The WNBA calls itself the best league in the world and is always looking to strengthen itself. To that end, occasionally great players from countries other than the United States will come and play. But what about coaches? Are there any foreign coaches that the WNBA should be looking at?
The pipeline of new coaches to the WNBA looks very tight. The typical WNBA head coach is either a NBA player looking to get into coaching (and ready to bolt for the NBA at a moment's notice), a WNBA lifer with at least a decade's experience as a WNBA head coach or an assistant, or a college women's coach who goes into pro coaching due to leaving college head coaching under...uh...less than optimal conditions. When a coaching vacancy comes along, the number of candidates for replacement is very limited.
College women's basketball head coaches generally don't enter the WNBA expect under the sub-optimal conditions hinted at above. Why? Because college women's basketball head coaches get paid a lot more than WNBA coaches do and because they have better job security. Why would a Geno Auriemma or a Kim Mulkey leave their schools to get paid a lot less with a lot less job security in the WNBA?
So the option of hiring a foreign coach should be considered. Granted, there are some unknowns. We don't know how much foreign pro coaches get paid. One reason some foreign pro players don't come to the WNBA is they get paid a lot better in their home countries - the same may be true for foreign pro coaches.
Another unknown is the language barrier. Obviously, English will not be the first language of a pro coach, or for that matter, it might not be any language of the coach. But American pro players go overseas every off-season and seem to have little trouble. If there's a full time translator for English-speaking players, a full-time translator for Spanish (or French, or Russian) coaches wouldn't be that hard to hire for three months out of the year. American assistant coaches could help in the translation duties. And the experience would give a foreign coach the chance to scout prospective American coaches up close and personal.
With all of these things in mind, I took a look at what foreign coaching had to offer the WNBA. I looked at the head coaches in each of five major professional leagues - Spain, France, Turkey, Poland, and Russia - and looked at their records in both Euroleague and Eurocup play. Euroleague and Eurocup are the two major competitions in Europe, and a good record in Euroleague or Eurocup likely implies real coaching talent.
Euroleague wins are given more weight than Eurocup wins, since Euroleague is the more prestigious competition. I looked at the number of overall wins and the wins above .500 as well. After sorting out the best coaches, it turns out that we had one coach from each of the five international leagues listed avove.
France: Valerie Garnier
Garnier has an advantage that none of the other players on this list have. She was a former pro player in France, from 1983-1994 with 61 selections as a player on the French national women's team. (She might have played in the WNBA, if there was a WNBA in 1994).
Our list of coaches is sadly lacking women. This is a reality of pro basketball overseas - coaches are almost always men. There are no female coaches in Poland and Turkey, and only one female coach in Russia. It could be a cultural thing where women aren't encouraged to go into coaching. Even in forward-looking France, there are only three female head coaches in a 14-team league.
After her pro career ended she worked her way up the coaching pyramid, starting with second-division teams. She started as a first-division pro coach for the first time in 2002, was an assistant coach for the French national team, and in 2011, started coaching at Bourges Basket. Under her leadership, Bourges has had three regular season championships, two national championships, and two semifinals finishes in Euroleague.
Garnier might be the only coach on this list who has been given the award of Knight of the National Order of Merit by the French government. Clearly, the French think highly of her. She's currently the coach of the French national team in the 2014 FIFA World Championships. Celine Dumerc - who came over to the US for the very first time this season - plays for Garnier both on the French national team *and* at Bourges Basket. Maybe Dumerc can put in a good word for the WNBA as a whole?
You can get a taste of her English language speaking ability above. She clearly knows the grammar and vocabulary, but I've not found any clip of her speaking English for an extended period of time.
Poland: Stefan Svitek
Svitek is actually of Slovakian origin, and is coaching Wisla Can-Pack Krakow this eason. He has been a coach since 2005 and has coached in six different Euroleague competitions and one Eurocup competition. Until 2013, he was the head coach of Slovakian teams like Good Angels Kosice and MBK Ruzomberok, with a stint as the coach of the Hungarian women's team in Eurobasket. Last year, he coached in Poland for the first time as the head coach of Wisla-Can Pack.
