The press release announcing Lindsay Whalen’s departure as University of Minnesota women’s basketball coach noted she and Gopher Athletics Director Mark Coyle would attend a mid-afternoon press conference in the Bierman Athletic Center. That suggested Thursday’s move, the day after the Gophs lost in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, was Whalen’s call, since most coaches don’t show up to answer questions when they’ve been fired.
But five minutes before the press conference started, a U employee removed one of the chairs from the table where Whalen and Coyle were supposed to speak. Then Coyle walked in, alone.
Coyle can be maddeningly vague when the news isn’t good, and after some back and forth with reporters it became abundantly clear Whalen hadn’t resigned, and this decision had been in the works for awhile.
Technically, Whalen wasn’t fired. Coyle just changed her job title, from basketball coach to special assistant to the athletics director. Her contract remains in force through 2025, for the same salary she would have made coaching. Of course, it would have been helpful if Coyle actually explained it that way, but he seemed more intent on protecting Whalen’s feelings than being straight with people.
Asked directly whether Whalen had stepped down, as the release said, or been fired, Coyle said he and Whalen “mutually agreed to step down.” Did the impetus for this come from you, or her? “A combination of both,” he said. (That seemed unlikely, given Whalen’s absence.) Coyle said Whalen was having an emotional day meeting with her staff and would speak publicly in a few days. Whalen later tweeted she was “overcome with emotion” on the elevator heading down from her office to the press conference, adding, “I’m a human being.”
Here’s what we do know: Had this been a coach brought in from out of state — instead of Lindsay Whalen of Hutchinson, Minnesota, four-time WNBA Champion and Minnesota Sports Icon — she might not have lasted this long. Coyle hired Whalen off the Minnesota Lynx roster with no coaching experience, a risk Coyle acknowledged on that April day in 2018 when she was introduced during a festive event at Williams Arena as Marlene Stollings’ successor.
It seems crazy now, but at that time some Gopher fans mused about Whalen taking the Gophs to the 2022 NCAA Women’s Final Four in Minneapolis, its first such trip since Whalen’s playing days. That proved to be spectacularly wishful thinking. In five years under Whalen, the Gophs never made the NCAA Tournament at all (two WNITs) and never finished better than .500 in Big Ten play. After a 21-11 debut, Whalen’s teams went 16-15, 8-13 (the COVID-shortened season), 15-18 and finally 11-19.
This year’s entry, even with a highly-touted freshman class, finished 4-14 in conference. The Gophs averaged 17.7 turnovers per game, second-worst in the Big Ten, while landing dead last in defense, allowing 73.6 points per game.
Young teams usually improve over a long season, but these Gophs didn’t improve enough. Playing Penn State, a team they had beaten twice, on the first day of the conference tournament, the Gophs discombobulated against the Nittany Lions’ pressing defense. Five early turnovers and 1-for-14 shooting put the Gophs behind 21-3. And while Minnesota rallied to tie it in the fourth quarter before losing 72-67, the usual menagerie of careless ball-handling (22 turnovers) ultimately ended their season.
Coyle mentioned ongoing conversations he had with Whalen, beginning last year at the Final Four in New Orleans, that led to this. Another, three or four weeks ago, presaged the final one Thursday morning. Coyle said they discussed ongoing issues with the program as well as the unsettled college landscape.
College athletics has changed dramatically since Coyle hired Whalen five years ago, with the transfer portal and Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) issues turning the industry “all upside down,” he said. Coaches now find themselves recruiting their own players to prevent them from transferring, something Whalen struggled with. Standout forward Destiny Pitts transferred to Texas A&M in 2020 after Whalen suspended her, and Sara Scalia, the team’s leading scorer last season, left for Indiana, presumably so she could play on an NCAA Tournament team. It’s not clear where the U stands in the national NIL pantheon, but “not in the forefront” seems likely.
Whalen’s presence was supposed to bring big crowds back to Williams Arena, but that never happened, either. The Gophs averaged 3,130 per game in Stollings’ last season. This season: 3,353. Volleyball, not basketball, remains the main women’s sports draw in Dinkytown.
Still, most of us thought Whalen would get one more season before Coyle made a move. College players generally make the greatest improvement between their freshmen and sophomore years, so why not give Whalen another year? Coyle didn’t exactly answer that question, either. “We’ve had multiple conversations and agreed this is the right time,” Coyle said.
Maybe Whalen didn’t want to coach anymore (unlikely). Maybe Coyle feared losing some or all of those promising freshmen — Mara Braun, Amaya Battle, Mallory Heyer and the injured Nia Holloway (knee) — to the portal in mid-season if things went south again (more likely). The four share an off-campus apartment and told reporters last week they signed leases for next season. With this news, we’ll see if they actually stay.
Coyle also spoke in generalities about what he’s looking for in the next coach, going heavy on buzzwords like “culture” and “the student-athlete experience” and light on specifics. For what it’s worth, Coyle just hired a veteran volleyball coach, Keegan Cook from Washington, to replace the successful Hugh McCutcheon. After the struggles of Whalen and first-time men’s head coach Ben Johnson, he’s likely to favor someone with head coaching experience here.
The obvious home run candidate is Florida’s Kelly Rae Finley, an Edina native and Breck School graduate who led the Gators to 21 wins and an NCAA Tournament berth last year as interim head coach. That won her the permanent job. But even if she’s interested, the finances likely put this out of reach. Finley is one year into a five-year contract worth $740,000 annually, much more than Whalen is making ($547,000). And if Finley bolts Florida, she owes the school $1 million — $250,000 for each year remaining on the deal. That’s couch cushion change at Kentucky and Alabama, but real money here.
The U has never had a man coach women’s basketball, but Aaron Johnston of South Dakota State might be an intriguing choice. A Pine Island native and Gustavus Adolphus College alumnus, he’s built a mid-major juggernaut in Brookings, S.D., with lots of Minnesota kids, guiding the Jackrabbits to 19 NCAA Tournaments in 22 years. Coyle wouldn’t rule out hiring a man. Another possible woman candidate is Carly Thibault-DuDonis, the former Whalen assistant finishing her first head coaching season at Fairfield (15-13).
“I don’t think we’re starting over,” Coyle said. “I think we have a really great core group of people here who have made progress throughout this past year. It’s our job to go out and find a coach that can continue to build upon their success.”
It’s easy to fall back on the cliché that superstar former players don’t always make the best coaches, but that doesn’t explain why Dawn Staley and Kim Mulkey succeeded while Whalen didn’t. Here’s the right reason: Staley and Mulkey were much better prepared. Staley, a savvy Philadelphia point guard, had eight years at Temple to learn and make her mistakes before moving on to South Carolina and winning a national championship. Mulkey, another savvy point guard, spent 15 seasons as an assistant at Louisiana Tech before finding head coaching success at Baylor and LSU.
Coyle did Whalen no favors by hiring her with no experience, but Whalen knew the risks when she accepted the job. It’s a shame it ended this way. Whalen’s class and panache won her lots of friends in Minnesota over the years, all of whom wished the best for her. That made it a tough day all around.