Win numbers 1-201 have all come in Connecticut

Mike Thibault of the Connecticut Sun is only the second coach in WNBA history to break the 200-win barrier. He'll be going for 202 as the Sun meet the Phoenix Mercury tonight at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Mike Thibault of the Connecticut Sun is only the second coach in WNBA history to break the 200-win barrier. He'll be going for 202 as the Sun meet the Phoenix Mercury tonight at Mohegan Sun Arena. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

It was late after a Connecticut Sun game last season, the casino bustling like Times Square, when a happenstance meeting of a few media members and part of the Thibault family arose in front of the Ben & Jerry's.

Note the words "part" of the Thibault family. While Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault's wife, Nanci, and daughter, Carly, were out with a few other family friends making merry after a victory, it was learned a few days later of the coach's postgame whereabouts:

"I went home and had a sandwich," he said.

Coach T, a man just as happy with Wheat Thins and Diet Coke as a steak at the Ritz, said some of it for effect. (And it did draw a few chuckles). But what he didn't say was that he went home not just for ham on rye, but to watch film of the Sun's next opponent.

It's a pretty good illustration of his drive to bring a championship - that elusive championship - to Mohegan Sun. And also why he became the second coach in WNBA history to win 200 career games last week.

Did you know that? Bet you didn't. It passed with little fanfare, perhaps because the team was on the road at the time. Or perhaps because Thibault's excellence here in Connecticut has been more postscript than headline because the Sun's two bids at the WNBA championship fell agonizingly short.

Tonight, though, Thibault goes for career win No. 202 against Phoenix at the World's Most Beloved Arena. That would leave him nine short of tying Van Chancellor for the most wins in league history. Turns out Jeff Van Gundy and Jerry West were justified when they called Sun CEO Mitchell Etess to recommend Thibault for the job 10 years ago.

"Two hundred wins? Phenomenal achievement," assistant coach Scott Hawk said. "I don't think I've ever done 200 of anything."

Except this, Coach Hawk: You've sat alongside Thibault, with fellow assistant Bernadette Mattox, for all 201 wins.

Frankly, it's time the state awakened. The man can coach. He's got the Sun in position to win the regular season title here for the fourth time. They have a legitimate chance to win a title this year. And next. And the year after that.

"How many people have done it?" Hawk asked rhetorically after Thursday's practice. "How many people have won (200 games?) How many people have been able to maintain the consistency to even have the opportunity? It really narrows the list."

Thibault arrived here in 2003 and took the erstwhile (and forever .500) Orlando Miracle to the conference finals. Then to the finals the next two years when Nykesha Sales' missed 3 and Lindsay Whalen's turned ankle derailed what could have been two ensuing ring ceremonies.

Yet as quickly as the window opened, it closed. Most times in sports, coaches never get the opportunity to open it again. Thibault has. He rebuilt the Sun, even in the face of losing Katie Douglas and Erika DeSouza.

"The definition of a good coach at the pro level entails a lot of different things," Hawk said. "Roster management, dealing with adults in a changing environment, an X-and-O element, dealing with injuries and a consistency of personality: being who you are and having it work.

"Coach has shown to be really good in each of those areas over 10 years," Hawk said. "It's not easy to have to make all the decisions, knowing the balance between immediate and long term. Coaches who are always getting ready for next year don't get to coach next year."

Thibault's "next year" came last year when rumors of his demise swirled from 2010, the second straight summer of no playoffs. Twenty-one wins last year. They'll exceed that in 2012.

"Coach T is able to see the game and see advantages other people don't see," Asjha Jones said. "Seeing a matchup ahead of time and knowing how it will play out. He's not afraid to try different things. In order to be really good, you can't be scared. He's not afraid to make changes. We've changed our whole team. People criticized him for it, but in the end it made us better."

Players across the league sing hosannas. Sue Bird. Tamika Catchings. Candace Parker. Others say that Thibault is the reason - and the only one - that Connecticut is such a successful franchise. This is not a haven for free agents. Uncasville's not so lovely this time of year in a tale of the tape against New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle and other WNBA outposts.

"He saw things in me I didn't think I could do," Jones said. "Coming out of college, in my head, I thought I was slow, couldn't jump and wasn't athletic. It was said to me a few times. When I came here, I didn't think I could guard small forwards. He said, 'you can do that.' He believed in me when I didn't believe in myself."

So give the man more than a golf clap tonight when he's introduced. He's going to win more games than all the others sooner or later. It'll make for an even better resume the day the championship arrives.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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