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Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Thibault did everything but win title

By Mechelle Voepel
espnW

Mike Thibault really does understand the business of basketball. He has been a coach and a scout, and has worked in the front office in both men's and women's pro hoops. He knows his way around a playbook and a ledger.

And he knows that sometimes, you do your best for an organization … and it still might not be enough. On Tuesday, the Connecticut Sun announced they were parting ways with Thibault, who had been the team's only head coach since the franchise moved from Orlando for the 2003 season.

"I was fired because we didn't win a championship this year," Thibault said in a phone interview with espnW on Tuesday. "I've been in this business long enough to know that this stuff just happens. I think their feeling was, 'We've given him 10 years to do it; let's give someone else a chance.' That's their prerogative.

"I think they've gotten all I have to give them. Championships are really, really hard. I told them in my meeting with them this morning, 'This is not as easy as you think it is.' We just got beat by a player [Tamika Catchings] that everybody's been rooting for to win a championship for 11 years."

I was fired because we didn't win a championship this year. I've been in this business long enough to know that this stuff just happens. … I think they've gotten all I have to give them. Championships are really, really hard. I told them in my meeting with them this morning, 'This is not as easy as you think it is.'

-- Former Sun coach Mike Thibault

But Thibault didn't sound the least bit angry. He was matter of fact, and very complimentary of the Sun's organization and how the franchise has been operated.

"People here have been great; I have no complaints," Thibault said. "I've been treated well; my family has been, too. I've liked working here, and I have no bitterness about this at all. The only thing I can say is I don't know if what they did will change things.

"It may; it may not. Depends on who they hire, how the players accept the new coach, all those things. The team is poised to continue to improve. It's still in a very good situation."

The Sun play in an arena at the Mohegan Sun casino, and, yes, we'll make the obvious analogy. This move is a gamble. Thibault made the playoffs eight of his 10 seasons with the Sun, advancing to the WNBA Finals twice. Will the Sun find a coach who can do better?

The WNBA just completed its 16th season, and coaching professional women's basketball remains an evolving occupation. It's still a relatively shallow pool of coaches who really know their way around the women's pro game -- including understanding how things operate overseas and how that affects the WNBA -- plus are used to dealing with pro players.

Thibault has been a success at the pro level. There will always be criticisms of any coach; none is perfect. But when you look at experience and positive track record, Thibault is in a pretty small group.

And he's right that winning titles is not easy, even for the WNBA franchises that are well-run and have consistency in management and coaching.

Consider Indiana, the team that beat the Sun in the Eastern Conference finals and then won the WNBA title. General manager Kelly Krauskopf has been in her job since the Fever launched for the 2000 season. Catchings has played at an All-Star level her entire 11-year career in Indiana. And Lin Dunn, who was in her fifth season as Fever head coach, has won a lot of games at the college and pro levels for decades.

Still, this was the first WNBA title for all of them. That it came at the expense of Connecticut, which finished first in the East this season at 25-9, prompted the end for Thibault in Uncasville.

"We lost a heartbreaking conference final," Thibault said. "Maybe the way we lost the last game had something to do with it. We just played very poorly."

The East finals got away from Connecticut after the Fever won Game 2 on a buzzer-beater. Indiana then put in an amazing team performance to win Game 3 87-71, despite not having injured Katie Douglas for most of the decisive game.

Yes, getting blown out by a team with a worse regular-season record (22-12) after it had lost one of its star players is disheartening. But then Indiana went on to beat the team that had the league's best record -- defending champion Minnesota, at 27-7 -- in the WNBA Finals. And the Fever even utterly demolished the Lynx in a surreal Game 3.

It just seemed that this was Indiana's year, at last. But with the reigning WNBA MVP (center Tina Charles) and a still-pretty-young cast, might it be the Sun's turn next year? Or soon after?

If so, it will happen without Thibault. Sun CEO Mitchell Etess and general manager Chris Sienko on Tuesday both praised Thibault's contributions but said the team needed to go a different direction to get over the hump and win a championship.

Whom might Connecticut hire? Certainly with her contributions to Indiana's title, Fever assistant coach Stephanie White -- a former WNBA player -- might be a target. White is an Indiana native who wants to be a WNBA head coach, but she likes her job now and is not going to just jump at any offer to run a team.

Marynell Meadors, who was let go during the season by Atlanta despite the Dream making the WNBA Finals in 2010 and '11, is still interested in returning to the league as a coach, general manager or both. She previously spent time in Washington and apparently is a candidate for that open job, although the Mystics have set no timetable for when they'll make their hire. Or the Sun might be looking in another direction entirely.

Incidentally, Thibault would have interest in the Mystics job if they contacted him. And what about Atlanta? Fred Williams was elevated to head coach when Meadors was fired in August, and the Dream made the playoffs, in which they lost to Indiana. But there is a new CEO now with the Dream, Ashley Preisinger. Will the Dream stick with Williams, or might there be more moves to be made?

Thibault had been on vacation for the past week before meeting with the Sun officials Tuesday. He understands their point of view, even if he didn't want to leave the team. There is some pressure on the Sun now to find someone who can accomplish the ultimate: win a championship.

Thibault, though, doesn't feel any pressure. He wants to keep coaching -- somewhere. He said he turned down a few openings in both men's and women's hoops in his time in Connecticut because he liked being with the Sun. He said that moving forward, he would be interested in either the pro or college game. With his success, he's going to have some options.

"I love the WNBA; I love coaching," he said. "I'm in a position right now that I want to be very careful about what I do next. I don't want to make a decision that's not pretty carefully thought out. I have very strong ideas about what you need to do to win in this league.

"I have considered the college game in the past. I'm intrigued by that, too. My daughter is in her senior year in college now [playing at Monmouth in New Jersey], and I didn't want to pick up and move prior to this. All told, if this had to happen, the timing is not awful. I can weigh some options. I have the time to do it."