This is a good time to write about good people in sports, so let’s start this with an appreciation of Lindsay Whalen. When she hired Carly Thibault-DuDonis, Whalen brought two bright young coaches north.
Whalen, heading into her third season as the Gophers women’s basketball coach, made Thibault-DuDonis one of her first hires, and recently promoted her to associate head coach.
Thibault-DuDonis left Mississippi State, where she was an assistant coach and an outstanding recruiter, to join Whalen. Mississippi State went to the Final Four in both of her seasons there.
“I got to Mississippi State when it was partially built,” she said. “I wanted to do something similar here, building from the ground up and getting to do it with someone who was like family to me. I’ve known Coach Whay for a long time.”
In this case, “family” isn’t a coaching cliché. Whalen started her WNBA career in Connecticut, playing for Mike Thibault, Carly’s father.
Last year, during the WNBA Finals, Whalen insisted that Carly take time to see Games 4 and 5, where Carly saw her father win his first title, with the Washington Mystics.
Carly also recognized that her husband, Blake DuDonis, had placed his coaching career on hold in Mississippi. Now Blake is the head women’s coach at Wisconsin-River Falls.
“It worked out better than we could have imagined,” Carly said. “We prayed about it a lot, and it’s the best decision we’ve ever made.”
When it comes to basketball decisions, she does not lack counsel.
Her father is a beloved figure. Mike recently talked about his son, Eric, now an assistant, succeeding him as Mystics head coach. And when Carly returns home at night, she talks hoops — or, these days, social justice — with her husband.
“People always ask if we separate our work lives from our home lives,” Blake said. “That’s hard to do in our family. It’s something we embrace because it’s such a huge part of our lives.
“We talk basketball a lot, but it’s not just the X and O stuff or recruiting. It’s all the other stuff — running a program, handling things that come up. It’s really nice for each of us to have someone who does what we do and knows what they’re talking about. It’s nice to come home and have an unbiased sounding board outside of your own program.”
Carly’s work is only beginning. The Gophers have gone 37-26 under Whalen but have faded in Big Ten play (14-22), and last season’s team was hamstrung by the midseason departure of Destiny Pitts, who transferred after conflicting with Whalen.
To win big at Minnesota, Whalen and her staff will have to recruit well, which is Thibault-DuDonis’ specialty. They appear to be setting themselves up for success.
“Coach Whalen talks about it all the time — playing in a Final Four at Minnesota changed her life,” Carly said. “She wants that same experience for our girls. For us, it’s about building a program that can have sustained success, and I think we’ve made good steps toward that. We have to build a great foundation while being great to one another.”
Last fall, Carly and Blake flew to Connecticut for Game 4 of the WNBA Finals. The Mystics lost, setting up a Game 5 in Washington, D.C.
“We hadn’t planned for that,” Blake said. “So we drove to D.C. It was exciting, but Carly was a ball of nerves. The emotions around seeing her dad accomplish pretty much the only thing he hadn’t accomplished in basketball were amazing.”
These days Carly is working from home, recruiting and coordinating with Whalen, which means she’s not getting to serve one of her most important purposes as an assistant coach: explaining Whalen’s dry sense of humor.
“Especially in her first year, players didn’t know her that well,” Carly said. “She would say something and the players would look around, and someone had to explain that she was joking. The young players would come in and say, ‘What?’ ”
The more important part of the job is translating Whalen’s goals into realities.