MINNEAPOLIS Years ago, as an assistant with the Detroit Shock, Cheryl Reeve would often debate the importance of female coaches in the WNBA with head coach Bill Laimbeer. This was ten years into the league's existence Reeve coached in Detroit between 2006 and 2009 past the initial wave of female coaches and their replacement by men with NBA pedigrees, when the future of female coaches was hazy at best.
It wasn't that Reeve, who became the second female head coach to win a WNBA championship with the Lynx in October, wasn't happy working under Laimbeer. She was pleased with his system in Detroit, but even so, Reeve was adamant that she wanted to see more opportunities for women to coach in the league.
Laimbeer didn't disagree, but he countered. Reeve said her boss would always point out the league's relative youth, that female assistants were building the experience necessary to eventually take over. They didn't discuss specifics, things like timeframes and the extent to which such a transition could occur. It was a vague notion, and there was no way to predict where Reeve would find herself just two years after leaving Detroit, stalking the sidelines and winning in the first-ever WNBA championship series featuring two female head coaches.
When the WNBA formed in 1997, seven of the eight head coaches were women, drawn mostly from the college ranks. Only three of those seven can be counted as successes, and just two, Marynell Meadors and Nancy Darsch, remain in the league today. "They could have been great coaches, but the WNBA-slash-NBA at that point was a whole different animal, and coaches were probably very unprepared for the difference between college and pro coaching," former WNBA coach Anne Donovan said.She's not trying to slam those female coaches from the league's early years, but Donovan, who now coaches the Seton Hall women's team, can't help but feel like their mistakes shifted the coaching trend toward men. It was more than wins and losses that doomed the early coaches; they also failed to build the reputations needed to succeed with players and the rest of the league. It was understandable that the trend shifted, Donovan said, toward coaches league executives were more comfortable with. Familiarity prevailed over change, and leadership was more comfortable getting a reference for a man with NBA experience than for a woman who'd never coached a professional team."We've had this run of NBA guys that have come and gone, and frankly there haven't been many that were that much more successful than the women," Reeve said.That male influence, though it never redefined the league, did prevail until recently. A female head coach didn't win a championship until Donovan did in Seattle in 2004, and in even in 2009, only three of the league's 13 head coaches were women. Today, the league boasts two all-female staffs, in Indiana and Los Angeles, and six of the 12 head coaches are women. Of the 33 total coaches, 21 are women, and there are no all-male staffs.There's little debate about what caused that shift. It's what Laimbeer and Reeve discussed brought to fruition, as women have risen through the ranks and learned that the WNBA is a different game than college. This is a generation of women is starting something new, coaches who rarely had a female coach in their own careers. They owe their success not only to the men from whom many of them learned their methods, but also to women like Donovan, who gave Reeve her start in Charlotte and is open to taking a leap of faith and hiring less-proven female assistants.Meadors, who coached the Charlotte Sting until 2009, is now the head coach of the Atlanta Dream, the team that fell to the Lynx in the 2011 championship. But before taking over in Atlanta, she served as the Miami Sol's director of scouting under former NBA coach Ron Rothstein, where she said she learned more about coaching a professional team. It was yet another confirmation that the WNBA was different from the college motion offenses that she and the other original coaches relied on, and that knowledge has contributed to her longevity in the league."I started going into the pro sets and really liked them," Meadors said. "I liked a lot of the things that (Rothstein was) doing. I kind of combined all those things and somehow or another came up with some kind of philosophy for the Atlanta Dream."Meadors is the perfect example of the experience and adaption that was necessary for women to get a foothold in the league. Now, former assistants like Lin Dunn in Indiana, Reeve in Minnesota and Carol Ross in Los Angeles have pushed pass the threshold of experience and taken over head coaching jobs, and that trend seems to be continuing. Gary Kloppenburg, who became the Tulsa Shock head coach in January after serving as an assistant in Seattle and Indiana, said that the pool of female coaches continues to grow, and as retired players begin to try their hand at coaching, the amount of women competing for jobs will increase