The Dawn Staley comparisons were immediate when Lindsay Whalen was hired as the Gophers women's basketball coach. Both were college and WNBA stars. Both had Olympic gold medals. And both still ran the point for a WNBA team the day they became a big-time college basketball head coach for the first time.
There is, however, one big difference: Whalen, who begins her 15th WNBA season when training camp opens Sunday with the Lynx, was "probably born to be a coach," Staley said.
"I never wanted to be a coach," said Staley, in her 10th season at South Carolina. "Obviously, I think it's a lot different for Lindsay."
Staley has overcome her coaching reservations quite well. Her résumé includes 13 NCAA tournaments, including two Final Fours and the 2017 national championship, in 18 seasons.
"I'd say she's been pretty successful," Whalen said of Staley, who for six years did double duty as a WNBA point guard and college coach (Temple) from 2000-2006.
For Staley, coaching success started with finding a top assistant, one who could basically run the program with Staley's same vision while she played. The hiring of Lisa Boyer as her associate head coach in 2002 was Staley's big get. Boyer, still with Staley at South Carolina, had valuable coaching and administrative experience, and together they led the Owls to five consecutive NCAA tourneys.
"The most important thing for Lindsay is she's got to get a great staff that will allow her to grow at the pace she needs to grow," Staley said. "Not think she's a figure head. My interaction with Lindsay is she's an incredible basketball mind. She understands how she wants to do things. She just needs someone to do all the administrative work to keep her focused on the right things."
Whalen, 35, has since hired former Gophers teammate and Macalester head coach Kelly Roysland and Mississippi State assistant Carly Thibault-DuDonis to be the first two assistants on her staff.
One advantage for Whalen that Staley didn't have is that Williams Arena is only a few miles away from the Lynx practice facility in downtown Minneapolis. Staley, a Philadelphia native, coached at Temple but played in Charlotte and Houston.
"It's definitely a very big job and there are a lot of responsibilities," Whalen said. "I'll be at practices and then I'll be able to do all my responsibilities that I'll need to do. … With the staff we'll put together, we'll be in touch every day."
The Lynx and Gophers playing seasons do not overlap, even if the Lynx make it to the WNBA Finals again. The Lynx open the regular season on May 20, and the last possible date for the WNBA Finals is Sept. 16 — about two weeks before the Gophers begin fall practice.
Coaching a Division I college team, however, is a year-round job, so Whalen will have competing priorities. The Lynx play a 34-game regular season schedule this summer, which is also prime recruiting season.
"I expect that when she comes in to be the point guard for the Minnesota Lynx, I'm going to be getting a certain look in her eye, a certain commitment to what we're doing," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "What she then needs from me is that, when she walks out the door to become the head coach of the Gophers, that she is all-in there, and I don't interfere with that world. It will be a collaborative effort to allow her to compartmentalize."
The balancing act already has begun as Whalen gets ready for Lynx training camp and hits the gas in her new job. She took a break from pre-camp workouts last weekend to go to Chicago for the Big Ten women's basketball meetings.
"I'll have my phone and I'll be in touch," Whalen said. "We'll be working hard, no matter where I'm at. This summer, it's going to be a great summer for us. I think that's something that will be a real strength and a real tool leading into the winter. We're going for something we haven't done with the Lynx — repeating — so we have that out there as our goal. It's going to be a fun summer, and I think balancing those things will obviously be my job."
Staley was 36 when she retired from the WNBA in 2006. Whalen will turn 36 on May 9, but the former Gophers All-America hasn't put a timetable on when she'll call it quits as the Lynx's point guard.
"Lindsay's incredibly organized," said Debbie Antonelli, a WNBA and college basketball analyst. "She can make recruiting calls when she's on the road playing. So could she do both jobs? Sure. I absolutely see her being able to do both, because she can manage it all at this point in her career."
This WNBA season will give Whalen further opportunity to soak up knowledge from Reeve, adding to what she's already learned previously from her, and former Gophers coach Pam Borton and UConn's Geno Auriemma, who coached Whalen in the Olympics.
"She'll be more aware of what Cheryl does over the summer," Staley said. "Just paying attention to how she works and communicates with all of her players. I know she already knows that part of it. But she's going to be more aware of it, because she's trying to learn and grow. And she wants to get it right."
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle convinced Whalen to become the Gophers coach maybe a little sooner than expected, while still playing. Staley, though, sees Whalen's transition being even smoother than when she took on both roles more than a decade ago.
"She'll have a different appreciation for teaching and coaching with young people," Staley said. "They're going to come to Minnesota just to be tutored and mentored by her. So I think it's a great opportunity for Minnesota to capitalize on having such a great player from there make that program great."
Staff writer Kent Youngblood contributed to this story.