Professional Basketball

Hughes leaves lasting legacy as coaching career ends

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After the final buzzer sounded at the AT&T Center in San Antonio giving the Phoenix Mercury an 81-65 victory over the San Antonio Stars Sunday night, Dan Hughes walked off the court for the final time as a WNBA head coach following his 564th game.

“On behalf of everyone at the WNBA, I would like to congratulate you on a tremendous career. Your dedication to the WNBA and its players at Cleveland, Charlotte and San Antonio, have helped the league reach this historic 20th season. Your legacy of coaching, mentorship and friendship has reached beyond your own team and will continue to influence the game of basketball for decades to come,” said league president Lisa Borders in a video.

Hughes coaching legacy began in the 1977-78 season as a graduate assistant at Miami of Ohio and continued through the 1980s and early 1990s as assistant coach for the men’s programs at Mount Union College, Baldwin-Wallace College and the University of Toledo. He began his transition to the women’s game as an assistant for the University of Toledo’s women’s team during the 1996-1997 season, but after two decades as an assistant, becoming a head coach was still elusive.

“The thing that is amazing is that I coached men for 20 years, and then got into coaching women. I spent one year in college and what I wanted was a chance to be a head coach,” recalled Hughes.

In 1997, he interviewed for an assistant coaching position with the Charlotte Sting after his father heard about the creation of the new WNBA.

“When this really started, my father heard about it. He called me and said, ‘I think this is a really good fit for you.’ Honestly, it got me thinking about it. Then I researched it and interviewed,” said Hughes.

While Hughes didn’t get the position in 1997, he interviewed for the position again in 1998 and was hired.

“That was a real learning process, to learn the uniqueness of how these players make their livings, their backgrounds, getting their respect and that type of thing,” Hughes said.

He was on the sidelines as an assistant during the 1999 season, which analysts believed at the start of the season would have the Sting competing for the Eastern Conference title. After a lackluster 5-7 start and an 82-56 loss to the Cleveland Rockers, Meadors was relieved of her duties on July 11, 1999 and Hughes was named interim coach for the remaining 20 games of the season.

“Bob Bass was the GM of the Hornets and they wanted him to oversee the Sting. He said, ‘I’ll do it if you’ll hire Dan.’ He had gotten to know me because I’d come over early in the mornings and

watch tape,” he said. “I owe him a lot. That was like a trial period for me. I look back and if those 20 games don’t go well, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Hughes first head coaching game came at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C., on July 12, 1999, a 74-71 loss against the Mystics in front of 12,124. His first win came four days later in a 56-50 victory over the Orlando Miracle at the TD Waterhouse Center in Orlando.

The Sting finished the season with a 15-17 record which included a 1-7 stretch to close out the season with most of the games played on the road. The record tied the Detroit Shock, who they faced in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, then a one-game playoff. The Sting beat the Shock 60-54 on the road and then faced the New York Liberty during the conference finals. After winning the first game in the best of three series, the Liberty won the series. The playoff win at Detroit was the team’s first playoff win and their third playoff appearance.

After the Cleveland Rockers finished the 1999 season with a 7-25 record and failed to make the playoffs, they fired head coach Linda Hill-MacDonald after their final game on August 21. They hired Hughes on October 19, 1999.

“I absolutely loved the first year that I was there,” said Hughes. “We only won three games on the road but we were really good at home and finished 17-15. Midway through the season, Eva Nemcova, my leading scorer, goes down with an ACL tear, and we survived it. All of a sudden, by the end of the year, we’re back in the playoffs, we advance, we’re playing in the Eastern Conference Finals.”

The Eastern Conference Semi-Finals were expanded to a best-of-three series that year and the Rockers advanced past the Orlando Miracle two games to one. Like the previous year with Charlotte, Hughes squad faced the Liberty in the Eastern Conference Finals, won their first game at home and then lost the two on the road.

“I remember my first dealings with Dan were as an opponent,” said Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, who was an assistant under Hughes during the 2003 season in Cleveland. “I was at Charlotte and he had just come from Charlotte and had gotten the head coaching job in Cleveland. Having to play against his teams, Dan’s teams were always incredibly well prepared, defensive especially.”

The 2001 Rocker team was dominant sporting a 22-10 regular season record and only losing two home games but lost the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals to Charlotte.

“In 2001 they had an unbelievable defensive team that was pretty dominant. That was because of what Dan built. He had some great players in Penny Taylor, Helen Darling, Mary Andrade, Rushia Brown and Chastity Melvin. Back then, defense is what the league was about,” said Reeve.

Hughes garnered Coach of the Year honors in 2001. “If you look at that second team, it probably still holds most of the defensive marks. Of course we had the longer shot clock and the talent has

gotten better every year. We had injuries the third year, we dropped off but the fourth year we came back into the playoffs,” he recalled.

At the beginning of the 2003 season, the WNBA allowed non-NBA owners to invest in teams. It was a shakeup as Miami, Utah, Portland and Orlando franchise owners divested themselves of their WNBA teams, forcing them to either close or relocate. After the acquisition of LeBron James as the top overall draft pick in 2003, Gordon Gund, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Rockers, took the opportunity to divest himself of the Rockers franchise. Even with a fan-driven “Save the Rockers” campaign, the team was folded on December 26, 2003.

“I loved my run in Cleveland,” said Hughes. “It didn’t make sense, but you know what had happened. I thoroughly loved Cleveland. It was just a great experience. My family was there. I’m a Cleveland guy. It was a great fit for me so it was sad, but it was reality.”

