After a Reckoning, Women Reclaim WNBA Head Coaching Positions

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor IJanuary 10, 2022

Former San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon is one of the seven female head coaches expected to lead WNBA teams this upcoming season.
Former San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon is one of the seven female head coaches expected to lead WNBA teams this upcoming season.Associated Press

While some media members have discussed how disappointing it is that Becky Hammon won't break the NBA's thick head coaching glass ceiling, Hammon has been a part of a group that's breaking down other barriers in the WNBA—a league that has also struggled to have women consistently in roles of leadership. She hopes this new trend in the W continues. 

In two years, the W's percentage of female head coaches has increased by 75 percent.

Sandy Brondello, who was introduced as the new head coach of the New York Liberty on Friday, and Hammon are just two of the seven female head coaches expected to lead teams this upcoming season.

If the Mercury's head coach opening goes to any of the candidates we've heard about, including current Sparks assistant Latricia Trammell, former Sky and Fever head coach Pokey Chatman, previous Mercury assistants Chasity Melvin and Julie Hargrove or current Pelicans assistant Teresa Weatherspoon, that would be a 100 percent increase since the start of the 2020 season.

The WNBA hasn't seen those numbers since 1998, its second year of existence. 

The league will start its 26th campaign with at least three Black female head coaches. In addition, at least five former players will serve as head coaches, the highest number ever.

If the Mercury hire a Black woman to lead the organization, that will qualify as the most Black women serving as the head coach since 2011.

"I hope women continue to get these opportunities," Hammon said when she was introduced as head coach of the Aces. "... It's important for little girls to see that, but it's also important for little boys to see that because if we're going to talk about changing minds, you have to change it generationally, which means my two little boys need to know what it looks like to be a leader. And to them, their mom's a leader. And that's how they look at it. That's it." 


How far we've come

Two years ago, the WNBA lacked female leadership among head coaches. Only one-third of the head coaches in a league that's majority women and includes nonbinary people were women.

At the time, there was just one former player in the head coach seat, and there weren't any Black female head coaches in a league that is majority Black women. Meanwhile, 75 percent of the men serving as head coaches were white.

At a USA Basketball camp in January 2020, Minnesota Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve referred to the issue as a crisis.

Before the WNBA Finals kicked off later that year, Lindsay Gibbs of Power Plays examined the patterns in WNBA coaching across the majority of the W's existence. She found that head coaching opportunities for women in the W had decreased dramatically over time and that men "held at least half of the league's head coaching positions" in 75 percent of all the WNBA's seasons.

At the same time, the NBA and the G League saw a wave of former WNBA players hired as assistants. The Grizzlies hired Niele Ivey. Kara Lawson and Lisa Willis were coaching the Boston Celtics and Westchester Knicks, respectively.

What was the reason for this diaspora of potential WNBA coaching talent? Reeve chalked it up to a lack of resources available for WNBA franchises and front offices. She noted that the NBA has a resource whose job it is to "prospect coaches" and provide names, especially more diverse candidates, to front offices when there's an opening. 

Also, the NBA currently sponsors an assistant coaches program, a course that aims to train former NBA, G League and WNBA players to develop a qualified pool of coaches for hire. 

Behaviors on the men's side needed to be "duplicated" to help raise awareness and spark action, according to Reeve.

Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, right, advises one of her players. Reeve has been vocal about the WNBA needing more female head coaches.
Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, right, advises one of her players. Reeve has been vocal about the WNBA needing more female head coaches.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press/Associated Press

"I think just the awareness, just all of us wanting to do better," Reeve said in an interview with B/R in January 2020. "Sometimes you fall into a comfort zone with eight out of 12 are men, and they're hiring assistant coaches, they might go toward who they know. Well, I got to hire somebody I know, somebody that I trust. So I know that often translates to someone who looks like them.

"I think what we've seen is that if you let teams just unilaterally make their own decisions, they're gonna make decisions that they're making, which is if you have white men in positions of power, they're gonna hire white men."

She called on WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who had just collaborated with the Players Association on the latest collective bargaining agreement, to be open to collaborating once again to address the issue and try to expand the coaching pipeline. 

Reeve also proposed that the league could develop a task force to help front offices navigate how to proceed with coaching hirings and assist with creating a talent database so that teams that are hiring know who was interested.  

Reeve put it simply: "It's in our control." 

Amid the crisis, she explained a new policy change that came from the league, which allowed for teams to carry three assistants rather than two, and one member of the four-person coaching staff had to be a former player. Reeve expressed hope that a provision like that could expand the talent pool from assistant to head coach. 

In May 2020, then-Mercury head coach Brondello hired Melvin, an alumna of the NBA's assistant coaches program. The Las Vegas Aces then hired Tanisha Wright to join Vickie Johnson as an assistant—months later, Johnson would be hired to lead the Dallas Wings.

Slowly but surely, the pipeline was expanding. But still, eight of 12 WNBA head coaches were men at the end of the 2020 season.

For a league that dedicated that entire year to the #SayHerName campaign and helped impact the results of national elections, it was an ironic and embarrassing reality. 

During Engelbert's state of the league address before the finals that year, she was asked point-blank about what needed to be done to address the crisis that has continued to plague the league for years.

"We know the pipeline is there in the coaching and GM ranks because it's a lot of our former players," she said. "We've got to make sure this is top of mind even before positions come open. ... It's in the lead-up and experiences and development of individuals that, when an opening comes up, that's how you then place somebody in that position."


What's next

Since Engelbert's address in October 2020, three open coaching vacancies have gone to women, and two appointments have gone to women. Within that group, at least three of the newer head coaches are Black: Johnson, Wright and Noelle Quinn. 

When Brondello was introduced as the Liberty's new head coach Friday, she addressed the rise of women in head coaching positions and how that development shapes the league in years to come. 

"I do find that encouraging," she said. "And I think it's, you know, optics. It looks good, and I think it will help continue to grow our league."

Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb noted that it's invaluable for current players to be coached by former players. Not only do they have relevant experience having been in the shoes of their players, but they also know how to advise players on how to assess their post-playing career from a relevant perspective.

"Sandy is in a position to inspire them, and [the players] can start asking questions earlier," Kolb said. "What does it take? Is this an avenue I want to go down?” 

On Monday, Hammon spoke about what a clear majority of women serving as head coaches in the league means and why it matters. 

"Well, I think it matters because representation matters, right?" she told reporters. "It's important that we start to see leaders as leaders, and I think once we can start kind of peeling back the layers of society and what is viewed as 'this is a leader.' ... You know all these labels, and that we start hiring people based on what they bring to the table, based for their basketball knowledge."

The W has positioned itself as a sports league that is moving in the direction of allowing not just its players, but also its coaches to continue to break barriers and redefine what it means to lead. 

Reeve believes that this trend of former players and women infiltrating the WNBA coaching ranks will continue. She noted on her podcast that she "wouldn't be surprised" if more women make the switch from the NBA to the W in search of leadership positions.

"Obviously, we would welcome [them] back with open arms," she said.