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Zulgad: Gophers AD hits potential home run by making unconventional hire

The University of Minnesota could have gone the safe route in finding a replacement for women’s basketball coach Marlene Stallings after she took the Texas Tech job this week.

There certainly were many qualified head coaching candidates who would have loved the opportunity to make the move to a Big Ten program coming off a second-round appearance in the NCAA tournament. There could have been a lengthy search conducted by athletic director Mark Coyle that would have ended up with the hiring of a candidate with an impressive resume.

Instead, Coyle acted in decisive fashion and made a gutsy decision by hiring former Gophers great and Hutchinson native Lindsay Whalen. Whalen will continue to play for the Lynx as well, joining former WNBA star Dawn Staley as someone who has played in the WNBA and coached collegiately.

The move does come with some risk.

Whalen, who will be introduced as the Gophers coach on Friday, has played in the WNBA since 2004, including the past eight seasons with the Lynx, and thus doesn’t have head coaching experience. She will be competing against coaches who are more familiar with the ins-and-outs of recruiting and who have been honing their craft at multiple levels for many years.

But while Coyle previously has been questioned in this space since taking over as athletic director at Minnesota, he will draw no criticism for hiring Whalen. This move has a chance to be a home run and odds are strong it will be.

Whalen is not only incredibly popular in these parts – this hire will immediately sell tickets – but she also is a winner and there’s no reason to think that will stop now that she’s calling the shots at Williams Arena. Whalen was the point guard on the 2004 Gophers team that made a run to the Final Four and helped fill The Barn.

She was then taken with the fourth-overall pick in that year’s WNBA draft by Connecticut. It never made sense that the Lynx, who had the sixth and seventh picks in that draft, didn’t do whatever was necessary to make a deal so they could select Whalen. Whalen not only would have helped the then-struggling franchise with its attendance, but it also was clear she had the “it” factor that every team covets.

The Lynx acquired Whalen in a trade with the Sun in January 2010 and also hired Cheryl Reeve that season. Minnesota missed the playoffs in 2010, but since that time it has won four WNBA titles, including last season’s, and been to the finals six times.

The combination of Reeve and Whalen has been Brady-Belichick like with the ultra-competitive Whalen serving as a coach on the floor and Reeve often outcoaching the other bench boss.

Whalen, the first three-time All-American in Gophers history and the school’s all-time points leader when she completed her time at Minnesota, undoubtedly has learned plenty from Reeve and can apply that knowledge in her new position.

Given the fact she will turn 36 on May 9, it would not be surprising if this is the final WNBA season for the five-time All-Star. But even holding two jobs, it’s not going to be a surprise if Whalen finds success in both and if Coyle ends up sending Stallings and Texas Tech a thank you letter for opening the door for him to make this hire.


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