He was offered the chance to serve as an NBA scout in 2004 but with his daughter finishing her senior year in high school it would have taken him away from the family for the whole year, so he decided to wait. Instead, he became the Mid-American Conference assistant commissioner for men’s basketball operations.

“I knew that I wanted to coach again. I don’t think I knew how bad until I went into the job as administrator. There was nothing wrong with that except that I could hardly stand not coaching. It literally made me irritable. I knew something wasn’t right and I wasn’t done,” said Hughes.

He didn’t have to wait long to resume his coaching career. The San Antonio Stars hired him as head coach and general manager on January 4, 2005. The team had finished the previous season with a 9-25 record. Dee Brown apologized for his team’s 6-18 start and then resigned on July 30, 2004 with assistant coaches Shell Dailey and Vonn Read sharing head coaching duties for the remainder of the season.

Hughes had his work cut out for him in San Antonio. His first season ended with a 7-27 record with definite room for improvement. They finished the 2006 season with a 13-21 mark.

“We went through a couple dry years trying to build to it, then we got to a point where we went through about a seven year period. Every year we would not get picked to be one of the better teams and every year we’d be one of the better teams,” said Hughes.

Sophia Young was selected in the 2006 WNBA Draft and then Becky Hammon was acquired in a draft-day trade in 2007. Hughes also picked up Tully Bevilaqua, Chamique Holdsclaw, Vickie Johnson, Delisha Milton-Jones, Tangela Smith, Ruth Riley and Jia Perkins in free agency or through trades during the next few seasons to bolster his team with veteran talent.

“I’ve always been about building with younger players, creating salary cap room, and then adding the right veterans,” he said.

The turnaround began in 2007 when his squad finished with a 20-14 record, second place in the Western Conference, but lost in the Conference Finals to Phoenix. Hughes was again named the WNBA’s Coach of the Year.

Building from that, the Stars went 24-10 in 2008, finished first in the Western Conference, and made it past the Sacramento Monarchs and Los Angeles Sparks in the playoffs, only to get swept by the Detroit Shock in the WNBA Finals.

“The highs were watching us build a team that wasn’t a championship team, but was a playoff team six out of seven years. Every year we would not get picked to be one of the better teams and every year we’d be one of the better teams. The lows for me really were that it didn’t result in a championship. I would have loved to have given a championship to that 2008 team, which was probably the best I ever had.”

He took the 2010 season off to focus on general manager duties, handing off the head coaching responsibilities to Sandy Brondello, but resumed his dual role in 2011. He announced earlier this spring that the 2016 season would be his last and that Ruth Riley, a former player, would take over as general manager.

“Being GM and being head coach for a decade, it was long enough to do both jobs. My son, Bryce, just graduated from high school and signed to play basketball at the Air Force Academy. Honestly, that’s what drove it. I’m young enough to do something that might fight in so that I can enjoy the family parts of my life as well as have another basketball experience. I’m not quite sure what that basketball experience is going to be, but that’s what drove it. The timing seemed right,” said Hughes.

He leaves behind a legacy that is not steeped around the win-loss record but in development of people. Many of his former players or assistant coaches have taken coaching jobs elsewhere and had success. Some of the notables include: Brian Agler, who coached the Seattle Storm to the 2010 championship and is currently the head coach of the L.A. Sparks who hold the second seed in this year’s playoffs; Sandy Brondello who coached the Phoenix Mercury to a championship in 2014 whose squad is in the eighth seed this year; Cheryl Reeve whose Minnesota Lynx team has won three championships in the past five seasons and hold the top seed this year; and Becky Hammon, who transitioned into an assistant coaching position for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.

“First off, he’s just a stand-up guy. He really cares about his players, their well-being and their families. He’s real personable. It makes it easier playing for somebody who you know cares deeply about you,” said Minnesota Lynx guard Jia Perkins, who played for Hughes in San Antonio from 2011-2015. “He’s one of the best at teaching the game. I learned a lot from my time with him. We had a good relationship.”

Jayne Appel-Marinelli has played for Hughes for the past seven seasons and also retired on Sunday following the loss to Phoenix.

“He’s a thinker. He puts in the work ahead of the game and during the game and really sees the game as a whole,” she recalled. “I think he understands how players think and that kind of helps put the pieces together.”

New York Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer, whose Detroit Shock team defeated Hughes’s San Antonio team in the 2008 WNBA Finals said, “He’s always been a very structured coach in his whole career. The bottom line is that his teams always play hard.”

Also in that series was Reeve, who was then an assistant for Laimbeer. Her Minnesota Lynx team defeated San Antonio in the Western Conference Semi-Finals in 2011 and 2014.

“Dan challenges you in ways that make you better. No question that Dan Hughes has made me a better coach,” said Reeve who served as his assistant in Cleveland in 2003. “I learned a ton from him. Some of our schemes today and even my terminology, even though it was one season, come from Dan. He has impacted me through many many years.”

When asked how people should remember him years down the road, Hughes reflected, “I would hope that people will say that I did it in a way that made sense to players, made sense to fans, made sense to administration. I would like to be remembered as somebody who got out of his team what he should have gotten out of it, and he did it in a way that was classy.”

With two coach of the year awards, over thirty people having coaching careers of their own, numerous WNBA playoff appearances and the only coach to bring three franchises to the playoffs, you would think that he wouldn’t have any regrets. But he does. Just one.

“The only one regret is that I would have liked to have given a championship, especially to Cleveland, but the relationships have been amazing. Very very few regrets, just a championship here or there,” he said. “I was a high school coach who taught U.S. history just to get to coach after school. So to be able to make a living doing that, I’m thankful.”

For those of us who have watched Dan Hughes coached teams during his career – so are we. Thankful and grateful.

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