John Whisenant returns in dual role
John Whisenant's return to the WNBA gives us some insight into what seems more and more a prevailing wisdom in the league: getting two for the price of one.
Whisenant, the former coach/general manager of the now-defunct Sacramento Monarchs, will take over the same dual role for the New York Liberty. The franchise sent out a press release at 3:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, and a half-hour later, Whisenant was on a media teleconference talking about how he had spent this summer -- since the Monarchs went out of business last offseason -- watching as many WNBA games on TV and online as he could.
All the while hoping for a coaching comeback. Since the Liberty started the summer with the knowledge that coach Anne Donovan would be going to Seton Hall as soon as the season ended, Whisenant did indeed think about getting the New York job. Turned out, though, he got GM Carol Blazejowski's job, too.
Everything Blaze said after the Liberty lost in the Eastern Conference finals indicated she was already immersed in looking ahead to 2011. But MSG Sports president Scott O'Neil let go Blaze, who'd been with the Liberty since the WNBA began in 1997, and called on Whisenant.
"To me there's not a greater honor than to be selected by that organization to take their team forward," Whisenant said in the teleconference. "My good friend and former boss at Sacramento, Joe Maloof, told me, 'That's the best job in women's basketball.'"
Whew. OK, how about that for a surreal moment: Whisenant bringing up Joe Maloof, who with brother Gavin broke the hearts of every Sacramento WNBA fan by pulling the plug on the Monarchs last year when the Maloof empire started feeling a financial pinch.
Monarchs fans could not be blamed if they heard this statement from Whisenant and thought, "Hah! Oh, yeah, Joe, he needed to go get the 'best' job -- because you took the job he already had when you bailed on the league!"
Frankly, I'm not sure what possessed Whisenant to bring up the name "Maloof" in this teleconference. But since he did, let's consider something: The Maloofs' decision spotlighted the league's vulnerability to owners very suddenly pulling the rug out from under a franchise. Even owners who have a WNBA title and used to be prominent courtside supporters, as the Maloofs were.
The bottom line is cruel in most businesses, and perhaps even more so in niche enterprises in which owners really need to be committed to weathering ups and downs.
Which brings us to the decision of some WNBA franchises to combine the job of head coach/GM -- although not everyone who does those two jobs has the latter title. For instance, in Seattle, Brian Agler does the typical GM role under the title "director of player personnel."
But it means he's in charge of the makeup of his team -- getting all the parts to fit both on the court and in the salary structure -- along with coaching it.
Some coaches really do prefer it this way, but there's a more practical reason a franchise might choose this structure: it saves money. There is speculation, in fact, that it might be the reason Washington and GM Angela Taylor parted ways despite the fact the Mystics just had their best regular-season finish.
Other than a brief statement, Washington's management has kept quiet about not just the split with Taylor, but also the Mystics' future plans. Taylor's departure seemed to surprise everyone -- the players, who liked and respected her, had no idea it was coming -- and it infuriated many fans.
But it might simply be a cost-cutting business decision, with the belief that one person can do both jobs well enough to be a success.
And they could point to 2010 champion Seattle and Agler as the most recent proof.
Then again, you could also point to not-long-ago 2009, when Phoenix won the title, as an example of doing it the other way. The Mercury have Corey Gaines leading the way on the court, with Ann Meyers Drysdale in the GM role.
We're waiting to see what the Chicago Sky, who parted with coach/GM Steve Key at season's end, does. But it would seem likely they would go with the combo job.
Similarly, it won't be a surprise to see San Antonio bring Dan Hughes back to the sidelines after a year of him doing just the GM role with Sandy Brondello as head coach and her husband, Olaf Lange, as assistant. But if that happens, it won't be because Hughes is eager to return to coaching. It will be because that's what the Silver Stars' management wants.
With New York going with the dual role, there are now four teams doing it that way; the others are Atlanta, Seattle and Tulsa. And it could be as many as seven if Chicago, San Antonio and Washington, where Julie Plank is head coach, go the same route.
Whisenant said when O'Neil approached him about coming to New York, it was definitely about taking both roles, not just as coach. And Whisenant said he is fine with that.
