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Everybody loves Lindsay Whalen. That doesn’t mean the U’s decision to hire her is without risk.

New Gopher women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen certainly knows the game. But there’s a lot more to college coaching than Xs and Os.

Lindsay Whalen: “Hello everybody. I’m Lindsay Whalen, the next head coach of the Golden Gophers. I’m still getting used to the ring” of it.
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig

The formal press conference had been over for a while when Lindsay Whalen wrapped up the last of her television interviews downstairs at Williams Arena and headed for the elevator. But Whalen’s whirlwind first day as the new University of Minnesota women’s basketball coach wasn’t close to over. Upstairs in the Club Room, dozens of boosters awaited one of the most popular athletes Minnesota has ever produced.

It had been an insane week that began with Gophers coach Marlene Stollings bolting for Texas Tech and ended with the 35-year-old Whalen accepting a job she privately coveted but never expected to be offered this soon.

Whalen greeted two familiar reporters waiting to ask questions with a question of her own: “How was the press conference?”

‘This is cool’

The comment was prime Whalen, making sure people were taken of, though she already knew the answer: It wasn’t good. The U set up a stage on the Williams Arena court, but a malfunctioning sound system muffled Whalen’s remarks so badly that people in the floor seats couldn’t understand her. Whalen likewise strained to hear questions from reporters spoken into a wireless microphone. It was like a sermon in a cathedral, all echo and no clarity. Luckily, U officials provided a transcript.

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Only about 200 fans braved the freezing rain and the approaching snowstorm to attend the announcement, but Whalen had plenty of friends in the floor seats. Minnesota Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve led a large turnout of Lynx staffers. There was Lynx teammate Seimone Augustus, who was shocked to hear Whalen got the job and cracked open a bottle of wine to celebrate; former U Coach Pam Borton; Kelly Roysland Curry, head coach at Macalester and Whalen’s former U teammate; Rachel Banham, who idolized Whalen before breaking her U scoring record; and U football and basketball coaches P.J. Fleck and Richard Pitino.  

Introduced by U Athletic Director Mark Coyle to a standing ovation, Whalen took the stage in a gray pantsuit with a wide M lapel pin, a maroon blouse and black heels. She popped her eyebrows Groucho Marx-style at friends on both sides of the audience while she and Coyle held up a replica of her No. 13 U jersey. (It wasn’t lost on anyone that this took place on Friday the 13th, her number superseding any notion of bad luck.)

“This is cool,” Whalen said, according to the transcript. “Hello everybody. I’m Lindsay Whalen, the next head coach of the Golden Gophers. I’m still getting used to the ring” of it. 

So are the rest of us.

Turns out Whalen, with her storied career with the Lynx and USA Basketball winding down, has been thinking about coaching for a while. She kept it to herself, fearing any public acknowledgment might undercut Stollings and trigger the same public call for her hiring we saw last week. Whalen remained loyal to the U and the women’s basketball program even as fans drifted away. She often stopped by to talk to players and join in scrimmages, which Stollings appreciated. 

Coyle was a U administrator when Whalen took the Gophers to the 2004 Final Four. He knows what she means to the university and the state. Last year, Coyle took Whalen to lunch to pick her brain about her future.

“She talked about how she really enjoyed evaluating talent,” Coyle said. “I think she was helping the Lynx with some of their draft work. She talked about the impact of playing at Minnesota and the opportunities it gave her, and she said she would love to be a part of it and give back. That kind of triggered my mind that coaching was in her pedigree, and it was something she might have interest in if it came open.”

‘Something I knew I had to take’

While waiting for the elevator, Whalen said coaching seemed a natural progression. “As I’ve kind of gotten into this stage of my career, it’s something that’s a little more of a passion of mine from being around the [Lynx] team, being around Coach [Reeve], and seeing how successful coaches do it and how much fun it can be,” she said. “You still want to be a part of that, part of that culture, and just the team. That’s going to be something that I’ll really look forward to.”

The timing wasn’t the greatest. Whalen still wanted to play. In a perfect world, Whalen would be retired with a few years’ experience as a Lynx assistant coach when the Gophers beckoned. But as Reeve said, “There’s never a perfect time.” If Whalen turned down the job and Coyle hired the next Muffet McGraw, it might be a decade or more before it opened up again. Whalen couldn’t risk it. She had to jump, trusting her ability to learn on the job. “You never know what the future holds,” she said. “It was something I knew I had to take.”

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It’s a risk on both sides. Whalen knows the game, and Reeve trusts her implicitly. In the final minutes of the Game 5 championship victory over Los Angeles last year at Williams Arena, it was Whalen, not Reeve, running the huddle during a timeout. And it was Whalen, along with Maya Moore, who delivered the Lynx to a fourth WNBA title in seven years.

But there’s a lot more to college coaching than Xs and Os. Whalen has never recruited; never assembled a staff; never had to fight football and men’s basketball for resources; never had to discipline a selfish player or tell obnoxious parents to back off.

The U can also be a maddening place to navigate. Colleagues may be enthusiastic, agnostic, stubbornly protective of their fiefdom, or jealous of perceived preferential treatment. Former football coach Jerry Kill once got a parking ticket on campus, which a lot of people found amusing. (Not him, by the way.)

The new practice facility helps. Recruits are too young to remember Whalen starring at the U, but their parents will — those in Minnesota, anyway.

“There isn’t a living room she won’t be able to get into,” Coyle said. “Who she is, how she represents the Lynx and women’s basketball in the state of Minnesota: she is the Mount Rushmore.”

Stollings never came close to recruiting the best prospects, failing in four years to land a top player from the state out of high school. (She inherited Banham and Carlie Wagner from Borton, while Kenisha Bell and Bryanna Fernstrom transferred from Marquette and Iowa State, respectively.) Whalen’s presence gives the U a shot at Hopkins sophomore point guard Paige Bueckers, a top talent that Univerity of Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma has been here to scout.

Minnesota produces a fair number of Division 1 prospects, but Whalen also must find players in states where her name carries less clout. Whom she recruits from outside Minnesota may determine her success more than those from within. 

Expect Whalen to hire a former Division 1 head coach as her lead assistant, someone trustworthy to organize things while Whalen plays this summer for the Lynx. It probably won’t be Borton, a successful businesswoman and executive coach who responded to that question with an enthusiastic, “Hell, no!” repeated twice more for emphasis. Whalen likely will lean on Borton and Reeve for guidance, along with Mike Thibault of the Washington Mystics, Whalen’s first WNBA coach in Connecticut.

Whalen’s presence should also boost attendance; the U sold 178 season tickets in the first 24 hours after she took the job. Basketball attendance plummeted in the Borton years from 9,800 in Whalen’s final season to just under 3,000. Stollings’ up-tempo, defense-optional style barely halted the decline. Last season the Gophs averaged 3,130 per game, about 1,800 less than volleyball attracted next door at the Pavilion, while selling 1,338 season tickets. 

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‘I’ll be here as long as they’ll have me’

When the elevator opened, Whalen stepped out, and moments later she entered the club room to thunderous applause. Those people already love her. Her task now is getting everyone else to love her Gopher team, as they did in 2004, when a kid from Hutchinson made women’s basketball the biggest show in town.

“I’ll do my best,” she said. “I’ll be here for as long as they’ll have me, as long as we’re doing well and being successful. And I’ll work as hard as I can.”