherits three returning starters from a 24-9 team that reached the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. Banham said Thursday she’s jealous of players like All-Big Ten guard Kenisha Bell and freshman of the year Destiny Pitts, who get to be coached by a legend.

“I’m like in shock right now,” Banham said Thursday. “I’m so excited. I was kind of sad when the coaching staff [under Stollings] decided to leave. I was like, I’m not going to know the next coaching staff and it’s going to be really weird. Now, I’m friends with her.”

Some fans immediately wanted Whalen; others weren’t so sure someone with no coaching experience was the best choice. Borton said her former floor general will have an easier time with the Xs and Os than the administrative side of running her own program.

“I think the coaching part is going to be the easiest thing for her,” Borton said. “I think coaching and running a practice, what defensive systems to run, how to run a pregame shoot around is not going to be a problem.

“But she will need to put people around her to help her run a business. Coaching at that level is you’re not just a basketball coach, you’re running a business. It’s budgeting. It’s all of those business decisions. I know she’ll surround herself with people who she trusts to help her with those things.”

Whalen might have been the U’s first choice from the moment Stollings walked out. The university job posting this week for the position had two predictable job requirements, a bachelor’s degree and “three to five years” of coaching experience, followed by this: “or a professional basketball player in the WNBA or NBA for five to 7 years.”

“People talk about the ‘it’ factor, and that is always difficult to define, but everyone who has ever spent time around Lindsay Whalen knows she has it,” said Coyle in a statement.

 

Staff writer Kent Youngblood contributed to this report.

marcus.fuller@startribune.com