Lindsay Whalen already has proven that you can go home again.
The first time was 2010. Whalen was already a WNBA All-Star when the Lynx made the trade to bring her back to Minnesota, where everybody knew her name. A former Hutchinson High and Gophers star, Whalen anchored a Lynx team that won four titles in seven years. The fourth came 13 months ago on the elevated floor at Williams Arena, with her banner hanging from the rafters above, in the same arena where she will make her coaching debut for the Gophers on Friday.
As the laconic Whalen might put it, that worked out well.
And now, another homecoming. Seven months after being named head coach, after having ended her 15-year WNBA career, after countless speaking engagements and appearances this summer, after weeks of fall practice … the Whalen Era will begin.
“I always thought I’d work my way back here,” Whalen said in her new office. A few feet away from where she is sitting is a table adorned with four WNBA title rings and two Olympic gold medals, the sort of bling that could bedazzle any recruit. “Early. Even when I was just an intern on Pam [Borton’s] staff, working on finishing my degree. I always thought, ‘You know? It’d be pretty cool to do this one day.’ ”
Friday night’s game against New Hampshire is an announced sellout. The U has been working on this since the day Whalen signed on. It will be the biggest Williams Arena crowd ever to watch the Gophers women play, including that heady spring back in 2004 when Whalen and the Gophers were pushing to the NCAA Final Four.
Think of it as an official welcome back for one of the state’s most popular people.
“I’m so proud of the way fans are going to greet her,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “First time as head coach. Filled, completely. That tells you what people think about her. That tells you about her legacy.”
‘A lot of pressure’
But what of that legacy? If Whalen thought it was hard to stay out of the spotlight as a player, this is new territory. There are few places Whalen can go where she’s not recognized, greeted, plied for autographs and photo ops. This is fine, she insists, but intense.
The other day she and her husband, amateur golfer Ben Greve, were at banquet for the Minnesota Golf awards. Attending as Greve’s plus-one, she was actually the one.
“They were excited,” she said. “People were coming up, wanting pictures. This has gone to a new level. But that’s part of the gig.”
Whalen and Greve recently moved into their new house, which has — by design — become a refuge. Whalen retreats there after long days with her husband, their goldendoodle Henry and solitude.
“Someone told me to set up your house so it’s your getaway,” Whalen said.
But what she can’t escape is her history of success and the expectations that come with it.
“There is a lot of pressure,” Fred Hoiberg said.
Hoiberg is the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. As a player, he was a part of the 2003-04 Timberwolves team that made it to the Western Conference finals. (When, he said, he watched a whole lot of the Gophers women’s team that was making a run of its own.) Before that he owned Ames, Iowa. He grew up, starred in high school and won a state title there. He stayed there to become a standout at Iowa State. In 1993, he got write-in votes for mayor.
“You care so much for the people, the fan base, the people who supported you your whole life,” Hoiberg said. “But I never would have taken the job at Iowa State if I didn’t think I could be successful. And I’m certain Lindsay is the same way. Look at her past. To get where she got with her career, you have to have both talent and work ethic.”
Hoiberg returned to coach at Iowa State for five seasons, from 2010 to 2015, that included four trips to the NCAA tournament and one trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
“I’ve always admired Lindsay,” Hoiberg said. “She always did things the right way. You know she’s a student of the game.”
Like Hoiberg, Whalen has never been a head coach. Like Hoiberg, Whalen surrounded herself with people she could trust in hiring a staff. Like Hoiberg, who brought much of Flip Saunders’ playbook with him to Iowa State, Whalen has borrowed from her WNBA coaches, Reeve and Mike Thibault with the Connecticut Sun.
“Lindsay has game,” said Penny Hardaway, the Memphis native and former NBA star who is in his first year coaching his alma mater, Memphis. “She’s going to be fine. There is a little pressure. But there is a comfort level as well. You’re at home. People know you’ll give it your all. I suspect the most pressure she’ll feel is pressure she puts on herself. Tell Lindsay I’ll be watching. And I’ll be rooting for her.”
