Minnesota coach Lindsay Whalen is back where she always wanted to be

Lindsay Whalen, who won four WNBA titles and two Olympic gold medals, was a three-time All-American at Minnesota, leading the Gophers to their first Final Four in 2004. AP Photo/Jim Mone

MINNEAPOLIS -- The nameplate on the door, at the end of a long hall overlooking the court in the University of Minnesota's new practice facility, reads, "Lindsay Whalen, Head Basketball Coach." Walk in and your eyes go right to the coffee table, where Whalen's eight WNBA and international championship rings and four Olympic and world championship gold medals are on display.

The coach stands behind a wide desk. Practice starts in about an hour, but she's already dressed for it, in a new maroon Gophers hoodie and gray sweatpants. Whalen leans back in her chair and puts her feet on the desk like a CEO, smiling that can-you-believe-it smile of someone still reveling in her good fortune. The most golden of the Golden Gophers is home, a lot earlier than she expected.

"I always thought I'd end up back here," Whalen says. "I just didn't know in what capacity, timing and all that. It just worked out."

Soon she would be on the court running practice, hands in her pockets, a whistle stuck in the side of her mouth, walking around as if she has done this her whole life. She hasn't, of course, and that's part of the mystique. Whalen lacked any official coaching experience when Minnesota athletics director Mark Coyle hired her last April, four months before she announced her retirement from the Minnesota Lynx. A born-and-raised Minnesotan and a three-time Gophers All-American, Whalen is so beloved in her home state that the hire was widely seen as a coup rather than a risk.

Most people who know Whalen expect her to figure things out as she goes, leaning on a staff that features two respected former Gophers assistants and Carly Thibault-DuDonis, daughter of Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault. Whalen makes her coaching debut Friday night against New Hampshire, and Williams Arena, capacity 14,625, has been sold out for weeks. That's partly due to heavily discounted tickets -- as cheap as $1 in some sections -- but mostly due to Whalen's irresistible appeal.

"I would not be totally truthful if I told you we totally knew what we were getting when we hired her," Coyle said. "She has brought so much more."

When Whalen retired as a player, she bought newspaper ads thanking Lynx fans, coaches and teammates. She ended it with an IOU, promising Gophers fans another trip to the Final Four. Whalen put that lofty goal out there even though Minnesota went only that one time, with her, in 2004.

On top of that, the school's record of coaches following through on grand pronouncements is not great. Eleven years ago, Tim Brewster, a first-time head football coach, promised Gopher Nation a return to the Rose Bowl. Minnesotans laughed at him. Four years and 30 losses later, Brewster was fired, the Pasadena trip unfulfilled.

But there's something about Whalen that makes it seem possible, with a dream timeframe in sight: Minneapolis will host the 2022 Final Four, in Whalen's fourth season. Gophers assistant coach Kelly Roysland was a freshman guard on that Final Four team. Whalen and rugged center Janel McCarville led the Gophers to the Sweet 16 the year before, but coach Brenda Oldfield (now Brenda Frese) left after the season for Maryland. Roysland remembers Whalen talking up the Final Four long before anyone else.

"I will never forget this, and I don't know why this memory has stuck with me," Roysland said. "Lindsay and I were over in the apartments where we lived, and Lindsay was like, 'We can go to the Final Four, Roys.' As a freshman, I wasn't thinking about anything outside of, I need to know the plays for practice, let alone playing in the NCAA tournament. She knew she had McCarville coming back and a lot of other pieces in place. I thought, that would be cool, but I don't know what it takes.

"As an adult, I reflect back on that and think, that was pretty cool. She envisioned that, had that drive, knew what it took, and was able to get it done. I don't think that's any different now. A lot of things have to fall in place. But she's never been one to back away from a goal or challenge."

Coyle knew Whalen by reputation when he met her for lunch at Doolittles Woodfire Grill, an upscale restaurant in Golden Valley, Minnesota, near her home, after a Lynx practice in the summer of 2017. Coyle worked in marketing at Minnesota when Whalen was an undergraduate, when the school shifted women's basketball games from the cozy Sports Pavilion, capacity 5,000, to Williams Arena to accommodate the crowds coming to see her.

That summer Coyle wasn't looking for a coach; he had Marlene Stollings under contract. But Whalen was nearing the end of her WNBA career and wondering what was next. Coaching seemed the natural progression for someone with Whalen's basketball IQ.

"I decided to reach out to her because I wanted to see where her head was at," Coyle said.

