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Why it matters that Dan Hughes is passing the Storm head coaching torch to Noelle Quinn

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In his 19th season as a WNBA head coach, Dan Hughes has decided to retire, citing the “rigors of being a head coach.” Former WNBA player Noelle Quinn, who was in her second season as an assistant coach, has been elevated to head coach of the Seattle Storm. Here’s why Quinn’s opportunity is important.

Indiana Fever v Seattle Storm
Noelle Quinn, your new head coach of the Seattle Storm.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Last Saturday, Dan Hughes announced his retirement from WNBA head coaching, stepping away from the Seattle Storm six games into the 2021 season. Hughes shared:

After over 40 years of coaching basketball, I want to finish my career with the focus and determination with which I started. The Seattle Storm is in amazing shape, after two championships and a terrific playoff run in 2019, I would like to announce my retirement from the WNBA. I believe now is the right time because the team is performing well, but the rigors of being a head coach in the WNBA have taken their toll on me. I look forward to coaching with USA Basketball at the 2021 Olympics then leveraging my experience to give back to the game in other ways.

While sudden, Hughes’s decision is not necessarily surprising. He missed the beginning of the 2019 season due to cancer. As a health precaution, he skipped the 2020 WNBA wubble season, when his Storm squad captured their second title in three seasons under interim head coach Gary Kloppenburg.

Somewhat more surprisingly, Kloppenburg was not named head coach, interim or otherwise. In a pleasant surprise, Noelle Quinn, in her third season as a Storm assistant coach after a 12-season WNBA playing career, was named the permanent head coach.

Quinn’s elevation is manifestation of the priorities — proudly endorsed by the WNBA and its organizations — that WNBA players, and many fans, have been waiting to see become standard practice. Quinn, a Black woman, is getting a rare, early opportunity to serve as head coach.

Here’s more on what Hughes accomplished in his nearly 20 years in the WNBA and what Quinn can accomplish as his successor.

Dan Hughes’s workman-like WNBA head coaching career

Throughout the WNBA’s 25 years, Dan Hughes has been a near constant presence, stalking sidelines from Charlotte (1999) to Cleveland (2000-03) to San Antonio (2005-09, 2011-16) to Seattle (2018-2019, 2021) since 1999.

Along the way, he twice was named Coach of the Year. He won the award in Cleveland in 2001 as he steered the Rockers to the best record in the Eastern Conference. He captured the honor again in 2007 for executing an impressive turnaround in San Antonio, leading the Silver Stars to their first winning record since moving to San Antonio in 2003. Hughes remains the winningest head coach in that organization’s (Utah Starzz/San Antonio Silver Stars/Las Vegas Aces) history.

San Antonio Silver Stars v Los Angeles Sparks
Dan Hughes instructs Becky Hammon, 2008.
Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, Hughes reached his greatest coaching heights in Seattle.

Hired before the 2018 season in order to turn a young and talented, but somewhat underachieving, Storm team into winners, Hughes did just that. In his first season at the helm, the Storm sprinted to the best record in the league (26-8), propelled by the then-best offense in league history (111.1 rating). After surviving an epic five-game semifinals battle with the Phoenix Mercury, Seattle swept their way to the organization’s third title, dominating the Washington Mystics in the three-game Finals.

However, a 2019 season filled with misfortune, from Hughes’s own cancer scare to season-ending injuries to Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, might have been Hughes’s most impressive coaching job. Underwomanned, the offensive juggernaut became a gritty, never-quit group. Expected by many to miss the playoffs, the Storm finished sixth in the standings and won their first-round playoff game.

New York Liberty v Seattle Storm
Dan Hughes addresses Alysha Clark and Jordin Canada, 2019.
Photo by Scott Eklund/NBAE via Getty Images

Although absent from the wubble, Hughes’s imprint was on the Storm’s 2020 title. The same will be true if Seattle triumphs in 2021. Upon assuming the first seat from Hughes, Quinn noted:

I’d like to thank Dan for his investment in me and the impact he’s had on my growth as a coach in this league. He has left a wonderful legacy in the WNBA and with the Storm. I look forward to carrying on the Storm’s championship culture as the next head coach.

