Phoenix announced Friday former Storm G Sandy Brondello as its new head coach. An Australian Olympian, Brondello replaces Corey Gaines, who was fired in August, and interim coach Russ Pennell, who led the team to an unexpected appearance in the Western Conference Finals.
Brondello, who was also named Mercury vice president and director of player personnel, spent the past three seasons as an assistant to Los Angeles coach Carol Ross. Brondello played for the Storm during the 2003 season and is currently coaching with her husband in Russia for Storm PG Sue Bird’s UMMC Yekaterinburg team.
The Phoenix hire leaves two WNBA head coaching positions open in Tulsa and Atlanta and Storm assistant coach Jenny Boucek is in conversations with both teams. Tulsa fired former Storm assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg after an improved season for the Shock. Tulsa finished 9-25 and 11-23 in his two seasons — the team’s best since relocating from Detroit in 2010.
Atlanta reached the WNBA Finals for a third time in the organization’s history but after being swept by Minnesota in embarrassing fashion, it fired first-year coach Fred Williams. The Dream was eight days removed from the best-of-five series when the decision was announced.
“In a nutshell, I am in conversations with the teams but it has to be the right fit,” Boucek said via phone on Friday. “I’m in a good situation here (Seattle).”
An assistant on both of the Storm’s WNBA championship teams, the manner in which Tulsa and Atlanta handle its coaches may make Boucek hesitant to leave. The Dream is making its second change in 15 months while the Shock has had three coaches in its four years of existence.
To compare, Seattle is in the midst of celebrating its 15th season and has only had three coaches. Coach Brian Agler is looking to hire an assistant coach to replace Nancy Darsch, however. He knows of Boucek’s want to be a head coach.
“I’m pretty intuitive, so my decisions will be based on that,” Boucek said.
Hiring Boucek could be a good move for Tulsa. She leads the Storm’s offense and helps develop the team’s guards. Former coach Anne Donovan pointed out recently that it was Boucek who wanted and helped hone G Tanisha Wright, who paced Seattle to a 17-17 season and WNBA-record 10th straight postseason berth sans All-Stars Lauren Jackson and Bird.
In Tulsa, the Shock have a heralded PG in Skylar Diggins. PG is the toughest role to transition from college to the pros, but the third overall pick was often outplayed by rookie teammate Angel Goodrich. Diggins was a reserve for 11 games and finished the season averaging 8.5 points, 3.8 assists and 2.88 turnovers overall.
What Boucek could do in developing the Shock’s young backcourt is intriguing. But in Seattle, the Storm is expecting the return of Jackson and Bird, which immediately puts the team in 2014 WNBA championship talk. Obviously Boucek is closer to the Storm players, too, so it’s a tough call to an outsider.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from around the country with our job versus three years ago,” said Tulsa team president Steve Swetoha via phone. “Obviously player development is really critical in our process. A proven leader and a winner is at the top of our list. But, at the end of the day, strong communication skills, accountability and player development is really critical.”
Swetoha wouldn’t confirm whether Boucek is being considered. He said the committee isn’t in a rush to name a coach but would like someone in place soon to scout the college/international season. The Shock, again, will have a lottery pick in April’s WNBA draft.
“The other piece is we’re going into our fifth year,” Swetoha said of another reason to get the right hire. “We’re working on fifth-year anniversary logos and plans for the upcoming season. So, that’s another piece that’s keeping us very busy. It seems like we just got here and a lot of people thought we wouldn’t be here after the first year let alone five years. It’s a true testament to our ownership group, our staff, our players and our city.”
A former star PG at Virginia, Boucek has already experienced a rocky stint as a WNBA head coach. She led the defunct Sacramento Monarchs to a 40-41 overall record, fired midseason in 2009 after a 3-10 start. After she was fired, however, the team folded despite having one of the best fan bases in the WNBA’s 18-year history.
“I was completely surprised,” Boucek to me in 2009. At the time, she had two players in her starting lineup who returned from knee surgeries and a PG (Ticha Penicheiro) basically playing with one hand due to a severe thumb injury. “I felt good about our team’s progress given our injuries and schedule. They were in a good place mentally, just starting to play better, and our schedule was just getting ready to lighten in about three games, playing at home. I believe and still believe this team is going to start winning. It was just about to hit its stride. So yeah, I didn’t see it [the firing] coming.”
Everyone knows being a head coach in any league on any level is a rough occupation. Yet, there are plenty more positives…if you find the right fit.
As a side note, Brondello’s hire brings the total number of women WNBA head coaches to six in the 12-team league. They are two-time WNBA champion Cheryl Reeve (Minnesota), Ross (Los Angeles), Brondello (Phoenix), Donovan (Connecticut), Pokey Chatman (Chicago), and former Storm coach Lin Dunn (Indiana). Chatman is currently the only black head coach.