The WNBA head coaching situation, in Black and white

The WNBA head coaching situation, in Black and white

When the WNBA tips off the 2023 season on May 19, it will be with two Black women head coaches on the sidelines of courts on which 79 percent* of the league’s players are Black women and other women of color. (This figure is accurate as of March 2023, when six of the WNBA’s 12 teams had more than 12 women on their rosters pending training camps, which open on April 30, before the final roster cut deadline of May 18.) A striking disparity persists, which is that the majority of Black players who have competed in the WNBA remain disenfranchised from opportunities when their playing days are done — and the WNBA’s 12 franchises demonstrated this offseason that they cannot be trusted to implement inclusive, equity-based hiring practices on their own. Left to their own devices, the methods through which teams filled coaching, front office, and staff positions have run the gamut and have not always included former players for consideration.

Only one team approached the process of replenishing its ranks or filling newly created positions with a seriousness befitting the players’ demands, present and past, that WNBA entities value them beyond their playing days. That team is the Atlanta Dream, which razed and rebuilt the organization in the wake of scandal-ravaged 2020 and 2021 WNBA seasons. The team revamped its operations with a sharp eye trained on its long-term viability.

Owned by Larry Gottesdiener, chairman of the real estate firm Northland, as well as Suzanne Abair, Northland’s president and chief operating officer, and Renee Montgomery, a title-winning WNBA player who last played for the Dream in 2019 and retired the following year, Atlanta has heeded the call to create pipelines through which former players can matriculate into coaching and front office positions when they walk away from the hardwood.

In October 2021, the Dream brought in Tanisha Wright, a WNBA champion in 2010, as its head coach. Dan Padover, a two-time WNBA Executive of the Year (2020 and 2021, Las Vegas Aces), was hired as the franchise’s general manager and executive vice president. The team drafted Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard as the first overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft. Although things did not go Atlanta’s way heading into the postseason, the team was nonetheless a Dream transformed, earning Wright AP Coach of the Year honors and Howard the WNBA Rookie of the Year award. Wright and Padover, for their strides, earned five-year contract extensions in the 2023 offseason.

And it was during this offseason that the franchise created two new positions. Kia Vaughn – who retired from playing in 2022 – was named to one of those posts. Vaughn, a 14-year WNBA veteran, became the Dream’s new Basketball Operations associate. In announcing the new hires, the Dream issued a press release that underscored the franchise’s “commitment to providing resources and opportunities to both current and former players,” and laid the blueprint for what the other teams of the league should be doing.

Of the franchise’s pilot Retired Player Transition Program, Padover said: “Larry Gottesdiener, Suzanne Abair, and Renee Montgomery made it clear to me and Tanisha from the beginning that they wanted to help players prepare for life after basketball. This gives former players a chance to spend a year developing skills that will help them transition into the next phases of their career in an effort to create the new wave of leaders in the WNBA.”

Wright praised the Dream’s commitment to do right by the women whose blood, sweat, and teams kept the franchise floating, especially through the WNBA’s difficult years. “It’s important that we continue to create opportunities for former players right here within the WNBA,” Wright said. “I am thrilled we are able to provide an opportunity for Kia to begin this next phase of her career with our organization. She has been a consummate professional throughout her career and was a major contributor in our success both on and off the court last year, and I look forward to watching her blossom in her next chapter.”

Will Wingin’ it lead Dallas to success?

Fans of the Dallas Wings, though, would not get to see the blossoming of Vickie Johnson, at least not in their city. Johnson, a starter for the original New York Liberty when the league debuted in 1997, achieved a milestone that her predecessors in the Wings era (the franchise previously operated as the Shock in Detroit from 1998 to 2009 and in Tulsa, Okla., from 2010 to 2015) had not: Its first postseason win.

For Johnson, and many of the 19 other Black women who have held head-coaching positions in the WNBA, progress was not enough.

In September, Wings president and CEO Greg Bibb announced his decision to part ways with Johnson after two seasons, citing the need for change in pursuit of “our long-term goals of advancing in the playoffs and ultimately competing for a WNBA Championship.”

Long-term goals like deep postseason runs result from plans hatched and fortified over time. The most successful teams in the WNBA share the common attribute of stability in culture and operation. Of the league’s current coaches, think: Cheryl Reeve, who made her head-coaching debut with the Minnesota Lynx in 2010 and by 2017 had four titles to her name; Curt Miller, who failed to get Connecticut over the title hump during his tenure (2016-2022) but nonetheless positioned the Sun as a recurring postseason threat; and Sandy Brondello, who helped the Mercury to their third championship in 2014 (her first year as head coach in Phoenix) and kept the team in the playoff mix through 2021, when the Chicago Sky got the better of them in the WNBA Finals. Sturdiness is cultivated over time by front-office leaders and coaches who identify gains and devise ways to stack successes on top of them. They do not scrap gains and start over as Bibb did with the Wings.

Mystics master the long game but run afoul of “nepo baby” police

The Washington Mystics, meanwhile, exemplify what it means to plan ahead, from one year to the next, toward a season that decision-makers project to be the franchise’s best shot at chasing a championship. These smart minds also understand the time it takes for a team to build cohesion and sincere camaraderie in the locker room – factors that support efforts for a squad to function on the court like a well-oiled machine.

