Teams need to improve hiring practices
Ex-NBA players can make fine WNBA coaches -- so long as they're competent at their jobs, and treat the league like more than a summertime fling, writes Mechelle Voepel.
Updated: August 23, 2005, 3:10 PM ETBy Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com
You know the old theory: Great salespeople can sell ice to Eskimos. They are simply so good at the process of selling that it doesn't much matter what the product is.
Now, other salespeople have to work harder to make a sale, and their success is more determined by how well they reach their audience or how much the product sells itself. But no matter where on the spectrum of sales ability sellers fall, one thing is sure to help them all: If you really buy into your own product, it's a lot easier to get someone else to do the same. That's the concept that comes to mind when I ponder the departure of Henry Bibby as the Sparks' coach this week. And it's the criteria I believe most women's basketball fans would like to see WNBA teams use in selecting coaches. The fact is, WNBA coaches have to be salespeople on different fronts. Coaches have to sell their players on their system and their decision making. They have to sell their commitment to and competence in the women's game to the hard-core fans and the media that pay attention all the time. And then in a broader, more general sense, they have to sell the league and the sport of women's basketball to potential fans and the media that check in every now and again. Bibby knew almost nothing about his product. So it's no surprise he couldn't sell anything about it to anybody. Several things in his system didn't seem to make much sense to people far more familiar with the Sparks' personnel and their past success than he was. Most importantly, the Sparks' players themselves. In writing about the Sparks earlier this week, I gave considerable weight to their injury problems. And those are very legitimate issues Bibby had to face. But I couldn't escape the nagging thought that maybe if the Sparks were a more upbeat, more invested, more dedicated-to-their-leader team, maybe they not only would have won more, but the players would have worked harder to play through and/or rehab injuries. This is not to suggest anybody on the team was intentionally holding out in that regard specifically because they were uncomfortable with Bibby as coach. But atmosphere can make a difference in dealing with pain and even with healing. And the Sparks' atmosphere all season has seemed to be one of frustration and uncertainty. Secondly, Bibby could not sell women's hoops to spectators or media because he didn't know the game. Does he know basketball? Yes. Pro women's basketball? No. Bibby is close to the Sparks' brass, he was in the L.A. area and he has a "name." All that overrode the fact that he had no experience in this particular area of coaching. It's possible that had L.A. avoided injuries, its record would have been good enough to keep the heat off Bibby while he found his footing -- if he indeed was going to be able to find it. However, when the team that's considered a big preseason favorite to win the league title is instead scratching for a playoff spot, of course the coach is going to be on the hot seat. Bibby never seemed invested in the Sparks' job. It was something to do for the summer and see how it turned out. So in hiring him, the Sparks' management laid the groundwork for what this season has been. Now Joe Bryant has taken over, at least for the rest of this season. He has very limited coaching experience even with men's teams. Team president Johnny Buss told Los Angeles Times reporter Mike Terry of Bryant's future as Sparks coach beyond this year, "I want to make sure he's ready to do this. He's indicated to me he's ready to do this. Of course, there will be talk for 2006 because now we're in the official hunt [for a coach] for next season. "It will still come down to figuring out what is best for the players. I want the players to be comfortable with him coaching them. I just want a good, decent situation that we can try to live with." OK, right. This is a professional sports team in one of the largest and most influential cities on the planet. This team is one of the cornerstones of its league, a two-time champion. In Lisa Leslie and Chamique Holdsclaw, it has two of the best players I will ever see if I live to be 200 years old. I know I joke about the Sparks being the league's "villains" to other fans, but L.A. has its own passionately committed fan base, and having this franchise at least be a contender is of essential importance to the league. Yet the best the organization can give these players and fans is this kind of directionless, what-can-we-live-with, let's-call-our-list-of-pals-and-see-who-wants-to-coach approach? And if that's not the approach, it sure looks like it from the outside. The Sparks got lucky that Michael Cooper turned out to be a very good coach and the right personality for this team. It was unfortunate for them he moved on. But getting a very competent replacement should not be so difficult for this organization. Admittedly, all of us -- fans and media -- who've watched this league from the start have seen so many coaching moves. Some would have been "Spinal Tap"-like comedic if the potential harm done to the league wasn't so distressing. And some have been great for the league. We've seen former college coaches who were mediocre to lousy at that level but at least knew the names of many women's basketball players -- often putting them a step ahead of the management people who hired them. So they got jobs and then proceeded to achieve the same results they did in college. But, of course, we've also seen good college coaches who found success in the pros as either head coaches or assistants. We've seen the foreign-coach experiments. We've seen a guy like Mike Thibault, who has paid his dues as a coach, GM and scout on many pro levels, including several years in the CBA. His background meant he brought to the WNBA not just a very keen eye for talent evaluation but also a history of selling a product that does take extra commitment and work to sell. We've seen ex-NBA players who had absolutely no idea what was going on. We've heard some of the most ludicrous spin from them, including a couple who spoke about how not knowing anything about women's hoops was in a way an advantage because they didn't have any "preconceived notions" about players. Yeah that's like saying it might be an advantage to never go to class or study, so you don't have any preconceived ideas about what the answers are before you have to take the test. We've seen ex-NBA players who really took it seriously (Cooper and Detroit's Bill Laimbeer are very good examples) and brought not just their names and reputations but a real commitment to learning about women's basketball. And I do want to make that point. I'm not entirely opposed to the idea of learning on the job -- if in fact you really cram on your homework and spend every day learning. And bring aboard or at least consult some coaches who have been learning through actual observation and participation in women's hoops for a while. Yes, I'm alarmed to hear new Charlotte coach Muggsy Bogues say, "I coached my daughter, but that's the closest I came to coaching, besides the young ladies that come to my basketball camp." Who isn't alarmed by that? It's absurd. My reaction: It's supposed to be acceptable in a professional league for the bar to be this low in terms of experience? This is what we're still getting nine years into the league? Isn't this insulting to the coaching profession, period? However, I'm willing to give him a chance -- just as a matter of pragmatism. It's unrealistic to think that there isn't a crony-like comfort level with "NBA guys" when it comes to whom NBA owners want to hire for their WNBA teams. And you know that some of them think, "Well, at least the name recognition of this guy gets us some publicity." But that doesn't necessarily last long, and it certainly isn't a novel concept anymore. If a coach cannot bring much more than that, it's a really bad hire. I wouldn't protest if all the WNBA coaches were ex-NBA players or people connected to the NBA first -- so long as they were all competent at their jobs. Would I prefer women's basketball lifers -- male or female -- in a lot of those jobs? Sure, but again, it's a matter of pragmatism as the league grows. The bottom line is the league should have good coaching, regardless of the background of the coach. That said, the best women's basketball "lifers" are not going to budge from the better pay and job security of college to go to the WNBA. Fans surely have various other ideas about coaches, but I think all would agree on this demand: If you take the job as WNBA coach, you had better understand your "salesperson" role. You must respect the players and earn their respect for you. You need to know that there are paying customers with real hopes and expectations out there. And you must buy into your own product. Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Sparks, the WNBA and fans deserve more than a "let's call our list of pals and see who wants to coach" approach.