And Whalen? Not surprisingly, she simply can’t wonder about any potential downside.
“No, no, no,” she said. “What I did as a player is already done. There is no changing that. If I’m not successful, then it just didn’t work out. But I’m not going to worry about that. I wasn’t going to let that stop me from taking my dream job.
“This,” she said, pointing to walls of her office adorned with playing career mementos, “won’t change. Now, my coaching résumé, my legacy? That’s to be determined. And that’s exciting.”
The other day, for the first time, Reeve went over to the U to watch practice. It was surreal, she said, watching Whalen, arms crossed, whistle in her mouth, running the show. For Reeve, it was powerfully emotional, too.
“I think of it like this,” Reeve said. “You have the Lindsay Whalen Book. This is another chapter. And I hope it’s a long, long chapter.”
‘Lindsay Whalen texted me?’
Gophers assistant Danielle O’Banion — who was an assistant when Whalen played at the U — is most struck by how much Whalen hasn’t changed since her playing days.
Like she did as a captain, Whalen treats people in the program like family. Everyone Whalen deals with gets a nickname. Birthdays are remembered.
“That Lindsay is still here,” O’Banion said.
And the competitiveness? She’ll be expressive, but she also brings the stone face that anyone who has ever played with Whalen knows. Gophers assistant Kelly Roysland knows it. She was a freshman guard when the Gophers went to the Final Four.
“I remember her as a team-builder,” Roysland said. “Now, she’d give me a look when I’d miss a behind-the-back pass from her. And I see both as a coach. She hasn’t changed. She has stuck to her core values.”
Whalen went into this determined to be herself — the first piece of advice Reeve gave her.
And she has. After a week of practice, Whalen went to the podium and joked they were still undefeated. A week later, asked how she’d handle coaching on the Barn’s elevated floor, she said she’d stand for the first 20 years, then use a stool for the next 10 or 15.
But some things did have to change. She figures to be a players’ coach, but she has to maintain authority. Her door is open, but there has to be some distance, too; as a player, there were things she could discuss with Lynx assistant coach Shelley Patterson but not with Reeve.
“I have to be organized and focused every day,” Whalen said. “When I was a captain here, it’s just different. Now, it’s like, I’m in charge.”
Roysland said she’s surprised how quickly Whalen has found her coaching groove. Whalen’s strength is dealing one-on-one with players.
“She’s very individual-specific,” Roysland said. “And that’s important to kids nowadays. Ultimately the players have so much respect for her because she has competed, and won, at such a high level.”
Said O’Banion: “Sometimes when you’re a gifted player, and you understand the game at a high level, there’s a concern there would be a communication disconnect. She has been able to communicate much better than I thought she would.”
Whalen’s career accomplishments have opened doors on the recruiting trail, where she and her staff have landed four-star recruits Mercedes Staples of Centerville, Utah, who is a freshman this season, and Jasmine Powell of Detroit, who will be here next year.
“It was like, ‘Lindsay Whalen texted me?’ ” Staples said. “She has my number? It was crazy. Playing for someone fresh out of the WNBA? How could you say no?”
Guard Kenisha Bell, coming off a stellar junior season, could have gone elsewhere as a graduate transfer for her senior season. But when Whalen was hired?
“I wanted to stay,” she said. “And it’s been fun. She’s giving me examples of what could translate to the next level.”
Whalen inherited a team that made it to the second round of last spring’s NCAA tournament. The cupboard is not bare.
Brenda Frese coached Whalen for one season, when she was a sophomore. The Gophers went from 8-20 to 22-8 and to the NCAA tournament before Frese left for Maryland. Now she’ll be coaching against her former player.
“Full circle,” Frese said. “I’m so happy and proud for her. What separates her is her humility, genuineness and ability to connect with people. Those things will separate her as a coach.”
It all starts Friday, in front of a full house.
“Lindsay is 100 percent Minnesotan,” Hoiberg said. “Just like I was 100 percent Iowan. It’s pretty cool at the end of the day.”