Thompson, Whalen lead wave of female coaching hires


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).