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From ticket office to front office to coaching: The incredible journey of Karen Stack Umlauf

Northwestern’s Director of Basketball Operations Karen Stack Umlauf reminisces with us on how she became the first woman to serve as a coach for the Chicago Bulls.

Washington Wizards v Chicago Bulls
Karen Umlauf watches pregame film with a Chicago Bulls player during the 2020 season.
Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Raised in the southern suburbs of Chicago, Karen Stack Umlauf describes her time there as idyllic, adding that she felt a part of a community. She attended Seton Academy in South Holland, Illinois, an all-girls Catholic school. She then matriculated at Northwestern University, where she currently serves as Director of Basketball Operations.

We talked following the Wildcats’ return from Spain, where they were on a tour, playing three exhibition games as part of preparations for the new season. Previously, Umlauf worked for the Chicago Bulls, spending time in the front office and as an assistant coach over the course of her nearly 30 years with the organization. Her path to ultimately becoming an assistant coach for the Bulls wasn’t the usual former-player-turned-coach story. Her more atypical career journey is the subject of our conversation.

Umlauf’s basketball education

Umlauf began by revealing:

I realized the major I was taking at Northwestern wasn’t something I felt strong about. It was speech and language pathology. I went and played for a year in France in a small town and it was great. It was tough, but also a great experience. I mean tough, because the team was not at the highest level and communication was still an issue back then. I couldn’t call home and I was living by myself for the first time, because at college I was relatively close to family.

When Umlauf came back to Chicago in the mid-1980s, she was looking for work while playing for the Chicago Spirit, a Women’s American Basketball Association team that soon went bankrupt. She also kept close ties with her alma mater, and when one of the employees in Northwestern’s marketing department, Joe O’Neil, landed a marketing job with the Chicago Bulls, he asked if she wanted to help with the ticket sales. Umlauf recalls:

Other jobs were paying more, but this was basketball, something that I love, and I actually had a chance to be close to it.

And did her education turn out to be useful? She answers:

That’s what I always tell people, you have a certain major, but it is the overall education, like the one I got at Northwestern, which is still to this day attractive to employers. Nobody was asking what I majored in, they just knew that I went to Northwestern, and I played basketball, and that was enough for the Bulls. When you play sports, the employers associate that with discipline, teamwork, being organized with your schedule and being competitive. It’s always good to have employees like that.

It did not take long for Umlauf to land under the wing of Jerry Krause, the longtime general manager of the Bulls who recognized her potential and “stole” her from O’Neil, as the three of them used to joke between themselves. Krause prided himself as being an astute judge of talent, believing in his ability to put not just basketball players—but all people—in positions in which they would be successful. Umlauf continued to rise in the organization’s front-office ranks, although she was dealing more with travel coordination than actual basketball.

2018 NBA Summer League - Las Vegas - Atlanta Hawks v Chicago Bulls
Karen Umlauf observes a Bulls huddle during a 2018 NBA Summer League game.
Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Umlauf’s time on the Bulls’ sideline

During a 2017 first-round playoff game between the Bulls and Boston Celtics, Umlauf found herself talking with longtime Bulls beat writer Sam Smith. When discussing things about the team, she started thinking out loud about what she could do to influence roster decisions. Smith suggested that she should use her voice and encouraged her to get into coaching. She shares:

When I heard one of our interns talking about some scouting he was going to do, I was like: ‘Why not me? Why not give it a shot?’ And I went to John [Paxson, the Bulls vice president of basketball operations at the time], and he was like: ‘Sure, which side do you like more, the personnel side or the coaching side?’ And I was helping around on trips, going to shootarounds and learning as much as I could about how the players were coached.

Prior to the 2018-19 season, Umlauf served on the Bulls’ coaching staff for the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League. During her first season as an associate coach, she also continued to work in the front office, handling basketball operations and coordinating team travel. Next season, she became full-time assistant coach. Then, COVID-19 hit; the Bulls, like many teams, would encounter several issues that eventually led to a head coaching change. New coach Billy Donovan wanted his own staff, and he did not see Umlauf as part of it. But she betrays no bitterness, saying:

That’s the life of a coach and I know I could’ve held a safe front office job, but the experiences that I had as the first female assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls led to a lot of cool things that I was able to do later in my life.