The New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury’s recent head coaching vacancies have reignited discussions about the WNBA’s player-to-coach pipeline. While the league has made progress toward more diversity in the past year, men still filled six of the 12 head coaching jobs in 2021.
Former WNBA All-Star Adrienne Goodson has seen firsthand what the hiring cycle is like, having aspired to enter coaching after her playing career ended in 2005. She looks to Minnesota Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve as an emblem of a more inclusive future in the WNBA. Reeve has been vocal about getting more women and women of color into coaching positions, and what her role is in fostering that growth.
In her own words for Just Women’s Sports, Goodson shares highlights from her recent conversations with Reeve and Lynx assistant coach Katie Smith, what she’s learned about the coaching pipeline over the years and what the league can do to close the gender gap at the top.
Cheryl Reeve is a warrior in the push to get more women and women of color into positions of leadership in the WNBA. Since she recognized what she calls a coaching “crisis,” she’s made the decision to hire only women to her coaching staff with the Lynx. She wants to ensure her female assistants are given the same opportunities that James Wade (Chicago Sky, 2019) and Walt Hopkins (New York Liberty, 2020) got when they were hired as head coaches.
When I caught up with Coach Reeve recently, she told me how important it is for women in leadership positions to become the norm, and anything she could do to contribute to that, she would. Because even though she’s in a high place as coach of the Lynx, and now also of the U.S. women’s national team, she still has glass ceilings that she has to bust through. I’m glad she’s had the success that she’s had as a coach so she can sit down at the table with the decision-makers. She’s the change that she wants to see in the league.
As she told me: “I got to a space I never thought of when I had two male assistants. James Wade’s resume was pretty strong in terms of number of years and who he worked with, like Dan Hughes, before he came to Minnesota, so he was ready. My next hire was Walt Hopkins. And we can’t blame him when people wanted to interview and ultimately higher him, but when that moment hit, it’s not a case of anything against Walt Hopkins, it’s more about, OK if I’m a feeder, I’m a feeder to the next head coach opportunities and we’re in crisis mode. I’ve got to make sure that my feeder system includes Black females and females. So I said, while in crisis, we are only going to hire females until we can get a much better representation among our 12 teams. … I wanted to be a part of the solution and that is where the passion came from.”
Coach Reeve’s relationship with Katie Smith is a great example of the player-to-coach pipeline the WNBA can foster. Cheryl coached Katie while they were with the Detroit Shock and got to know Katie’s personality. She said that was so important during the process of bringing her on and her becoming a coach.
Katie was a spitfire on the court. She was very competitive and would do whatever it took to win the game, whether it meant playing the one, the two, the three, the four, the five, if necessary — a couple of times, I remember her being thrown in the post in Minnesota. Cheryl liked that about her, that she could constantly adapt and adjust, and she knew that she would fit in on her coaching staff.
When they let go of Katie in New York, Cheryl said, “Listen, that is not an indication of who you are as a coach,” and she wanted to remind Katie of all of the great things people were saying about her. From there, Cheryl brought her on, and the rest is history. On the court, Cheryl leans on Smith to act as her “buffer,” just as Cheryl did for Bill Laimbeer back in Detroit. Katie appreciates how coordinated the Lynx are as a staff — between her, Cheryl, Plenette Pierson and Rebekkah Brunson — and she believes their history with each other helps with the day-to-day decisions and their overall success.
The WNBA is hot right now, and I think they could use more investment dollars toward developing players who want to coach in the future. Let’s stop being the hope that we want to see and actually make it happen. Let’s start walking and living and breathing it like Coach Reeve.
I’ll even throw myself into the pot. I feel any team that hires me in the WNBA is going to be a problem. I have that Marianne Stanley mentality on the court. I’ve been on the men’s side of it, in the NBA’s assistant coaches program. I’ve coached men’s varsity in Newark, N.J. I got a lot of my skills from Wendy Larry at Old Dominion because, in the WNBA offseason, I used to go back and be an assistant coach on her staff. We won the 2005 CAA tournament championship. We got to the Sweet 16.
Former players interested in coaching in the WNBA, like me, have to seek out those opportunities because there’s no pool. You’ve seen more WNBA athletes becoming coaches in the NBA because of the assistant coaches program. The WNBA has to have a pool that also includes the players who are on the outside trying to get in. It seems that you always have to know somebody in order to move up, so it’s a whole lot for us to get back in as coaches or into positions in the front office.
We’ve seen progress in the past year with the Wings hiring Vickie Johnson and the Dream appointing Tanisha Wright. The bigger problem is that there’s no pool, and without it, teams are more inclined to recycle the same coaches.
There has to be communication between former players and the league; it can’t just be players talking to players all the time. And then we have to sit across the table from the higher-ups and come up with viable solutions to what’s going on. I’m not even at retirement age yet. That’s why there was never a conversation about 401Ks or pensions because players are retiring at 38. But it has to be a conversation, just like building the pipeline from player to coach has to be at the forefront.
Based on what I’ve heard and read, I’m pretty confident the Liberty and Mercury are doing their due diligence with the interview process for their head coach openings. I just hope that everybody they felt was a good candidate has gotten an opportunity to showcase themselves.
Adrienne Goodson (“Goody”) is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She played 14 years of professional basketball, including seven in the WNBA. A three-time All-Star in the pros and an NCAA champion, she was inducted into the Old Dominion Hall of Fame in 1999. She is the host of the podcast “A WNBA State of Mind with Adrienne Goodson.” Follow her on Twitter @agoody15_wnba.