Women coaches given many early opportunities

Updated: May 31, 2006, 2:25 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Let's take a trip down "memory lane" in WNBA coaching. That will provide some perspective on how we got to where we are today, with 11 men as head coaches and three women.

Chamique Holdsclaw, Henry Bibby, Lisa Leslie
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty ImagesChamique Holdsclaw, left, and Lisa Leslie? All-Stars. Former Sparks coach Henry Bibby? Not so much.

In total, 27 men and 26 women either currently are or have been head coaches in the WNBA. This includes the short-term, fill-in-the-end-of-a-season appearances by people like Shell Dailey, Karleen Thompson and Cathy Parson.

And also Frank Layden, who finished out 1998 in Utah after Denise Taylor, the franchise's first coach, was fired for a 13-34 record in a little more than a season and a half.

Utah is indeed a grand example of what should not have happened in WNBA coaching. We'll start with hiring Taylor.

She has since had success at Jackson State, where this past season she was named SWAC co-coach of the year. But in 1997, her résumé would not have suggested she was ready to coach pros. Her head-coaching experience was at American International College, a Division II school in Springfield, Mass., and at Northeastern Illinois University, which was on the way to eliminating intercollegiate athletics altogether when Taylor was there.

And part of Taylor's biographical sketch in the 1997 WNBA media guide was this: "Her coaching accomplishments also include guiding the 55+ Illinois Olympic team to the bronze medal in San Antonio, Texas."

That would be the Senior Olympics, held in the Riverwalk City in 1995. Gee, why didn't the Starzz hire whoever coached the 55+ team that won the gold medal?

At any rate, when Taylor was let go, Frank Layden, the longtime Utah Jazz coach and team president, was "hired" to guide the Starzz by his son Scott Layden, who then was Utah's vice president of basketball operations and as such had to pay a little attention to the women's team. It clearly was an extensive and exhaustive search that led to Frank taking over the Starzz.

"Uh, Dad, if you're not too busy, would you mind coaching the women?"

After his first game with the Starzz, Layden said, "This team gives me a second chance, and a chance to have some fun. I had given up on [coaching]."

Doesn't sound like someone too revved up for what should be a highly competitive atmosphere, does it? Layden then coached just four games into the 1999 season, before realizing that at age 67, there were more compelling things for him to do, including nothing. Why keep working? Later in 1999, he also resigned as Jazz president.

After Layden came Fred Williams, Candi Harvey, NBA guy Dee Brown and Dailey twice in mop-up duty. Utah's franchise relocated to San Antonio in 2003; now Dan Hughes is trying to make it work. Hughes, Houston's Van Chancellor and Sacramento's John Whisenant are the current male coaches in the WNBA who do not have NBA backgrounds. Whisenant did coach men's collegiate basketball and in the CBA/IBL.

Layden assumed the Starzz job and Orlando Wooldridge did the same with the Los Angeles Sparks at about the same time during the 1998 season. And that really marked the beginning of the NBAers' involvement in WNBA coaching.

The Sparks had the first big NBA-guy success story in the WNBA, though. Ex-Lakers star Michael Cooper ran the team from 2000 until midway through 2004, when he left for the NBA's Nuggets after winning two titles with the Sparks. Now he's with the Albuquerque franchise of the NBA's Development League, and his squad won that championship last month.

There are other clearly successful ex-NBA guys still in the league. Richie Adubato started in New York and now is in Washington. Bill Laimbeer led Detroit to a WNBA title in 2003. Mike Thibault, who paid dues in the NBA and CBA, has been knocking on the door the past two years with Connecticut.

Any WNBA follower would say the league has benefited greatly from having Cooper, Adubato, Laimbeer and Thibault. Many WNBA fans would love to see Cooper come back.

Things are looking good for Brian Winters is in his third season at Indiana, which made the playoffs last season. Muggsy Bogues took over at the end of last year in Charlotte, Joe Bryant did the same in Los Angeles. They're back for their first full seasons, and Paul Westhead (Phoenix) and Dave Cowens (Chicago, an expansion team) joined the league in 2006.

Ron Rothstein spent three years with the Miami Sol before it disbanded. Sonny Allen added the WNBA to the long list of his coaching jobs with two-plus seasons in Sacramento.

In the "just-passing-through" department have been T.R. Dunn in Charlotte, Brown in Orlando and San Antonio, John Shumate in Phoenix, and Darrell Walker and Michael Adams in Washington.

But now let's go back to the start of the WNBA, in 1997. For the inaugural eight teams, seven of the head coaches were women. The male was Houston's Chancellor, the only original WNBA coach still with the league in its10th anniversary season.

There was one true superstar former player among the inaugural eight: Phoenix's Cheryl Miller, who had won two titles as an All-American at USC, then later coached at her alma mater for two seasons. Most of her post-collegiate career, though, had been in broadcasting.

Sacramento's Mary Murphy had coached at Wisconsin (one NCAA Tournament appearance in eight seasons) and California State-Hayward, a Division III school. Taylor we've already discussed.

The remaining four -- Linda Sharp (Los Angeles), Linda Hill-MacDonald (Cleveland), Marynell Meadors (Charlotte) and Nancy Darsch (New York) -- all were part of the early days of women's basketball establishing itself as a collegiate sport.

Meadors started her coaching career in 1970 at Tennessee Tech. She was there 16 years, then at Florida State for 10. Fifteen years of her career were during the NCAA Tournament era in women's hoops, and during that time her teams made the field four times.

