When WNBA coaches trade the coach’s box for the broadcast booth

Turn on a TV and hear the coaches you saw

If you turned on a random game during the 2019-20 women’s college basketball season, the odds were good that a current or former player or a current WNBA coach would be on the broadcast. More former players are entering broadcasting every year, according to Minnesota Lynx assistant coach Katie Smith. A former player herself, Smith worked her way into the broadcast booth nearly a decade ago by writing to television networks expressing interest, and several of her coaching peers have followed her in the past five years.

Some WNBA coaches take on 10-, 15-, or even 20-game broadcast schedules, like Smith did before scaling back a few years ago. Others, like Connecticut Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller, call only a game or two each year. Seattle Storm head coach Dan Hughes has been in broadcasting the longest of the coaches I spoke with—calling 10 to 15 games per year for about 20 years—while Dallas Wings head coach Brian Agler just started this year, calling seven games for Texas Tech. What they all share is an appreciation for broadcasting as a way to stay around the game and keep learning in the offseason.

Hughes and Miller emphasized that, to them, broadcasting is a labor of love.

“Broadcasting to me is pure fun,” Hughes said. “I do it as much for therapy to me, because I enjoy it so much. I don’t have hobbies. I listen to a lot of music, but I don’t have a hobby that that I can kind of lean on. … This gives me the joy of having a great hobby.”

Miller added, “I just fall in love with it when I have my rare opportunity to do it and love the preparation that goes into it and being able to share basketball knowledge … Every time you do it, it’s certainly contagious. You just, you have that adrenaline, you have that thrill. And at the end of the two hours of the game, I’m always craving more.”

When they first started calling games, several coaches-turned-analysts reached out to mentors or peers for advice. Agler consulted full-time analyst Debbie Antonelli, Hughes, and Washington Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault, who has called about a dozen games a year for five years. Naturally, Mystics associate head coach Eric Thibault, who has called games for Georgetown and the Big East Network over the past few years, has also leaned on his father for advice, along with his brother-in-law Blake DuDonis and former Mystic Kara Lawson.

For his part, Mike Thibault cited a longtime tri-sport broadcaster as an inspiration.

“I’ve always liked broadcasters that could be kind of what I would say economical and yet teach the game,” Thibault said. “… There was a guy on the West Coast when I was young, a guy named Bill King … He did the Warriors, the Raiders, and the Oakland A’s, and he was play-by-play without a color person. And he was so good at painting a picture on radio for people that they knew what was happening in the game without [him] just constantly talking and you [feeling] like, ‘Geez, just shut up.’ And I always admire people like that.”

As they got more opportunities to call games, these WNBA coaches found that broadcasting complemented their coaching roles by allowing them to scout prospects and learn from other coaches in person.

“We’re going to be out watching games anyway, whether it’s in person or on TV or on film,” Agler said. “… [Broadcasting] gives you an opportunity to get out and see even more games in person, gives you a chance to watch film on a lot of teams. So it’s beneficial from our standpoint of evaluation of talent.”

Agler and Mike Thibault both prepare for broadcasts by watching about three games’ worth of film on a team, and Thibault then writes scouting reports “as if I was going to coach against both teams.” Analysts also often attend both teams’ shoot-arounds, which allows them to watch the players up close, talk to the coaches, and observe teams’ varied pregame approaches. Eric Thibault said the opportunity that shoot-arounds provide to learn from college coaches is one of his favorite parts of broadcasting.

“[We get to] watch how they prep, get to pick their brains a little bit about their game plans and … what they expect to see and then to see it play out,” he explained. “When we’re coaching, we only get really one side of the story ahead of time and then the rest is guessing.”

On game days, the routine for broadcasters follows a similar pattern as for head coaches, with one notable distinction. “I still have to get dressed up,” Mike Thibault said. “I still go to the arena a couple hours early to prepare … I still try to get a workout in. I think the only thing that’s different is, I don’t have the same stress when the thing is over [because] I didn’t win or lose.”

Hughes agreed, noting that the day before a game is much more enjoyable when he is broadcasting rather than coaching. But that’s not to say there are never any nerves as an analyst. “When the broadcast gets close and it’s that time for you now to do something that maybe is not your true comfort zone, it’s a secondary job for you, I think we all feel the butterflies,” Miller said. “… So those return and it feels like your gameday butterflies.”

