Mark Coyle made a bold coaching hire Thursday, one that brings some risk but would be hard to top in generating excitement and feel-good nostalgia.
Bringing Lindsay Whalen back home to coach the Gophers women’s basketball team qualifies as a home run.
Athletic director Coyle just engineered a stealth coup. He wasn’t scared off by Whalen’s lack of coaching experience, or the fact that she’s still an active WNBA player. He trusted his gut and his eyes. Anyone who has paid attention to Whalen’s basketball career should understand why this decision makes perfect sense.
Coyle also heard glowing reports from some of the best basketball coaches in the game, including Lynx leader Cheryl Reeve and legendary UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who coached Whalen in the Olympics. A source said Coyle and Auriemma had a phone conversation on Wednesday.
In a vacuum, hiring someone with no coaching experience is risky, especially in a power conference such as the Big Ten. Examples exist in different sports of successes and failures in these situations. Whalen will need to hire a top-notch coaching staff with experience at the college level to assist her transition.
But the upside far outweighs those concerns. The Gophers are getting plenty of substance with this PR splash. This move is as ambitious as it is smart.
Whalen is an all-time winner and competitor. High school, college, professional, Olympics … she just wins. As a player, she is fierce and feisty. She doesn’t back down from challenges. As a point guard, she is smart and creative, a coach on the floor. Her team will reflect her personality.
Whalen is a perfect fit for the job because she is Minnesota basketball. A generation of girls in this state grew up idolizing her. Many of them became interested in the sport after Whalen and her Gophers teammates sparked interest and captured hearts with their Final Four run.
“This is a great hire,” said Hopkins girls coach Brian Cosgriff, winner of six state championships. “It’s going to put Minnesota basketball back in prominence. You’re hiring a Hall of Fame player. She’s won at the WNBA level, she’s won at the college level, she’s an Olympian. How do you do better than that?”
Hopkins sophomore guard Paige Bueckers is one of the top players in the country. She is being recruited by every major program, including UConn. Bueckers has a signed Whalen jersey hanging in her room and a pair of Whalen’s game-used shoes that Whalen gave her a few years ago.
The Gophers had zero chance of signing Bueckers before Whalen’s announcement. Bueckers’ father, Bob, was asked if his daughter will look at the Gophers differently now.
“Absolutely,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Whalen will be successful in signing Bueckers, but she brings instant credibility with recruits. That cannot be stressed enough since recruiting remains the lifeblood of college sports.
Marlene Stollings took the Gophers to the second round of the NCAA tournament with a run-and-gun system, but she never connected with the state’s coaches and recruits. Coaches aren’t obligated to recruit with provincial blinders, but girls’ basketball in Minnesota offers plenty of talent.
Imagine the reaction when Whalen walks into a recruit’s living room and sells herself, her vision, and her program.
“I remember how exciting it was when Whalen was playing in the Barn and how it energized everybody — the city, the state, girls’ basketball,” Bob Bueckers said. “It was incredible. That’s something that everybody wants to see come back, but it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Whalen faces a learning curve because she’s never done this job. Assembling a staff that can help her navigate different issues and unknowns will be vital. She also knows that she has Reeve nearby for guidance.
This career change doesn’t come without pressure. Whalen’s popularity and image in Minnesota give her legend status. If she doesn’t succeed as coach, the situation could become awkward.
But why fixate on worst-case scenarios? Gophers fans should be ecstatic. One of the best basketball players and winners this state has ever produced is bringing her knowledge and passion to a program that she loves dearly.
The Barn will be rocking again for women’s basketball. Whalen’s return will bring new energy and excitement, which was evident in a scene inside the women’s basketball office Wednesday that a source shared.
Coyle gathered the team for a coaching search update. Players watched a highlight video of their season. The video then flashed to highlights of Whalen’s career, followed by her playing credentials and finally her picture. Then she walked into the room.
The room erupted. Screams of jubilation could be heard down the hall. Players who idolize Lindsay Whalen couldn’t believe they were meeting their new coach.