The Sun's firing of Thibault is a surprise to players

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November 21, 2012 - 6:01am
Mike Thibault addresses the media after leading the Sun past New York in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs (Photo by Teri Priebe).

Mike Thibault addresses the media after leading the Sun past New York in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs (Photo by Teri Priebe).

In a move that shocked fans and players throughout the league, the Connecticut Sun fired head coach Mike Thibault, the WNBA's longest-standing active coach and one of the most successful coaches in league history, on Tuesday. Thibault's long-time coaching assistants Bernadette Mattox and Scott Hawk received their pink slips along with him, according to a statement released by the team. 

During his 10 years as head coach of the franchise, Thibault earned a record of 206-134, chalking up more "W"s than any active coach in the league. Just six more wins would have carried him past Van Chancellor of the now-defunct Houston Comets, the all-time winningest coach in WNBA history, who guided his team to the league's first four championships and stepped down in 2006 with a record of 211-111. Thibault took his team to the playoffs eight times in his 10-year tenure at the team's helm, sealing Eastern Conference Championships in 2004 and 2005, and winning WNBA Coach of the Year honors in both the 2006 and 2008 seasons.

"Wow ...," was the one-word Twitter response to the news by Sun center Tina Charles, who took home WNBA MVP honors under Thibault this year.

"Really? We must be getting Phil Jackson. #onlywaythismakessense," tweeted Olympic gold-medalist and Sun point guard Kara Lawson, who owns a WNBA championship ring from her days with the Sacramento Monarchs, but arguably had the best performance of her 10-year career in the league this season under Thibault. Charles promptly retweeted the sentiment.

"The players didn't call for this," conceded Etess. "This is a business decision we're making in an effort to do what we think we need to do to get a championship for the Connecticut Sun."

"If we won a championship, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation," said Sun general manager Chris Sienko in a telephone conference with the media Tuesday. "But the reality is, that didn't happen."

While Thibault's record would be the envy of many other franchises, it was evidently not good enough for the Sun, a team that has been a perennial contender, reaching the WNBA Finals in 2004 and 2005, but has yet to capture the league championship. The team has been to the Eastern Conference finals five times (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2012), including this past season when Connecticut finished 25-9, earning the top seed in the East, but fell in the conference finals to eventual WNBA champion Indiana in three games.

“After much thought and consideration we have decided to make a coaching change with the hopes that this will allow us to achieve our ultimate goal of bringing a WNBA championship to Connecticut,” stated team CEO Mitchell Etess. “We have the ultimate respect and appreciation for everything coach Thibault has done here, and he has played a huge part in establishing the Connecticut Sun as the model franchise in the league. However, our ultimate goal is the championship, and this change is made in with an eye to accomplishing just that.”

(Photo by Teri Priebe)

Thibault had been the Sun's only head coach in the 10 years since the franchise relocated to Uncasville from Orlando in 2003. Prior to that move, the franchise (previously the Orlando Miracle) had yet to post a winning season, finishing 15-17 in 1999, its first year under Coach Carolyn Peck.  The team celebrated its best season of the Orlando era the following year with a 16-16 record, good enough to reach the playoffs where they lost to Cleveland in the opening round; then regressed to 13-19 in 2001, Peck's final year at the helm.  In 2002, their final year in the Sunshine State under Head Coach Dee Brown, the team did not break the .500 mark and failed to qualify for the playoffs.

In 2003, the inaguaral season in Uncansville, Thibault, along with Mattox and Hawk, orchestrated an immediate turnaround. That first year, Thibault led the team to a winning (18-16) record, swept Charlotte in the opening round of the playoffs and advancing to their first Eastern Conference finals where they fell to the Detroit Shock, the 2003 WNBA champions.

Only time will tell whether, despite their 10-year wait for a league title, the Sun was too quick to pull the plug on the Thibault era. Thibault, like the San Antonio Silver Stars' coach Dan Hughes (another highly regarded coach who has yet to win a league title during his tenure with the Stars and two earlier head coaching gigs), is widely recognized as having one of the league's best eyes for undervalued talent. Both coaches are known to spend a considerable part of the off season scouting talent overseas.  For Thibault, that talent-savvy, cultivated over more than two decades as an NBA scout, came into play most critically when he helped team GM Chris Seinko overhaul the roster in 2009 after the team finished 16-18, the only season Thibault didn't post a winning record in Connectecut. 

Even after that lackluster season, the Sun ownership rewarded Thibault and his staff with a contract extension. The team's continued confidence in Thibault was understandable since the meltdown in 2009 largely hinged on a late-season injury to All-Star post Asjha Jones.

Prior to the 2010 season in an effort to upgrade youth and talent, Thibault helped to manufacture one of the most impressive player deals in league history.  Connecticut sent Lindsay Whalen to the Lynx in return for Renee Montgomery and also acquired the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft from Minnesota, in return for the Sun's No. 2 pick. 

The blockbuster deal put Connecticut in place to draft National Player of the Year and former UConn Husky Tina Charles, who won WNBA Rookie of the Year honors in 2010 and brought home the MVP hardware in just her third season. Montgomery also panned out -- she was this season's WNBA Sixth Player of the Year -- and Thibault picked up Lawson as a free agent, adding veteran leadership to the Sun backcourt. The 2010 draft also brought in Nebraska's Kelsey Griffin and former LSU standout Allison Hightower, leaving  Jones and Tan White as the only remaining players from the squad that stumbled in 2009.