Why the hiring of Noelle Quinn is significant

Quinn’s elevation gives the league three head coaches who were former WNBA players, as she joins the Dallas Wings’ Vickie Johnson and the Phoenix Mercury’s Sandy Brondello. Three is a long-awaited all-time high.

However, in the early days of the WNBA, organizations were more eager to hire former players, disregarding their believed lack of requisite experience in favor of having a “big” name on their sidelines. The Phoenix Mercury hired Cheryl Miller as the franchise’s first head coach in 1997, even as she had never served as a coach before. Her replacement in 2001 was Cynthia Cooper, who took control in Phoenix the season after she retired from playing with the Houston Comets.

1998 WNBA Finals - Game One: Houston Comets v Phoenix Mercury
Cheryl Miller stalks the sidelines for the Phoenix Mercury, 1998.
Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

In the intervening 20 years, much changed, with organizations often opting for former NBA players or (mostly white) men who had long coaching resumes. Former WNBA players have struggled to gain and maintain head coaching opportunities. This has been doubly true for former Black players and all Black women. Since Miller and Cooper, the former Black players who have served as head coaches, including interim head coaches, are:

Jennifer Gillom (Minnesota Lynx, 2009; Los Angeles Sparks, 2010-11)

Teresa Edwards (Tulsa Shock, 2011)

Penny Toler* (Los Angeles Sparks, 2014)

Vickie Johnson (San Antonio Stars, 2017)

Taj McWilliams-Franklin* (Dallas Wings, 2018)

*=interim

The experience of Vickie Johnson is illustrative.

After establishing herself as a first-generation WNBA legend with the New York Liberty, she joined Dan Hughes’s coaching staff in San Antonio, working five seasons as an assistant before being named head coach in 2017. However, this was the Silver Stars’ throw-away final season in San Antonio. When the franchise relocated to Las Vegas in 2018, with presumptive No. 1 pick A’ja Wilson on the way, Bill Laimbeer was imported as head coach. Considering the performance of the Aces during their Vegas tenure, this was not the “wrong” decision. But, it is hard to say that the organization did “right” by Johnson.

Dallas Wings v San Antonio Stars
Vickie Johnson commands a Silver Stars huddle, 2017.
Photos by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

Following three seasons more seasons as an assistant coach under Laimbeer, Johnson finally received another, more favorable head coaching position when the Dallas Wings hired her this past offseason.

Similar to Johnson’s first, short stint as head coach, the majority of the opportunities granted to former players, Black and white, can generously be described as “not great.” Organizations have tended to take a chance on a former player when the team is entering a fallow period. For example, Seattle hired Jenny Boucek in 2015 after Brian Agler departed for more promising pastures in LA. Then, as the Storm were on the ascent ahead of the 2018 season, the organization called on Dan Hughes. Similarly, Katie Smith steered the New York Liberty through their years in the wilderness in Westchester in 2018 and 2019. She was not retained as the organization prepared to move back to the city, with the innovative Walt Hopkins hired to usher in the new era in Brooklyn.

These historical patterns underscore the importance of Quinn’s opportunity.

The hiring of Noelle Quinn should be the new normal in WNBA

Quinn did not have to “prove” herself by serving as an assistant for many years, as Johnson did.

After winning a title with the Storm in 2018 as a player, Quinn shifted to the sidelines beginning in the 2019 season. By naming her head coach, the Storm organization, to their credit, did not question her lack of “traditional” coaching experience, instead understanding that 12 seasons playing in the WNBA also qualifies one to serve as a head coach in the WNBA.

Quinn also was not given a dead-end opportunity with a struggling team. In contrast, she is assuming control the defending champions who, despite offseason roster retooling, are in contention for the 2021 crown. Rather than turning to the conventionally “safe” choice in Gary Kloppenburg, as they did during Hughes’s absence last season, the Storm chose to see Quinn as equally deserving of their head coaching position.

This shifted perspective — giving former players and Black women the benefit of the doubt instead of requiring them to preemptively answer any doubts — is equity in action.

Similar to their decision to hire Crystal Langhorne for a social justice-focused front office position, the Storm organization is proving that their support for Black women is not merely rhetorical. They are showing the rest of the WNBA how to turn words into actions — investing in Black women and empowering them in positions of authority.