University of Minnesota Athletics Director Mark Coyle likes to jokingly remind fans at stops like the one in Alexandria on June 12 that he's the guy who hired Lindsay Whalen to coach the Gopher women's basketball team.
There's a reason for that. Whalen was widely regarded as a home run hire when she took over the job in April of 2018. The Minnesota native from Hutchinson rewrote a lot of Gopher records as a player-leaving the program as its all-time scoring leader (second now to Rachel Banham) and second all-time in assists (578) to Debbie Hunter (632).
Most notably from a fan's perspective, Whalen is remembered as the catalyst for leading the Gopher women through their most exciting stretch in program history. After a Sweet Sixteen season in 2002-03 as a junior, Whalen guided Minnesota to its only Final Four in 2004.
Then came her success with the Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA. Her four championships (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017) as the point guard for the Lynx led to her jersey retirement on June 8 during a ceremony at the Target Center.
Whalen is widely considered one of the best athletes to ever come out of the state of Minnesota, so does she feel pressure to lead the Gophers to the top of the Big Ten at her alma mater?
"I'd like to get back to where we've been, but I understand it's a process and a day-to-day thing," Whalen said. "I want to have that, I want to get us to Final Fours and compete for Big Ten championships. I never won a Big Ten championship as a player, so I want to have that. I just know it's a day-to-day building to get us there. That's really real. It takes a while to get there, it takes building blocks. It takes early-morning practices and fundamentals, but it's something I want to work hard at to put us in position to get back where we want to be."
Whalen was one of the five Minnesota coaches in Alexandria on June 12 who were at Carlos Creek Winery as part of the 2019 Gophers Coaches Caravan Tour. Whalen, volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, men's hockey coach Bob Motzko, men's basketball coach Richard Pitino and football coach P.J. Fleck all signed autographs and then spoke on the state of their programs in front of a sold-out venue of nearly 300 fans.
"It's a lot of Gopher supporters," Whalen said. "I grew up a fan supporting the Gophers, and I grew up in a community where everybody really rallied behind different athletes and the University of Minnesota. To see that support out here reminds me of being home. It reminds me of just how special that bond is in a smaller community."
From player to coach
Whalen was always lauded as a player for her leadership skills as a point guard.
As much as anything, she is known as being a winner at every level she played at.
"As a teammate, you want to always be sure that everybody is doing well and getting shots, getting the ball in places they need it," she said. "As a point guard, you're kind of more of a caretaker on the floor and a floor general."
Whalen feels that a lot of the same leadership characteristics that made her a successful player can translate to the sidelines as a coach. Taking over a Big Ten program as one's first head-coaching job brings with it inherent pressure, but it's a move she felt ready for and continues to work at.
"A lot of the leadership and communication and wanting to be a good teammate first, I think all of those things really go into being a coach, being someone who is now in charge of a bigger organization than just being a player in the WNBA," Whalen said. "There's always room to grow, but I think those skills do translate and it's something I'm working hard at."
Whether or not Whalen gets the Gophers to the point of competing for conference titles will depend largely on how she is able to sell the program to recruits. She signed six newcomers to the 2019 recruiting class and recently added a transfer from Syracuse who was a former five-star recruit in the 2018 class in 6-foot, 2-inch forward Kadiatou Sissoko.
Sissoko, a native of Paris, France, was the 10th-ranked player overall in the 2018 class, according to ESPN. She played in 22 games for Syracuse as a freshman and averaged 3.2 points and 1.8 rebounds in 9.6 minutes per game.
Sissoko has to sit out the upcoming season due to transfer rules before becoming eligible for the 2020-21 season. She will play in the under-20 European championships this summer and practice with the Gophers during the 2019-20 season.
"Really athletic, long kid. Fast and can impact the game in a lot of ways," Whalen said of Sissoko. "I want to put her in positions where she'll be able to impact our team in 2020 when she can play. She brings us a lot, and it's going to be fun to see what she can do for us."
Building off an up-and-down first year
Fans watched with excitement in Whalen's first season last winter as the Gophers won their first 12 games and climbed in the national rankings.
Then the Big Ten schedule hit. Minnesota started 2-7 in league play and ended up missing out on the NCAA Tournament after finishing 9-9 in the conference. Minnesota went 7-2 down the stretch of Big-Ten play to make the WNIT.
"Last year, it was great when we were undefeated and everyone was excited, but it was a little bit of fool's gold because we knew we hadn't played many tough teams," Whalen said. "We beat Syracue, which was great, and we won at Boston College which was a great win for us, but we kind of knew the Big Ten was coming. The thing I'm most proud of is when we got punched and were 2-7, we bounced back and really responded."
This year's Gopher team is hoping to build off of a 21-11 season and take that next step after being on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament berth a year ago. After a first year with a lot of ups and downs, Whalen wants her players to embrace how tough it is to win in the Big Ten and be better prepared for those challenges as she enters year two with the program.
"We need to be more mentally tough, to be honest," Whalen said. "Embracing those things like how hard it is to win a possession in a game, let alone a game. To outhustle your opponent, all those things. If we can embrace that at a high level this summer, I think we can do some really good things, but it's a day-to-day thing. Those are things this summer I really want to focus on heading into next year."