Though it was clear from the outset that it would take time to develop this young roster, the overhaul paid dividends immediately as the Suns improved to 17-17, though they narrowly missed the playoffs in 2010.  That year, the team also became the first WNBA franchise to turn a profit, as fans flocked to see a team that looked a lot like the UConn Huskies.  By 2011 the wins kicked in as the Sun finished the regular season in second-place in the East with a 21-13 record, and were back in the playoffs, though there was some grumbling to be heard when they lost to Atlanta in the conference semifinals.

This season, Connecticut topped the East with a 21-9 record, swept long-time rival New York in the opening round of the playoffs and fell just one bucket short of a return to the WNBA Finals.  The Sun were the heavy favorite in the East even before crushing Indiana, 76-64, in the opening game of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. The Sun led for much of the night and by as many as 11 points in Game 2, yet they managed to find a way to lose, 76-78 -- or rather the Indiana Fever found a way to win.

The final play of that game, may have been the final straw for the Sun's ownership.  With 12.5 seconds on the clock and the game tied at 76, Allison Hightower missed two free throws that could have won game and the series. Even worse, Tan White, whom Thibault had inserted into the game in lieu of Lawson in those final critical seconds, didn't box out Tamika Catchings who grabbed the rebound off the missed freethrow then passed it to Briann January setting up the dramatic buzzer-beating shot by Shavonte Zellous to win the game and swing the momentum of the series in Indiana's favor.

Even then, Connecticut had a chance to take the Eastern Conference title and once again advance to the WNBA Finals, when the game returned to Uncasville for the decisive game three of the series -- and many predicted exactly that outcome. However, the Sun were then handed a 71-87 loss on their home floor, sending Indiana to the WNBA Finals instead of Connecticut.

On Tuesday Sienko, who just two-and-a-half years ago described Thibault as the "best person to make [a WNBA championship] happen," called the loss "embarrassing," describing how "very difficult," it had been "to watch that final game," as he justified the decision to send Thibault and his coaching staff packing. "Even as just a fan," added Sienko. "I sat there the whole time wishing it didn't happen, but it did."

"The decision to let Mike go was difficult based on our friendship and working relationship," Sienko continued in a statement issued by the team. "Mike has had much success here in  Connecticut over the  past 10 seasons. However, we felt it was time for a new voice and new  direction for our players and our fans as we continue to try to capture that first, elusive title. We wish Mike and his family nothing but success and know our paths will cross again in the future."

All the same, the decision has to be a bitter disappointment for Thibault, who loved his job with Connecticut and has devoted a decade of his life to making the team success both on the court and at the box office.

“It’s their money. They write the checks,” Thibault reportedly told TheDay.com, a Connecticut publication, Tuesday after the Sun announced his release. “They get to do what they want. It’s a business. I understand that. I disagree that a different voice will change things. But it’s their decision to make.”

The timing has to be particularly vexing, though, for Thibault, who turned down an opportunity to return to coaching in the NBA this summer, explaining that he felt such a midseason move would be unfair to his players. That decision and its reasoning is just one more instance of the class for which Thibault was known throughout the game, a quality that will make him all the harder to replace.

Still, the Sun front office said they will begin interviewing candidates immediately but set no timetable for a decision.

"We are committed to bringing a WNBA championship to our loyal fans, who have given us tremendous support our first 10 seasons,"  Sienko added. "We have several candidates in mind who we  believe can help us accomplish that goal. Ultimately, we want to find the best fit for our athletes and  this organization."

That coud prove to be a more difficult task to achieve than the Sun's management seems to think. The Sun will be trying to replace a coach who, prior to his accomplishments as head coach for Connecticut, brought nearly 25 years of coaching experience in the NBA and other men's basketball leagues to the table. Thibault started his coaching career in 1978 as a scout for the Los Angeles Lakers, and was promoted to assistant coach and director of scouting in 1980. During his time in LA, the Lakers earned two NBA championships (1980, 1982). From 1982-1986, he moved on to the same positions with the Chicago Bulls, eventually becoming chief of player personnel, where he was involved in drafting Michael Jordan, among other significant acquisitions. At the time, Thibault later told participants in an online chat on wnba.com, the Bulls' owners "wanted us to consider going for Sam Bowie, but Rod [Thorn] and I agreed that if we had to, we'd try and lock them in a closet so we could make the pick for Michael Jordan."

From Chicago, Thibault moved to the World Basketball League, where from 1987-88, he served as general manager and head coach of the Calgary 88s, earning WBL Coach of the Year honors in 1988.  In 1989, he began an eight-year stint as general manager and head coach of CBA’s Omaha Racers, who made the playoffs in every season of Thibault's tenture (1989-97). The Racers took the CBA title in 1993, and returned to the finals in 1994. Thibault, who ranks sixth in the CBA record books in all-time coaching victories (236), was named 1993 Sportsman of the Year by Omaha sportscasters. Thibault returned to the NBA, serving as a scout for the Seattle Sonics from 1997-98, before moving on to an assistant coaching position with the Milwaukee Bucks, where he was before joing the Sun in 2003.

His will be some mighty big shoes to fill.


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