further."Slowly, as women got an opportunity here or there, fortunately the trend has shifted back again," Donovan said. "I think NBA executives and hiring people are more inclined to, now they understand that women can do this job. It just has to be the right woman with the right resum."Experience, hours logged on the bench and in the gym, has been the key to female coaches reestablishing their foothold in the WNBA. In the league's infancy, a good reputation sufficed; now, women have to prove themselves. And as the quality of play in the league has improved, coaches look better and better, giving women a slightly larger margin of error."I think the quality of the women coaches now is at such a high level that franchises are trusting the best coach, whichever one it is, male or female," Meadors said. "I think that the people that are making those decisions have decided that they want the best coach."But what exactly makes someone the best coach in the WNBA is still under debate. Is a successful men's coach just as qualified as someone who has experience coaching women? Is coaching men inherently different than leading a squad of women? The verdict is still out.Kloppenburg, who's coached men and women at various levels, said he doesn't think there's much of a difference between the genders at the professional level. Players have similar mindsets and basketball IQs, he said, narrowing any gap that might exist because of athleticism. What matters most to any player, he said, male or female, is that they want their coaches to make them better. They want to feel like they're in a system where they can win, and really, that's all that matters.Women are more emotional, though, Donovan said, which can be a disadvantage or difficulty for some coaches. But those emotions also lead to a greater sense of team and unified effort, which Meadors said makes the women's game the purer form."Probably one major difference I've found, the women, they seem a lot more sensitive and conscientious about the chemistry of their team, the bonding," Kloppenburg said. "They're more unselfish, more sensitive to making sure that that's right."Despite those differences, Reeve said she's always been struck by the success of coaches who treat each gender the same. Reeve coached under Dan Hughes, head coach of the San Antonio Sting, in Charlotte, and she said she was always impressed by the success he had coaching men and women in a similar fashion."Ultimately, women want to be successful whether they're coached by a male or a female," Reeve said. "I think that's what matters most, and how they're treated. As long as they're treated professionally, and then obviously if what you do on the court makes sense, that'll be what they want."And despite the belief that success in the WNBA isn't determined by the gender of a coach, many of the league's female coaches hope that ever more women assume head coaching positions. Donovan said she believes that women should coach women unless the more qualified candidate is a man, but she also acknowledges that there are men like Kloppenburg who have established themselves and thrived in the women's game.Coaches like Kloppenburg, men who fully understand how to coach women and the subtle differences between their game and the men's, will continue to win quality coaching jobs in the WNBA. Even so, Donovan hopes the trend is heading toward more female coaches, and if the recent uptick is any indication, Donovan's hopes may soon become reality. Last year's finals, the jobs that Meadors and Reeve did with their teams, was yet another testament to how far female coaches have come in the past 10 years. The Lynx head coach and others have begun to make names for themselves among basketball fans, developing their own styles and providing a model for other women to follow."You're seeing confident women step forward and having confidence in themselves and their systems," Donovan said.There's no way to deny what's going on, that this transition that Donovan, Reeve, Meadors and thousands of other women have debated and pondered and hoped for is finally becoming a reality. But it's a tenuous one, just a few bad decisions and firings away from uncertainty, and coaches would be wise to remember that."I think the trend will continue, and it's ours to screw up," Donovan said. "If a knucklehead gets in there and doesn't know what she's doing, it'll set us back. It'll set us back a lot farther than if a guy gets in there and screws up."There's still pressure, still the raised eyebrow that Donovan said was often aimed her way in her early years in the league. But really, it hasn't been long since Reeve began debating with Laimbeer, just five or so years since the thought of half the league's coaches being women seemed nothing if not far-fetched. Another five years could bring anything, but if women capitalize on the momentum they're currently gaining, the WNBA could be a very different place.Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.