The reasons that these coaches get nervous on air seemingly fall into two categories: inexperience (at least relative to their coaching experience) and the relatable fear of making a mistake on national television. Agler said that his early jitters this season subsided as he developed rapport with his play-by-play partner, Cindy Brunson, and the broadcast began to feel like “just having a conversation about the game.” Katie Smith and Mike Thibault both mentioned the fear of calling a player by the wrong name—a low point for any broadcaster.

And for Smith, the end-of-game interview with the standout player is always nerve-wracking because it requires a lot of multitasking: broadcasters must simultaneously listen to the player’s response, formulate additional questions, and heed instructions their producer is giving into their earpiece. “That’s the one part, whenever they would say, ‘We don’t have a postgame interview,’ it’d be like, Whew!” Smith admitted.

Despite that feeling of relief, Smith said she hopes to hone her postgame interview skills in future broadcasts. Her peers shared similar stories about aspects of broadcasting that took a while to learn. For Mike Thibault, it was speaking to the camera, and thus to the audience, in the rare moments when the camera is pointed at the broadcast booth instead of the court. Hughes had to learn how to practice like he performed: he was a natural on live television, which he said is “just like talking to your team,” but at first totally flubbed rehearsals, which are more choreographed.

And Miller and Eric Thibault both identified mastering the rhythms of a broadcast as something that takes practice. “What isn’t as natural is not over-talking and not being afraid of silence,” Miller said, “and the understanding of exactly when the play-by-play needs you into the conversation and when at times is it better to just let the viewer watch.”

Being concise on air is a lesson Eric Thibault has also applied to coaching. “You’ve got to get in and get out,” he said. “… Get your point across as clearly as you can [and] don’t belabor it.”

For others, the things that translate from the booth to the court are more tactical. Mike Thibault likes to watch college coaches’ baseline out-of-bounds plays, which happen more often at the NCAA level than the WNBA level. Even the way other coaches explain something or the phrasing they use might teach Thibault something.

“No matter how long you’re in this business,” he said,” you’re always trying to learn something from somebody else … you just want to make sure that you haven’t left anything unturned.”

Similarly, Miller appreciates the extra time a college coach might have during the season to talk shop or discuss a draft prospect at a shoot-around compared to on the phone. “There’s no doubt that doing some analyst work broadcasting in the offseason creates opportunities that I think are positive for head coaches and GMs around the league,” he said.

While these WNBA coaches have all enjoyed their work as analysts, there is one role that none of them expressed a desire to try. “I don’t think I’d be a good play-by-play person,” Agler said. Mike Thibault added, “I have a lot of respect for the play-by-play people, all that they have to commandeer to broadcast. They’re like traffic cops sometimes.”

Hughes and Miller have also worked games from the studio, which Miller described as an entirely different experience than calling games live. “It’s a whole different anxiety level,” he said, describing the “paranoia” he feels about whether he is looking at the correct camera. But, with the Connecticut Sun relatively close to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, Miller has been able to improve at studio work, and feel more relaxed, with practice.

Some readers may notice that Smith is the only woman among the coaches I interviewed. That is because, to my knowledge, she is the only current female WNBA coach who also broadcasts. But she said she hasn’t experienced gender bias in the television industry and pointed instead to the relatively low number of female head coaches in the WNBA. And even without many female coaches crossing over, Smith said, the influx of current and former players means that there are a lot of women in the booth. “I’m familiar just with a lot of women doing it … especially in women’s basketball,” Smith said.

Smith took her current job with Minnesota after New York decided not to renew her contract as head coach last October. She said she always knew she wanted to keep coaching, but it is also important to her to “keep [a] foot in the door” with broadcasting because of the learning opportunities it offers. Similarly, Agler hopes to call games in more conferences in future winters. His offseason home in Ohio is well positioned for that, with schools from four different Power 5 conferences within driving distance.

Miller lives in another basketball hotbed—Bloomington, Indiana—in the offseason and would also be interested in broadcasting more games—if it fit alongside his WNBA responsibilities. As head coach and general manager of the Sun, Miller said he “intentionally backed off” broadcasting this past winter because the Sun had so many free agents. Similarly, Hughes called fewer games than usual this offseason because of his responsibilities as an assistant coach for Team USA.

Those Team USA responsibilities are now slated to continue into 2021 after the coronavirus forced organizers to postpone the 2020 Olympics. But don’t expect Hughes to stop broadcasting any time soon.

“No matter how many games I’ve been around, coached or broadcasted or whatever, there’s still a uniqueness to every time I … [am] involved in a game and that’s great beauty and joy for me,” he said. “To be honest with you, and I don’t tell the people I work for, but I’d do it for nothing, just because I have that much fun.”

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