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Same Barn, new view: the Gophers’ Lindsay Whalen begins her coaching career where she starred as a player

November 9, 2018

Lindsay Whalen already has proven that you can go home again.

The first time was 2010. Whalen was already a WNBA All-Star when the Lynx made the trade to bring her back to Minnesota, where everybody knew her name. A former Hutchinson High and Gophers star, Whalen anchored a Lynx team that won four titles in seven years. The fourth came 13 months ago on the elevated floor at Williams Arena, with her banner hanging from the rafters above, in the same arena where she will make her coaching debut for the Gophers on Friday.

As the laconic Whalen might put it, that worked out well.

And now, another homecoming. Seven months after being named head coach, after having ended her 15-year WNBA career, after countless speaking engagements and appearances this summer, after weeks of fall practice the Whalen Era will begin.

Again.

I always thought Id work my way back here, Whalen said in her new office. A few feet away from where she is sitting is a table adorned with four WNBA title rings and two Olympic gold medals, the sort of bling that could bedazzle any recruit. Early. Even when I was just an intern on Pam [Bortons] staff, working on finishing my degree. I always thought, You know? Itd be pretty cool to do this one day.andthinsp;

Friday nights game against New Hampshire is sold out. The U has been working on this since the day Whalen signed on. It will be the biggest Williams Arena crowd ever to watch the Gophers women play, including that heady spring back in 2004 when Whalen and the Gophers were pushing to the NCAA Final Four.

Think of it as an official welcome back for one of the states most popular people.

Im so proud of the way fans are going to greet her, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. First time as head coach. Filled, completely. That tells you what people think about her. That tells you about her legacy.

A lot of pressure

But what of that legacy? If Whalen thought it was hard to stay out of the spotlight as a player, this is new territory. There are few places Whalen can go where shes not recognized, greeted, plied for autographs and photo ops. This is fine, she insists, but intense.

The other day she and her husband, amateur golfer Ben Greve, were at banquet for the Minnesota Golf awards. Attending as Greves plus-one, she was actually the one.

They were excited, she said. People were coming up, wanting pictures. This has gone to a new level. But thats part of the gig.

Whalen and Greve recently moved into their new house, which has by design become a refuge. Whalen retreats there after long days with her husband, their goldendoodle Henry and solitude.

Someone told me to set up your house so its your getaway, Whalen said.

But what she cant escape is her history of success and the expectations that come with it.

There is a lot of pressure, Fred Hoiberg said.

Hoiberg is the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. As a player, he was a part of the 2003-04 Timberwolves team that made it to the Western Conference finals. (When, he said, he watched a whole lot of the Gophers womens team that was making a run of its own.) Before that he owned Ames, Iowa. He grew up, starred in high school and won a state title there. He stayed there to become a standout at Iowa State. In 1993, he got write-in votes for mayor.

You care so much for the people, the fan base, the people who supported you your whole life, Hoiberg said. But I never would have taken the job at Iowa State if I didnt think I could be successful. And Im certain Lindsay is the same way. Look at her past. To get where she got with her career, you have to have both talent and work ethic.

Hoiberg returned to coach at Iowa State for five seasons, from 2010 to 2015, that included four trips to the NCAA tournament and one trip to the Sweet Sixteen.

Ive always admired Lindsay, Hoiberg said. She always did things the right way. You know shes a student of the game.

Like Hoiberg, Whalen has never been a head coach. Like Hoiberg, Whalen surrounded herself with people she could trust in hiring a staff. Like Hoiberg, who brought much of Flip Saunders playbook with him to Iowa State, Whalen has borrowed from her WNBA coaches, Reeve and Mike Thibault with the Connecticut Sun.

Lindsay has game, said Penny Hardaway, the Memphis native and former NBA star who is in his first year coaching his alma mater, Memphis. Shes going to be fine. There is a little pressure. But there is a comfort level as well. Youre at home. People know youll give it your all. I suspect the most pressure shell feel is pressure she puts on herself. Tell Lindsay Ill be watching. And Ill be rooting for her.