In 2013, the Mystics brought in Mike Thibault, the league-leading coach in wins. Four years later, the team snagged Elena Delle Donne from the Chicago Sky and began reconstructing its roster around her, made year-over-year improvements, and won the title in 2019. The organization drafted Shakira Austin in 2022 as the third-overall pick, in a bid to its future championship plans. So as not to mess up a good thing, the Mystics stuck with what was working in the coaching ranks when Thibault in November announced his decision to step down from coaching.

Thibault would continue his shrewd leadership from the front office while his son, Eric, would rove the sidelines with the head-coaching clipboard. Eric Thibault had, after all, benefitted from a 10-year tenure under his father, first as an assistant coach and then as associate head coach. Still, keeping the head-coaching reins in the Thibault bloodline is nepotism, and the announcement of Eric Thibault’s appointment was ill-timed.

Hollywood, at the end of 2022, was aswirl in “nepo baby” chatter, and the WNBA was just a few years removed from the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) of 2020, which was lauded for its player-mandated provisions to open pathways through which players can land coaching and front-office positions after they retire. WNBA players, past and present, plus the league’s fervent fans, are tired of insider hiring, and this is how they viewed Eric Thibault’s appointment. One fan tweeted: “I’m not surprised but I’m disappointed that the Mystics chose Eric T as head coach, instead of someone who is out there paying their dues. That a white guy can get a head coach job through nepotism in the WNBA says we still have far to go.

The Mystics, though, were operating on a desire to preserve what was working and prevent disruption in the eventuality that the elder Thibault, at 71, would retire.

No other candidates were considered for the position, according to a source close to the team, but Eric Thibault had been required to sit for a formal interview with the team’s owners: Monumental Sports & Entertainment Founder and CEO Ted Leonsis and Vice Chairman Sheila Johnson.

“We didn’t interview other candidates because a succession plan had been discussed for a few years with Eric being elevated to head coach and Mike moving to the front office,” the source said. “Eric has been an integral part of our winning culture and has cultivated the chemistry within our team. Therefore, he was the best option for our team.”

That means LaToya Sanders, a member of the franchise’s 2019 title-winning team, is next in the line of succession. She was promoted to associate head coach (from assistant) after the younger Thibault was named head coach. If the son follows in the footsteps of his father, Sanders could be waiting a long time for a team to call her own. Although no one wants to see a team make a token hire, change for Black women is slow, and this social inequity plays out on WNBA sidelines.

Teams have prioritized white women for head-coaching jobs

Between the league’s inaugural season in 1997 and today, there have been 93 head coaches, including those working under an interim tag and contracted for the forthcoming 2023 season. Of them, 52 have been white and 41 have been Black — a notable difference in a league that has historically been more than 75 percent Black.

By gender, more women than men (regardless of race) have held head-coaching positions: 49 and 44, respectively. Of the white head coaches, 29 have been white women and 23 have been white men. Of the Black head coaches, 21 have been Black men and 20 have been Black women. In a league made up primarily of women of color, just 21.5 percent of WNBA head coaches have been Black women in the league’s 27-year history. When the league tips off the 2023 season, it will have just two Black women in head-coaching jobs: Noelle Quinn, who led Seattle to the 2020 WNBA title, and Wright, who has been integral to the Dream’s transformation. Both are former players.

But they are minorities in the WNBA head-coaching cosmos, making up just 16.7 percent of head coaches for the 2023 season. Although 16.7 percent is a dismally unacceptable sliver of the head coaching population, it is unreservedly an improvement over the 2020 season, in which none of the league’s 12 teams employed a Black woman at the coaching helm.

Wiggle room is for the WNBA’s white coaches

Back in Dallas, Bibb has pinned his hopes for the future on Latricia Trammell, a white woman and assistant coach in the WNBA since 2017, who is coming off two losing seasons with Los Angeles Sparks in the Derek Fisher era. Thus, Bibb is going with an unproven White woman over a proven Black former player. Johnson was stunned by Bibb’s decision.

“I thought I was leading in the right way,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t perfect and my players are not perfect, but I felt like we were gonna grow together and build something special in Dallas.”

Johnson should not have been surprised.

In the WNBA, Black women are institutionally denied opportunities to grow and develop the teams in their charge. Progress, at least in Johnson’s case, was not respected enough to earn another season in which to add to the prior season’s successes. Latitude, for WNBA head coaches, traditionally has been the domain of white men, whose collective tenure averages almost six years.

In keeping with broader social hierarchies, White women average 4.4 years in WNBA head coaching positions, while Black men land in third place, averaging 2.6 years in head coaching jobs. Black women, thus, are last, averaging just 2.5 years in head coaching positions, if they manage to get a foot in the door to secure them.

Trammell, who brings a sharp defensive mind into Dallas, has her work cut out. But if hiring trends in the league remain at their current status quo, Trammell should feel comforted in the probability that she will be afforded leeway that was denied to Johnson, and which has, for almost three decades, been denied to Black women head coaches.

As for how Trammell was selected by Bibb and the Wings organization, that remains a mystery. Unlike the Dream, which issued a press release inked in transparency, and the Mystics, which provided insight into its long-haul planning, the Wings did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In February, the Dream announced its hiring of Johnson to Wright’s coaching staff. Johnson praised the Dream as “an esteemed franchise,” and expressed feeling at home in the team’s culture. “We share a lot of the same values when it comes to building a team, and I am confident in this staff’s vision and mission to foster an environment where players can reach their full potential,” Johnson said.

“It is inspiring to collaborate with a talented group of women in the W who are emerging as influential leaders and innovative thinkers,” Johnson added. “I am excited to be contributing to building the Dream.”

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.