"Because our season is in the summer, and our offseason is basically when the GM work is done, I see it as an advantage," Whisenant said. "I evaluate my own players, do my own scouting with my staff. The reality is you've only got one or two players out of each year's draft that are possibly going to make your roster.
"The only disadvantage I see is I don't have anybody to blame. I can't blame the coach and I can't blame the GM, because I'm both of them."
That was a very interesting thing for Whisenant to say, since he did take heat -- including from me -- last season for firing Sacramento coach Jenny Boucek in what I felt was an unfair move. Whisenant had been head coach of the Monarchs from 2003-2006, then shifted to just the GM role as Boucek took over on the sidelines.
She had made the playoffs her first two seasons as head coach, 2007 and 2008, but little was done in upgrading the team's personnel, which was supposed to be Whisenant's responsibility as GM. When Sacramento got off to a 3-10 start in 2009 despite injuries and an obvious talent deficit -- which in part was because the franchise's previous success had kept it low in the draft order -- it was Boucek who was let go.
Whisenant took over coaching again what he called at the time, "a playoff caliber team."
The Monarchs were, in fact, anything but that -- they finished last in the West at 12-22. Then a few months later, the entire franchise went up in smoke.
I didn't care for anything that went on in the last year of the Monarchs. But Whisenant's success with the franchise before that is surely what earned him this chance with the Liberty.
He was 85-54 as Sacramento's head coach, winning the 2005 WNBA title. He's known for what's called the white line defense, a strategy that he said takes intense, repetitive practice to perfect. It aims to put extreme pressure on offenses with precision about defenders' being in the right place at the right time every possession.
Whisenant will have at least one Liberty player who is very familiar with his system, as former Monarch Nicole Powell was the player New York took first in the Sacramento dispersal draft.
He also has an MVP-caliber star in Cappie Pondexter, who had a spectacular first season in New York after the trade from Phoenix. But there are plenty of question marks for the Liberty, not the least of which is that their best and most consistent post player, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, turns 40 later this month. She has been an ageless marvel, but how long can the Liberty depend on that?
Whisenant praised McWilliams-Franklin's performance this past season and had positive things to say about Janel McCarville, Kia Vaughn and Plenette Pierson, too. But he acknowledged the obvious, "We need to add big post players."
Whisenant and the Liberty brass also must embrace the fact -- and I'm not convinced any of them really gets it yet -- that the move for the next three years to Newark, N.J., isn't the "no big deal" that they seem to be treating it as.
They need to reach out to fans and let them know they appreciate the extra effort (and cost) that getting to the Prudential Center will be for some of them. Rather than just take for granted that their love for the Liberty will carry them faithfully to New Jersey for three years before returning to a refurbished Madison Square Garden.
In other words, even though the Liberty are coming off a very good season, Whisenant has an awful lot on his plate. At age 65, he will need plenty of energy to not just keep the Liberty status quo, but improve the franchise.
And we don't say that in an "ageist" way -- some folks in their 60s have more vim and verve than those 20 years younger. Still, Whisenant's hiring makes him the fourth coach in the league -- Indiana's Lin Dunn is 62, Atlanta's Marynell Meadors 67 and Tulsa's Nolan Richardson 68 -- who is 60 or older. And Connecticut's Mike Thibault will hit the big 6-0 in 2011.
Is there much development of younger potential coaching "stars" in the WNBA? Will that hurt the league long-term?
Well, that won't be something for Whisenant to worry about. He is glad to have another chance. The product of a coaching family, he was out of coaching for two decades after the scandal of "Lobogate" -- the NCAA busted New Mexico's men's hoops program in 1979 for 57 violations -- which ended his tenure as an assistant there when the entire staff was fired.
An Oklahoma native, Whisenant stayed in Albuquerque, N.M., and was a successful businessman. He never lost the urge to coach, and got reinvolved with the International Basketball League in 1999. Then while working with the Maloofs as a consultant with the NBA's Sacramento Kings, he became GM of the Monarchs and took over as head coach during the 2003 season.
Whisenant said he missed coaching in the WNBA this season and is very eager to get back on the job. Both jobs.
"They had a nice season," he said of the Liberty, "and to move forward is tough. We've got to try to improve our roster, but we'll be picking late in the draft. So you just have to get your hands in there and go to work. And you have to know the league. I think I know the league."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
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