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    Friday, February 03, 2023

    Mike Thibault steps down as Mystics coach with son Eric taking over

    Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault, right, sits with his son, assistant coach Eric Thibault, left, during a WNBA game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena. Mike Thibault is retiring as head coach of the Mystics and his son, Eric — who has been an assistant with the Mystics for a decade — will take over as head coach. Mike Thibault will continue in his role as general manager. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

    Mike Thibault started to feel it last season, an elevated sense of appreciation. He began to relish little moments a bit more – time with a former player, a visit to a certain arena, the quiet moments on the bench before a game. Deep down, Thibault knew even before fully understanding – his days on the bench were numbered.

    The winningest WNBA coach of all time has decided to retire to the front office, handing the clipboard off to his son Eric, 35, after 20 seasons, 379 wins and a WNBA championship. Mike, 72, will hold onto his general manager responsibilities and continue to lead the franchise from the front office while Eric gets the head coaching job he's been groomed for most of his life.

    "I think that Eric and our staff can provide them a better coaching job than I can right now, and I mean that with all sincerity," Mike Thibault told The Washington Post. "I'm at the point after this many years, 50-something years, that it takes a lot of energy on a daily basis to be the head coach and GM. I didn't think I could give full service to both."

    This has been a yearly evaluation for some time, and Thibault, who also spent time in Connecticut as head coach of the Sun, came close to hanging it up after the 2021 season. The Mystics had missed the playoffs for just the second time during his tenure, and it was a grueling season marred by injuries and a team chemistry that was just off. Thibault couldn't go out like that.

    There was a thought that 2022 could be the end, but Thibault certainly didn't want a farewell tour. He was more concerned with winning a title with a championship-caliber roster. But there were little signs that the time might be right. Eric was handling more responsibilities in addition to his role as de facto defensive coordinator.

    Mike has always planned to pass along the keys to the car with a full gas tank, and this is a roster with a core of two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne, two-time All-Star Ariel Atkins, the league's assist leader Natasha Cloud, all-WNBA forward Myisha Hines-Allen and No. 3 overall pick Shakira Austin. The Mystics also hold the No. 4 overall pick in the 2023 draft. Additionally, Mike's wife Nanci has had some health issues in recent years.

    All of that equated to the perfect time to leave the sideline.

    "I think I needed to feel it most inside that I wasn't going to have a regret doing it," Mike Thibault said. "You never say never when you walk away from coaching, but I'm feeling pretty comfortable with it. Satisfied.

    "It's kind of one of those things where you have a job, but it doesn't feel like a job. I've always said to myself when it started to feel like that too much, maybe it's time to walk away. And I was starting to get that feeling a little bit more."

    Mike talked to ownership and colleagues from both the WNBA and NBA about the right time to leave coaching. Owner Ted Leonsis said in an email that the majority of their conversations focused on ensuring the team was set up for future success, including succession plans and front office organization. Leonsis noted that he and fellow owner Sheila Johnson will be more involved day-to-day.

    Mike offered to give up his perch of an office, with the window that overlooks the practice court at Entertainment and Sports Arena, but there haven't been any takers yet. He has always enjoyed the general manager responsibilities – college scouting, free agency, trades, the draft and player evaluation. Thibault plans to travel to most road games and looks forward to limited media sessions.

    Still, at 72 years old, Thibault doesn't expect to sit in that GM chair for another 20 seasons. He's been grooming assistant general manager Maria Giovannetti to assume that role, and she recently received the title of senior vice president of strategy and vision. Mike envisions a future with Eric and Giovannetti working side-by-side to guide the organization forward.

    Atkins noted Mike's openness as a coach and the rare quality to be completely honest – good and bad – with players. She also pointed out that he's been able to not only bring in quality athletes, but players with character.

    "It was definitely bittersweet," Atkins said about getting the news. "I know that he has put his all into coaching. It's definitely hard knowing thinking that I was going to be playing for him for at least another few years.

    "But I'm really happy for him. You can ask anyone, he's one of the greatest minds to come through the game, be it a GM or coach. . . . Thankful to have started my pro career under his tutelage."

    LaToya Sanders will be promoted to associate head coach and another assistant will be added, but the rest of the staff will remain the same. Mike will have the final say on personnel but expects to make decisions with Eric and Giovannetti.

    Leonsis has said in the past that he entrusted the organization to Thibault, and Eric was put through a full series of meetings before being given the job. There is no WNBA requirement to interview minority candidates and Eric was the only person to interview for the job.

    "It's going to reflect on me," Thibault said. "If we don't do what I think we're going to do, I'm going to get blamed for it anyway. "

    Mike did wonder what it'll be like watching games from the stands alongside Nanci after all this time. He already admits to being stressed out watching their daughter Carly Thibault-DuDonis coach at Fairfield and there were similar feelings watching Eric coach a few games when Mike has been out the last two years.

    Eric now takes over a position that he's been training for most of his life. He was working with Connecticut Sun players when Mike was a coach and Eric was still in college. He was hired as an assistant when Mike went to Washington and has been in charge of running practices, player development and coached two regular season games when Mike was unavailable. He was named associate head coach four years ago.

    "As a young coach who can identify more with players today, I think that's a big plus," Mike said. "He's on the cutting edge of all the technology and data that's available. But day-to-day, all the players he's worked with here have improved.

    "When five other teams in the league over the last two years have wanted him, I think that would be a clue."