Two years ago, Tina Thompson and Lindsay Whalen were part of the WNBA's "20@20," a list of the best players of the league's first two decades. This fall, they'll both be on the sidelines coaching college programs in the ACC and Big Ten.
Thompson taking over at Virginia and Whalen at her alma mater, Minnesota, are the two most intriguing hirings thus far in the annual coaches' carousel. The job market is most active each spring, typically with at least some domino effect as an opening filled at one school often creates another vacancy somewhere else.
Thompson and Whalen are both first-time head coaches. They also are two of the most accomplished WNBA players to lead college programs. The head of that class is Dawn Staley, who spent eight seasons in the WNBA, during which time she started her college coaching career at Temple in 2000. Then in 2008 she moved to South Carolina, which became a powerhouse that won the 2017 NCAA title.
To have anything resembling Staley's success would make Thompson and Whalen home run hires. But nothing about that will be easy.
Recruiting is extremely time- and energy-consuming, players are more tightly tethered to their parents than ever, and transferring has become commonplace. In short, it's not just about getting the best players to want to come to your school, it's about the continued work to get them to stay there. And improve.
Thompson knows this first-hand after three seasons as an assistant at Texas under Karen Aston. It's still a big move to becoming a head coach, but Thompson has experienced the ins and outs of how a college staff works.
In this regard, Thompson has an edge over Whalen, who will have to learn a lot on the fly while still playing this WNBA season for the Minnesota Lynx. Again, though, Staley is the role model; she had never coached before taking over the Owls, while still competing professionally.
And while it's generally assumed that point guards can naturally progress into coaching the easiest of any playing position, Whalen still must figure out how to guide from the sidelines after excelling so well at that on court. Her Lynx teammates will offer endless testimonials to her leadership, and she'll have people such as Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve to offer guidance. But she still has to become the one in charge.
Whalen will need experience, loyalty and very good communication skills from her staff, especially while she's on the road with the Lynx.
Whalen's advantage, of course, is geographical: She's the best player in the history of Gopher women's basketball, a native of the state and a name recognized by every girls' basketball player in Minnesota. There was concern that her predecessor, Marlene Stollings, wasn't able to keep top Minnesota recruits home. It remains to be seen if Whalen can, but she bring as big a star quality to that task as anyone could in that state.
And there is climbing room in the Big Ten. The league sent six teams, including Minnesota, to the NCAA tournament this year, but none made it past the second round. The Big Ten has won the WNIT this season (Indiana) and last (Michigan).
But Maryland is the league's only Women's Final Four team in the last decade-plus; the Terps reached the national semifinals in 2015, the year they joined the Big Ten. Before that, Michigan State in 2005 was the last Big Ten team in the Final Four. The Gophers, led by Whalen, made the Final Four in 2004, which was the program's zenith. Now as coach, will she be able to come close to that?
Virginia went to three Final Fours in a row from 1990 to 1992, and the Cavaliers made the NCAA tournament 24 times in 26 years from 1984 to 2010 under Debbie Ryan, who stepped aside in 2011. But Virginia had only one NCAA tournament appearance under her successor, Joanne Boyle, which came this season. Then Boyle retired, dealing with ongoing issues in the adoption of her daughter from Senegal.
Virginia could have opted for an experienced head coach; there was no shortage of interest in this job. But new athletic director Carla Williams clicked right away with Thompson, one of the greatest post players in WNBA history.
The Cavaliers advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, falling to Staley's Gamecocks. It's a very different ACC now than the one that Staley played in when she was the Cavaliers' point guard. Reigning national champion Notre Dame and Louisville, which also went to the Final Four this year, weren't in the ACC back then. Now they are the league's primary powers.
But even before those schools joined the league, Virginia had fallen out of the top tier. The Cavaliers have not won an ACC regular-season or tournament title since 1993. Thompson is hoping to start a new era at U.Va.
Whalen and Thompson getting these opportunities is gratifying to the WNBA and the players' union. A list compiled by the WNBAPA has 38 current or former WNBA players who have moved into the coaching ranks at the pro, college or high school levels. Unlike the NBA and its stars, whose influence is ubiquitous in all levels of basketball, the WNBA is still selling itself and its influence. Current or former WNBA players getting headlines in the college game as coaches can help that.
But there are no guarantees for success for Thompson or Whalen. Former WNBA player and coach Stephanie White has had an uphill battle so far at Vanderbilt, where's she's 21-40 after two seasons. Another former WNBA player and coach, Suzie McConnell-Serio was fired this month after going 67-87 in five seasons at Pittsburgh.
