Ex-WNBA players spreading through college coaching
Former WNBA players are helping develop the women's game through college coaching.
As the league enters its 15th season, there are 17 former WNBA players serving as college head coaches and another two dozen working as assistants. As their numbers continue to increase, so will the WNBA's influence on the game.
Jennifer Azzi is one of those coaches.
As she enters her second season at San Francisco, Azzi knows her professional playing career - including four years in the WNBA - gives her credibility with players and recruits.
''I find when I can sit down and talk to a recruit or a current player, they absolutely respect the fact that I've physically done it,'' Azzi said. ''They know we've done it and we're not sitting from some pedestal saying, 'Here's what you do.'''
Coaches like Louisiana Tech's Teresa Weatherspoon and North Carolina-Greensboro's Wendy Palmer were among the first wave that played in the WNBA's inaugural season in 1997 while others like South Carolina's Dawn Staley and Hartford's Jennifer Rizzotti arrived shortly after playing in the now-defunct American Basketball League.
There are two players in the league who were coached by former WNBA players: Five-year veteran Candice Dupree in Phoenix who played for Staley at Temple; and 6-foot-6 Chicago rookie Carolyn Swords, who was mentored by 6-5 Sylvia Crawley at Boston College.
Swords said Crawley's WNBA experience gave her someone to ask about anything, from what to pack to what to expect in training camp.
''Coach Crawley definitely teaches from experience,'' Swords said. ''I understand and appreciate that perspective. When she says something, it's from firsthand experience. The packages of moves that she taught, small details in positioning. It prepared me to understand the terminology'' in training camp.
Renee Brown, the league's chief of basketball operations and player relations, said WNBA-players-turned-coaches know what it takes to succeed and can help players get where they want to go.
''They're getting these players prepared,'' Brown said. ''You get a young player and she gets a chance to be coached by a player she has watched, it's got to be a great thing.''
Brown said their numbers in the coaching ranks will continue to grow.
Palmer is one of the latest examples.
She was an all-American under Debbie Ryan at Virginia before starting a professional career that included 11 years in the WNBA and stops in Spain, Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, Italy and Russia. She also served as an assistant coach at VCU, Kentucky and Virginia before taking over at UNC-Greensboro in April.
''Whatever you decided to do after the ball bounces the last time, you have a responsibility because the WNBA and the professional experiences overseas have taught us something great,'' Palmer said. ''It would be a tragedy to let it die with us.''
At North Carolina-Wilmington, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke talks to recruits about her playing days, too, though she said it's more to illustrate that she knows how to win than to tout her own statistics. Still, those accolades can only help: She was the WNBA's MVP in its first two seasons and was a four-time finals MVP while leading the Houston Comets to four straight championships.
After a successful five-season run at Prairie View A&M, Cooper-Dyke led the Seahawks to a school-record 24 wins and their first postseason appearance in the WNIT last season.
''It's not just about the name, but you have to make sure they understand that you're going to teach them as well,'' Cooper-Dyke said. ''For me, it's been my passion. I know how to win. I've won on every level I've participated on and now it's my turn to teach how to win and be a successful person and a successful basketball player. I think it's important to pass that on for the younger generation.''
It's a generation that grew up being able to watch their favorite college players continue their careers in the professional ranks close to home.
It's why, Brown said, that young women have gone from modeling their games after men to mimicking the moves of Diana Taurasi or Sue Bird - or maybe their college coach.
Azzi said she learned more about the game by extending her playing career and being exposed to different coaches after being a national player of the year and winning a national championship at Stanford. She even kept a notebook of which coaching tactics seemed to work and which didn't.
Now Azzi and her WNBA peers are sharing their knowledge with the next crop of potential pros.
''It's an experience that is pretty unique and makes us kind of a united group,'' Azzi said. ''It's good to know there are others out there doing their thing and doing it well.''