Despite Lindsay Whalen’s popularity, logical concerns were expressed about her hiring as the Gophers women’s basketball coach.
She had never coached before, even as an assistant. She would be moving directly from a long career as a player to the rigors of Division I coaching, meaning she would have to learn to build a program, assemble a staff, manage games, recruit players, deal with bureaucracy and manage her time.
She would be doing so while taking over a program that went to the NCAA tournament under her predecessor, and while dealing with what some of her closest friends feared were unrealistically high expectations.
Saturday, Whalen called while boarding a flight to take her 8-0 team to a road test at Boston College. Her team has remained undefeated with fierce defense, relentless rebounding and clutch performances.
Marlene Stollings relied on offensive efficiency and three-point shooting. Whalen is winning while her team learns to run her offense. She has defied odds by immediately transferring her analytic nature to players who are only now beginning to understand the competitive drive behind the greatest basketball career in Minnesota history.
“We knew what we had, and we’re trying to build something for our program to be successful for a long time,” Whalen said. “For us, it was not wins and losses but establishing the way we want to play, and our program and our culture. We know there is going to be adversity this season, but I feel good about the group we have.”
There was a logical concern about Whalen beyond her lack of coaching experience: Would she even like the job?
Whalen herself has admitted that life as a player is, if not easy, simple, and not always time-consuming. Coaching is quite the opposite, especially in college. As a coach, she wakes earlier, works later and rarely turns off her phone.
The early verdict?
“Yeah, I love it,” she said. “It’s been really fun. I feel like so far we’ve had a really good rhythm. There are things to learn but I have just really enjoyed it. It’s just been fun every day at practice, or when we’re game-planning, and figuring out how to execute the game plan.
“I’ve done those things before. Now it’s just in a different role.”
Being who she is has allowed her to immediately build a coaching staff that is as impressive as it is familiar.
Danielle O’Banion coached Whalen at Minnesota, became a head coach at Kent State and worked as an assistant at Memphis. In 2016, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association gave her the Pat Summitt Most Courageous Award for women’s basketball, in honor of her fight against cancer. She underwent chemotherapy in 2014 and remains cancer-free.
Carly Thibault-Dudonis was a key assistant for Mississippi State the past two years as that program advanced to consecutive national championship games, and is the daughter of Whalen’s first WNBA coach, Mike Thibault.
Kelly Roysland is a former Gophers star and assistant who coached Macalester for the past four seasons, and was the Gophers interim coach in 2014.
“We have people who have experience in winning programs,” Whalen said. “We wanted to hit the ground running. While we’re trying to build something sustainable for the future, for this senior class, we wanted to give them everything we had.”
The Gophers rank 14th in the country. Whalen looks comfortable on the sideline, and her team plays with the passion, if not yet the offensive polish, of this decade’s great Lynx teams.
“The time demands are different in this job,” Whalen said. “You might go from practice to recruiting to breaking down video. You have early mornings and late night nights, but I really love having this to go do. It’s been great.”
The results have been, too. Should we have expected anything less?