Thompson, who ended her playing career in 2013, will enter both the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame this season. One can safely assume Whalen will do the same at some point after she stops playing. They are WNBA royalty, and they bring that cachet to the Cavaliers and the Gophers. But it's going to be about their coaching results from here on out.
The coaching carousel is still turning, but here's a look at some of the other moves so far:
"Marlene Stollings will be a great leader for Lady Raider Basketball. She is a proven winner..." - hall of fame head coach Marsha Sharp pic.twitter.com/q2NEgrFH3s— Lady Raider WBB (@LadyRaiderWBB) April 18, 2018
Texas Tech: Stollings left Minnesota for Texas Tech, a program that cratered this past season. Former Tech player Candi Whitaker was fired on Dec. 31, and the Lady Raiders finished 7-23 overall and 1-17 in the Big 12. Stollings told media in Lubbock, Texas, that she sees the Texas Tech job as a pathway to contending for a national championship.
That's a big statement; Texas Tech -- which won the NCAA title in 1993 -- has made just two NCAA tournament appearances since Marsha Sharp resigned as coach and went into administration in 2006. Stollings went 82-47 with two NCAA tournament appearances in four seasons at Minnesota.
Clemson: Another program that has been struggling for quite a while, Clemson's last appearance in the NCAA tournament was in 2002. All but one of the school's 15 trips to the Big Dance came under coach Jim Davis from 1987-2005. The Tigers' success began to decline in his last few seasons, and the slide has continued since. Counting Davis' last year, Clemson has had 14 consecutive losing seasons, with a 37-174 ACC record in that stretch.
And while Clemson deteriorated, South Carolina rose. It has been a stark and uncomfortable juxtaposition for the Tigers supporters in the Palmetto State.
Amanda Butler will be the fourth coach since Davis to try to bring back success. She was let go in 2017 after 10 years at her alma mater, Florida. Then Butler decided to visit several NBA organizations, talk to the head coaches and their staffs and learn about what made them successful. Butler, who also worked as a television analyst this past season, hopes those experiences help at Clemson.
Mississippi: The Rebels won just one SEC game this past season, and coach Matt Insell was let go after five years and a 70-87 record. Just as Clemson languished in South Carolina's shadow, Ole Miss has been withering in comparison to Mississippi State, which made back-to-back national championship game appearances in 2017 and '18.
Yolette McPhee-McCuin parlayed her success at Jacksonville to taking over at Mississippi, which last went to the NCAA tournament in 2007 under Carol Ross.
Cincinnati: Jamelle Elliott was fired after nine years by Cincinnati, despite the program having its best record in 15 years -- 19-13 -- this past season. Her former coach and boss at UConn, Geno Auriemma, publically criticized the school for letting Elliott go.
She was replaced by Michelle Clark-Heard, who was 154-48 with four NCAA tournament appearances at her alma mater, Western Kentucky. This season, the Lady Toppers were 24-9, won the Conference USA tournament, and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Elite Eight participant Oregon State.
In a familiar refrain, Clark-Heard will be trying to return Cincinnati to the NCAA tournament after a lengthy absence; the Bearcats' last appearance was 2003.
Washington State: This past season, Kamie Ethridge took Northern Colorado to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the school joined Division I in 2006. Now she'll try to end a long NCAA tournament drought for Washington State. The Cougars have been to the Big Dance just once: in 1991. Ethridge replaces June Daugherty, who was fired after 11 years. The Cougars went 10-20 overall and 3-14 in the Pac-12 this season; after graduation and transfers, there are just seven players remaining.
It sounds a lot like what Scott Rueck faced in taking over at Oregon State in 2010 with just a handful of players on the roster. The Beavers had five NCAA tournament appearances in their history at that time, but none since 1996. Yet Oregon State has made the NCAA tournament the past five seasons and went to the Final Four in 2016.
Coaches like Rueck, Oregon's Kelly Graves and UCLA's Cori Close all have revived their programs and helped make the Pac-12 the powerful, not-just-Stanford league it has become. That makes Ethridge's job even more of a challenge, but there's nowhere to go but up.
Pittsburgh and Boston University: Two longtime assistants are getting opportunities to become head coaches. Lance White, who spent 26 years combined as an assistant at Florida State and Texas Tech, will replace McConnell-Serio at Pittsburgh, which has made four NCAA tournament trips in its history. The most recent was 2015 under McConnell-Serio.
And Marisa Moseley, part of UConn's staff for Auriemma the last nine years, is taking over at her alma mater, Boston University, replacing Katy Steding. The Terriers' lone NCAA tournament appearance came when Moseley was a player there in 2003.