Whalen had been thinking about coaching, though she said little about it publicly. She came away from that lunch with one distinct impression. "I think he was trying to gauge my interest in being a coaching candidate someday," she said. Coyle disagreed, saying he was simply trying to get to know Whalen.

"Someday" arrived last spring. When Stollings left for Texas Tech, Coyle called Whalen to ask if she was interested. "I said yes right away," she said. They spoke again that night by phone, then met the next day. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve and USA Basketball coach Geno Auriemma of UConn gave Whalen hearty recommendations, and Coyle moved quickly to hire her.

"I would not be totally truthful if I told you we totally knew what we were getting when we hired her. She has brought so much more." Minnesota AD Mark Coyle, who hired Lindsay Whalen

From occasionally suiting up with the Gophers' scout team last season, Whalen knew she had something to work with. Three starters and two valuable reserves returned from a 24-9 team that reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. Stollings favored an up-tempo, guard-heavy offense that averaged 84.9 points per game, fifth-best in the country, but it came with a barely functional zone defense that then-No. 6 Oregon shredded for 101 points in the NCAA tournament. That had to change.

First, Whalen hired three assistants she knew and trusted: Roysland, well-regarded within the university and Minnesota high school circles from a previous stint on the Gophers' staff, and a Division III head coach at nearby Macalester College; Danielle O'Banion, an assistant on the Gophers' Final Four team before moving on to Kent State for four seasons as head coach; and Thibault-DuDonis, an up-and-coming assistant at Mississippi State.

Whalen made tough defense a priority, reinstalling the man-to-man system her old Gophers coach, Pam Borton, introduced in 2003. "I think we're a more defensive-oriented team," said sophomore guard/forward Destiny Pitts. "Defense wins games."

Though Whalen excelled in Reeve's Rick Adelman-style corner set offense with guards cutting all over the place, her players liked other things, so Whalen went with those. Practice opens with the same three-on-none fast-break drill Borton used back in the day, and Whalen relies on her assistants to suggest drills that address specific deficiencies. Practices are hard but fun, with plenty of competition.

"She played on the scout team last year, so we were kind of comfortable with her already," said all-Big Ten senior guard Kenisha Bell, Minnesota's top returning scorer at 20.0 PPG. "Since we had a relationship with her, it made it easier. And we trust her word, because we know she knows what she's doing."

Stollings never signed a Minnesota recruit out of high school, but Whalen quickly gained a verbal commitment from Stillwater High guard Sara Scalia. Shortly after, the Gophers signed Mercedes Staples, a point guard from Utah bound for Clemson who asked for her release following a coaching change. ESPNHoopGirlz ranked her 64th in the 2018 class. A big fan of the WNBA and Whalen, Staples almost freaked out when Whalen texted her.

"It was like, Lindsay Whalen texted me? She has my number? It was crazy. I was like, 'No way,'" Staples said. "Minnesota wasn't even an option my first time around. The previous staff contacted me like once or twice, and after that they switched, so I'm like, 'OK, they're out.' Then I got that text, and here I am."

And at the gate, the Whalen effect is obvious. Gophers season-ticket sales almost doubled, from about 1,300 to 2,500. For last season's annual Field Trip matinee game, about 2,500 schoolchildren and teachers bought tickets. This year, according to Minnesota assistant marketing director Mills Armbruster, they sold 5,000 the first week, for a nonconference game against Incarnate Word. Friday night's crowd is so big that Armbuster enlisted the women's basketball booster club to help hand out gold rally towels celebrating Whalen's return.

"She's been phenomenal," Armbruster said. "She was ready to roll. She challenged us with the task of selling out the home opener, and she has been very willing and accommodating to do her part, whether it's speaking at engagements or attending events on campus. Our August student orientation event, she didn't really know what it was, and I was like, 'This is your chance to get face time with 6,000 incoming students.' And she's like, 'OK, I'm there.'"

The one question left: Will Whalen succeed? Minnesota received votes in both preseason national polls for the first time since 2005-06. Expectations are high, and that Minneapolis Final Four is only four years away. Mike Thibault, Whalen's first WNBA coach with Connecticut, believes Gophers fans will not be disappointed.

"I think she'll be really good, because she's smart," Thibault said. "She sees everything. She's smart enough to surround herself with good people. Doing it [in Minnesota] is easier because she has instant credibility on the recruiting part of it. And the stuff she doesn't know, she's smart enough to go figure out how to learn it."