And Whalen? Not surprisingly, she simply cant wonder about any potential downside.

No, no, no, she said. What I did as a player is already done. There is no changing that. If Im not successful, then it just didnt work out. But Im not going to worry about that. I wasnt going to let that stop me from taking my dream job.

This, she said, pointing to walls of her office adorned with playing career mementos, wont change. Now, my coaching rsum, my legacy? Thats to be determined. And thats exciting.

The other day, for the first time, Reeve went over to the U to watch practice. It was surreal, she said, watching Whalen, arms crossed, whistle in her mouth, running the show. For Reeve, it was powerfully emotional, too.

I think of it like this, Reeve said. You have the Lindsay Whalen Book. This is another chapter. And I hope its a long, long chapter.

Lindsay Whalen texted me?

Gophers assistant Danielle OBanion who was an assistant when Whalen played at the U is most struck by how much Whalen hasnt changed since her playing days.

Like she did as a captain, Whalen treats people in the program like family. Everyone Whalen deals with gets a nickname. Birthdays are remembered.

That Lindsay is still here, OBanion said.

And the competitiveness? Shell be expressive, but she also brings the stone face that anyone who has ever played with Whalen knows. Gophers assistant Kelly Roysland knows it. She was a freshman guard when the Gophers went to the Final Four.

I remember her as a team-builder, Roysland said. Now, shed give me a look when Id miss a behind-the-back pass from her. And I see both as a coach. She hasnt changed. She has stuck to her core values.

Whalen went into this determined to be herself the first piece of advice Reeve gave her.

And she has. After a week of practice, Whalen went to the podium and joked they were still undefeated. A week later, asked how shed handle coaching on the Barns elevated floor, she said shed stand for the first 20 years, then use a stool for the next 10 or 15.

But some things did have to change. She figures to be a players coach, but she has to maintain authority. Her door is open, but there has to be some distance, too; as a player, there were things she could discuss with Lynx assistant coach Shelley Patterson but not with Reeve.

I have to be organized and focused every day, Whalen said. When I was a captain here, its just different. Now, its like, Im in charge.

Roysland said shes surprised how quickly Whalen has found her coaching groove. Whalens strength is dealing one-on-one with players.

Shes very individual-specific, Roysland said. And thats important to kids nowadays. Ultimately the players have so much respect for her because she has competed, and won, at such a high level.

Said OBanion: Sometimes when youre a gifted player, and you understand the game at a high level, theres a concern there would be a communication disconnect. She has been able to communicate much better than I thought she would.

Whalens career accomplishments have opened doors on the recruiting trail, where she and her staff have landed four-star recruits Mercedes Staples of Centerville, Utah, who is a freshman this season, and Jasmine Powell of Detroit, who will be here next year.

It was like, Lindsay Whalen texted me?andthinsp; Staples said. She has my number? It was crazy. Playing for someone fresh out of the WNBA? How could you say no?

Guard Kenisha Bell, coming off a stellar junior season, could have gone elsewhere as a graduate transfer for her senior season. But when Whalen was hired?

I wanted to stay, she said. And its been fun. Shes giving me examples of what could translate to the next level.

Whalen inherited a team that made it to the second round of last springs NCAA tournament. The cupboard is not bare.

Brenda Frese coached Whalen for one season, when she was a sophomore. The Gophers went from 8-20 to 22-8 and to the NCAA tournament before Frese left for Maryland. Now shell be coaching against her former player.

Full circle, Frese said. Im so happy and proud for her. What separates her is her humility, genuineness and ability to connect with people. Those things will separate her as a coach.

It all starts Friday, in front of a full house.

Lindsay is 100 percent Minnesotan, Hoiberg said. Just like I was 100 percent Iowan. Its pretty cool at the end of the day.

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