Oddly enough, his four year stint at Good Angels Kosice ended with him being fired. Good Angels stated that the firing was due to a "lack of mutual trust" when Good Angels general manager Danie Jendrichovsky told Svitek not to win by more than four points in a Euroleague game, because a tight win would have set up a weaker opponent in the next round of the competition. Svitek didn't agree with that philosophy; he said that he didn't know how on earth how to do something like that and it was against his coaching philosophy to do it. He also said that the club stopped talking to him after he told them that.
Before his women's coaching career, he was an international professional player in Czechoslovakia (when it existed), the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. He has coached both Candice Dupree and Angel McCoughtry, so he knows how to deal with players at the highest level of the WNBA. Furthermore, as you can tell from the clip above, Svitek is a passable English speaker - not perfect, obviously, but well enough to communicate his meaning and to hold interviews. A stint in the United States with the WNBA might be a perfect opportunity.
Russia: Aleksandr Vasin
Vasin has been both a head coach and an assistant coach in Russia, for both men's teams - he was the head coach of the Russia Men's Under-20 Team - and for women's team. Last year he broke through in a big way as the head coach of a Spartak Moscow Vidnoje team that finished 12-5 in Euroleague competition. (He was actually the coach who replaced Pokey Chatman at Spartak.) According to lovewomensbasketball.com, Russian media had him as a contender for coaching the Russian women's team, but that job ended up in the hands of Anatoly Myshkin.
Vasin has about 25 years of coaching experience. Paul Nilsen, who has forgotten more about the international game than most people have ever known, saw Vasin as a candidate for Euroleague Coach of the Year last season while working with a rather young team.
This year, Vasin will get a chance to coach Stefanie Dolson, who just signed with Spartak Moscow Vidnoje for the 2014-15 offseason. And maybe, after Dolson has a chance to play for Vasin, she'll have a chance to bring him back.
Spain: Jose Ignacio Hernandez
If I owned a WNBA team and wanted a foreign coach, my first choice would be Jose Ignacio Hernandez. He has coached a huge number of games in Spain and Poland despite being under fifty years old. He has hundreds of games coached in the Spanish league alone and over 100 games in Euroleague with a 67-54 record. He's coached the national women's team in 2010 and has coached various youth squads in international play. After three years in Poland - he ended up picking up a Coach of the Year award from the Polish League - he is back in Spain as the head coach of Rivas Ecopolis where he helped Rivas pick up its first championship title last season.
However, Hernandez is best known for bad luck. Hernandez's lone season as head of the national team was disappointing, with the Spaniards finishing 3-3 in Eurobasket. His tenure in Poland ended with Wisla Can-Pack terminating his contract in the middle of his fourth season. And yet, as we've seen with Rivas, Hernandez has either taken teams to the top or has been able to keep them there in the highest level of play.
I don't know if Hernandez is able to speak English at all - I haven't been able to find anything on YouTube - but he does has a Twitter account, so if a WNBA team is looking for a coach he should be easy to contact. As I said at the beginning, if I could pick my own coach from a foreign country, it would be Hernandez.
Turkey: Ekrem Memnun
Ekrem Memnun is the head coach of Galatarasay, one of the two superpowers of Turkish women's basketball, the other being Fenerbahce. This is a team with big name players. Atlanta Dream fans should be familiar with both teams as Angel McCoughtry is a star for Fenerbahce and Sancho Lyttle is a star for Galatasaray.
Even though the YouTube clip above implies that Memnum speaks passable English, he has a long history with Galatasaray. The first time he worked for Galatasaray was 1995, but has hasn't spent all his time in women's basketball (he once worked with the Galatasaray men's team) or in Turkey (he worked in Kosovo with the Sigal Prishtina men's team). He returned to women's basketball in 2012 with Galatasaray and last year achieved a significant doubles. First, he won Galatasaray a Euroleague championship in a victory over their arch-rivals Fenerbahce. Then, coming back to Turkey, they beat Fener again in the championship of the Turkish leage for their first title in 14 years.
There's not much more I can say about Ekrem Memnun. Why? Because Google's pages are returned in Turkish. But if you follow overseas basketball you'll know the names of Isil Alben, Alba Torrens and Nevriye Yilmaz - all players that Memnun has coached along with Lyttle. Memnun would be a hard "get" for a WNBA team, due to his long history with Galatasaray and the fact that Galatasaray has enough money to throw six-figure salaries at its players and if Gala wanted to keep him, it would be hard to pry him loose.