Hill-MacDonald coached 17 years, at Temple and then Minnesota, taking each school to the NCAA Tournament once.

Darsch was an assistant to Pat Summitt at Tennessee for seven years, then spent a dozen years leading the Ohio State program. During that time, the Buckeyes made the NCAA field seven times, peaking with the 1993 national runner-up finish.

Sharp was the only one of the original eight to have coached a college national championship team, as her USC squads -- led on court by Miller -- won the NCAA title in 1983 and '84. Sharp went from a lot of success at USC to Southwest Texas, where she made one NCAA Tournament appearance

Those four had entered collegiate women's coaching when neither the pay nor prestige was very high. They certainly deserve credit for their contributions to the sport.

But … none of them came into the WNBA on a triumphant wave, to say the least. Meadors and Darsch had been fired at FSU and OSU, respectively; Hill-MacDonald's departure at Minnesota was technically called a resignation, but it was a leave-or-get-fired situation.

Sharp's career moves never have really squared with the concept of upward mobility; she is now at Division III Concordia University in Austin, Texas.

She appears to have made quality-of-life decisions that were best for her. Her time in the WNBA was not long, anyway -- she was fired 11 games into that first season, which was absurd. How could anyone be fairly judged that quickly, especially in a brand-new league?

She later spent time as an assistant to Miller in Phoenix, and then finished out the 2002 season with the Mercury after Cynthia Cooper's strange departure.

Meadors is still an assistant in the league, to Adubato now at Washington. It seems like a good role for her. Darsch spent two seasons with New York, then was fired. There really wasn't much of a justification for that, either, considering she went a respectable 35-23 and did take the team to the WNBA title game in 1997.

Then Darsch went to Washington, where she made headway with the franchise in 1999 but quit after 20 games of the 2000 season because she and star Chamique Holdsclaw didn't get along. Darsch then scouted for the Mystics and spent the past three seasons as an assistant with Minnesota.

Now, it's also worth pointing out that during the ABL's existence in 1996-98, its coaches were a similar batch: almost all career-long women's basketball people. Some had been fired or resigned from recent college jobs, some were not likely going to get to the top level of the college game and thought there might be better opportunity in the pros.

New England's K.C. Jones was an exception. He was a former pro player and coach (who won eight NBA titles as a player, two as a head coach) who was open to trying women's basketball coaching because he wasn't doing anything else at the time. There wasn't any real career risk involved. That same type of coach would soon be making his way to the WNBA, of course.

It's my opinion that there were two coaches among the original eight of both the WNBA and the ABL who were at big-conference programs, not in danger of losing their jobs and thus took the biggest risks to become part of women's pro basketball. Those were Chancellor in the WNBA and Angela Beck in the ABL. Chancellor was at Ole Miss for 19 seasons and probably could have stayed until the end of time.

Beck had been at Nebraska for 11 years when she left for the ABL. During that time, she had only three NCAA Tournament appearances and there were periodic rumblings about her job. Beck tended to draw attention to herself, anyway, for her sideline theatrics. But she had 19 wins in both her final two seasons with the Cornhuskers, so her job seemed relatively secure.

The ABL ended shortly into the 1998-99 season, so whatever the ABL had to offer in terms of coaching was then available to the WNBA. Beck, to my knowledge, has interviewed for some college jobs since but is not in coaching anymore.

Among former ABL head coaches, Lisa Boyer is an assistant to Dawn Staley at Temple, Tammy Holder is an assistant at South Carolina and Sheryl Estes does WNBA scouting work. Maura McHugh coached in the ABL and the WNBA; now she's back in the college game as head coach at Stony Brook.

Brian Agler, who had resigned at Kansas State because of an NCAA investigation in February 1996, found new life with the Columbus Quest. That franchise won both ABL titles. Then Agler moved to the WNBA's expansion Minnesota team.

He didn't have a winning record in three full seasons with the Lynx, and when he started his fourth at 6-13, he resigned. Agler's still in the WNBA, as an assistant coach to Hughes in San Antonio.

Linda Hargrove coached the WNBA's Portland Fire for three seasons until the franchise disbanded. Now she's Washington's general manager.

The other two ex-ABL coaches who are in the WNBA now are Anne Donovan and Lin Dunn. I think they almost universally would be evaluated as very good coaches at any level. Dunn was let go at Purdue in 1996 -- despite a lot of success there -- because of personality conflicts with her administration. She has been a head coach in both the ABL and WNBA, and now she's an assistant to Winters in Indiana.

Donovan was East Carolina's head coach, but left for the ABL because she was willing to take the risk. She has since been a WNBA coach for three franchises, and now is at Seattle, which won the 2004 championship. She has made her moves because she wanted to, not because she was forced to.

It's also of note that coaches like Nell Fortner and Carolyn Peck had success at the college level, went to the WNBA (and in Fortner's case, the U.S. national team) and then returned to the relative "security" of the college game.

And foreign coaches such as Carrie Graf and Tom Maher have been given a chance in the WNBA, too.

So … have women -- and men with a longtime history in the women's game -- had a fair number of head-coaching opportunities in the WNBA? Yes. But in recent years, has the league tilted strongly toward hiring NBA-affiliated men with little or no background in women's hoops? Obviously.

Have any qualified people been passed over for those jobs because they weren't former NBA players? Perhaps in some cases.

What does it all mean in terms of the quality of the product? Right now, I'd say the product is pretty good. That's a testament to the players, though, as much as anything.

Examining how the current crop of coaches ultimately are judged will be another trip down memory lane someday.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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