The Connecticut Sun announced yesterday that Mike Thibault and his entire coaching staff would not be returning for the 2013 WNBA season. Thibault, who had been an assistant coach and director of scouting for the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls in the 1980s, had been the only head coach the Sun have known since the team moved to Connecticut from Orlando in 2003.
He led the Sun to the Eastern Conference Finals in the team’s first season in the Nutmeg State, the WNBA Finals in 2004 and 2005, and garnered WNBA Coach of the Year accolades in 2006 and 2008. Overall, the 62-year-old St. Paul, Minn.-native produced a 181-125 (.592) regular season and 17-14 (.548) postseason record during his 10 years in Connecticut. But in a classic case of “What have you done for me lately?” Thibault was let go after leading the Sun to an 18-4 record—best in the Eastern Conference, and second best in the league—but then falling to eventual WNBA champion Indiana three games to two in the Conference Finals. Indeed, Thibault’s fate seemed to be sealed after that series, which was particularly crushing since the Sun had beaten out the Fever for first place in the regular season, took an early 2-0 lead in the series, and dropped the deciding game at home in front of a sellout crowd by 16 points—despite Indiana losing the services of superstar Katie Douglas in the game’s first five minutes.
“If we won a championship we probably wouldn't be having this conversation,” GM Chris Sienko admitted during a conference call with the media on Tuesday. “But that didn't happen. Ultimately, Mike has done everything we've asked him to do, except win that championship.”
With a solid nucleus that includes defending WNBA MVP Tina Charles—one of five former UConn Huskies on the roster—the ultimate prize would certainly seem to be within reach for whomever succeeds Thibault. The team will begin interviewing candidates immediately, but has set no timetable for naming a replacement. Assistant coaches Bernadette Mattox and Scott Hawk were also relieved of their duties.
The fact that the most successful program in women’s college basketball history lies just a short drive up Route 32 in Storrs places particular urgency on whomever is chosen to succeed Thibault: Win the WNBA championship. Now.
“We gave Mike 10 years, so I think we were very patient,” continued Sienko. “When the new coach comes in we'll make very clear what we expect,” adding that someone will be in place by Feb. 1, the day free agency begins.