Penny Toler didn’t like the inconsistency the Los Angeles Sparks had shown this season.
So the team’s general manager and executive vice president decided to make a coaching change and let Carol Ross go over the weekend. Figuring it would be difficult for any outsider to step in and take over the Sparks with 12 games left, she thought she’d be the best person to take the coaching reigns.
”If we’re going to make this change, I’ll go down there and coach the team,” Toler said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Monday night. ”It’s a difficult situation for any coach to come into, so I’ll go to the bench and I’ll coach the team.”
She joins a rare club of WNBA coaches who have no previous coaching experience before getting a head coaching position, and she’ll make her debut Wednesday night against the visiting New York Liberty (8-13).
”I’ll definitely be nervous for the first game on Wednesday,” Toler said. ”I’m going to rely on my assistants a lot. The last couple of days I’ve never looked at so many plays in my life.”
Top assistant Gail Goestenkors left when Ross was let go. Current assistant Gary Kloppenburg will stay on and be joined by Steve Smith, who returns after three previous stints as a Sparks assistant. Smith had been serving as athletic director at a high school in Los Angeles.
Toler said she will only be coaching the club until the end of the season and doesn’t plan on coaching after this year.
Toler was the first woman to score a basket in the WNBA in 1997, when she played for the Sparks. She retired from playing in 1999 and became the team’s general manager in 2000, presiding over the Sparks’ back-to-back WNBA titles in 2001 and 2002.
Despite their struggles, the Sparks (10-12) currently occupy one of the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference.
”Our goal is to make the playoffs first,” she said. ”This is a very tough league. We still have 12 games to go. We’re going to take it one game at a time and try and secure a playoff spot. With the way season is going we can’t assume we’re in the playoffs. We have to win.”
The Sparks won three in a row to close a four-game road trip before falling 79-75 to Washington at home before the All-Star break. Los Angeles owns the league’s worst home record at 3-7.
”This is one of those things where we have to get some consistency, you can’t stumble into a championship,” Toler said. ”If you look back in the Sparks’ history I’m hard pressed to see us being 3-7 at home. This is an extremely difficult situation. It was a very tough decision.”
New York takes the court for the first time since getting by Atlanta 77-75 last Wednesday. Cappie Pondexter struggled for most of the game before banking in the winning 16-foot jumper with four-tenths of a second left.
"I always want it at the end," said Pondexter, who finished with eight points while shooting 3 of 15. "It’s always been like that since I first came into the league."
New York has dropped three straight to Los Angeles after falling 68-54 in this season’s first meeting July 11.