It’s Whalen Time
In case you haven't heard, Lindsay Whalen is back at the U as head coach of the women's basketball team.
Lindsay Whalen won the 2017 WNBA championship with the Minnesota Lynx at Williams Arena and played three of her four years there as a Golden Gopher. But does she remember her very last play as a college player on that storied court?
“I remember quite a bit of that game, the energy and the feeling and the way the crowd was,” says Whalen, by phone from Dallas during her last season with the Lynx. “That was really special.”
Special is what Whalen has been to the University of Minnesota since the Hutchinson native become arguably the most beloved Gopher of all time. For anyone who was there that winter night in 2004, the last play of her senior season was indeed unforgettable: With Kansas State vanquished and the Gophers’ Final Four appearance in sight, Whalen brought the ball up court on a fast break and hit a teammate with a bounce pass from midcourt for a layup. The Barn erupted, and Whalen backpedaled to the bench to one of the longest and loudest standing ovations ever in that 90-year-old building.
Fast forward to 2018, with Whalen now head coach of the Gophers. In hindsight, it seems fitting that her last play as a Gopher at Williams was an assist.
“I think Lindsay’s a special breed, because she’s not only a point guard, she’s a true leader,” says Gophers assistant coach Carly Thibault-DuDonis, pausing to talk at the end of Whalen’s first practice in the state-of-the-art Bierman Field Athletic Building. “It doesn’t always work both ways, where you’re a good point guard and you’re a good leader, and she’s got both. The only real adjustment for her is, as a point guard she always knows what needs to get done on the floor, who needs to get a bucket, who needs to get a touch. Now it’s delegating somebody else to do it on the floor.”
That Whalen has never been a head coach has led some Gophers fans to worry her star power won’t be enough to propel the team forward, a concern that Thibault-DuDonis’s father and Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault, who drafted and coached Whalen with the Connecticut Sun, dismisses. “I think a point guard has a little bit of an advantage in that regard, because they’re responsible for so much during a season: play-calling; having the feel of your team, who’s hot, who’s not, how to get people shots,” he says. “I also think she’ll have a huge recruiting advantage, because she’s from Minnesota. She can get in any door in the Midwest and she’s got immediate credibility with kids.”
The only four-time MVP in U history, Whalen led the Gophers to their sole Final Four appearance in 2004. She won WNBA championships with the Lynx in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017, and Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016. She retired from the WNBA with 2,345 assists (third in WNBA history) and as the league’s career leader in games won (323).
Despite these accomplishments, Whalen has always been quick to deflect praise and talk about other players and the importance of team. “I think her humility will serve her well,” says Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, of Whalen’s deadpan humor and knack for spreading around the credit.
Asked what kind of player she’ll recruit to the Gophers, Whalen says, “Hard-nosed, tough kids, which I would say is how I’ve played the game. I wasn’t highly recruited in college, and I just had to work my way through that. So definitely maybe the kids who have been overlooked, who have some stake in the game, who you’d do everything for every year, and they’d do everything for you.”
The Gophers finished fourth in the Big Ten last year with a record of 24-9. In April, coach Marlene Stollings resigned to take over at Texas Tech, and athletic director Mark Coyle hired Whalen, whose retired jersey number 13 hangs from the Williams Arena rafters. The team has never approached the success achieved during the 2003-2004 season, and hasn’t been back to the Final Four since.
The hope, of course, is that Whalen’s demanding nature and incredible track record will add up to success for the team she now leads. Her first practice as head coach was marked by the same enthusiasm that marked her playing style. Back pats, smiles, laughs, and high- and low-fives were the order of the day, not to mention a low-burn intensity where much of the practice concentrated on Whalen’s newly instilled and, by the early looks of it, ferocious woman-on-woman (not zone) defense.
Many of the Gophers players she’s coaching grew up idolizing Whalen, and the expressions on the players’ faces at practice—of concentration, respect, focus, and admiration—say it all. “She’s a player’s coach; she can easily relate to us and what we’re going through and how we’re feeling,” says sophomore guard Destiny Pitts, who was named Freshman of the Year in the Big Ten.
Almost 20 years after she first arrived on campus, when she biked to practice and classes in all weather for her sports management degree, Whalen’s 2003-2004 Gophers remain the gold standard. Though the program has known success, including 10 NCAA tournament appearances, it has not reached the top tier. Now the point guard is back where it all started, and determined to make Minnesota proud.
“I want to do well for the state of Minnesota,” says Whalen, who is married to U alumnus and golfer Ben Greve (B.S. ’05). She regularly gets back to her hometown to visit friends and family, including her parents, Neil and Kathy Whalen, and her four younger siblings. “I’m from Hutchinson,” she says. “I have a lot of pride in where I’m from, and it’s driven me my whole career, my whole life. And I want to do well for the people that I grew up with, for sure.”
Jim Walsh (B.A. ’90) is an award-winning author, journalist, columnist, and songwriter from Minneapolis.