MINNEAPOLIS — Lindsay Whalen took the stage in the middle of Minnesota's Williams Arena where she once wowed crowds with slick passing and fearless shooting, wearing a gray suit and the typical laid-back off-the-court demeanor that has helped make her one of the most approachable and popular sports stars in the state.
"This is cool," Whalen said, flashing a slight smile as she stepped behind the podium and let the excitement and the reality of her new job sink in.
Whalen's new team will undoubtedly discover more intensity once practices start.
"The Gopher women's basketball team has to be prepared for a very intense and competitive player," said Seimone Augustus, her WNBA teammate of eight years and counting with the Minnesota Lynx.
The Gophers are more than eager to experience it for themselves.
"She knows how to win. She's a champion. She knows how to get us there. I'm so positive that she's going to bring in great people," said guard Gadiva Hubbard, who gathered in the team meeting room on Thursday for the surprise announcement that Whalen, the homegrown point guard who led the Gophers to their only NCAA Final Four appearance in 2004, would be their new head coach.
"She has the 'it' factor, and you all know what I'm talking about when you're talking to her and spending time with her," said Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle, who hired Whalen just three days after predecessor Marlene Stollings left for Texas Tech. "She exudes confidence."
Whalen will play for the Lynx this spring and summer, her 15th season in the league, before turning her full attention to running the program she was largely responsible for lifting out of the Big Ten's abyss.
"The university changed my life," Whalen said on Friday. "I want them to have that same experience. I want the women on the team to have that same feeling of running out into this building with 14,000 fans screaming and chanting, and then going to the Final Four."
She has long held the ambition of being a head coach, even at her alma mater, but not before her 36th birthday. The Lynx season opener is May 20. The WNBA Finals are scheduled this year to be done by Sept. 16. The Gophers begin fall practice in October.
"Timing is such a crazy thing. You never know. I didn't think it would be while I'm still playing in the WNBA, but what an opportunity that is," Whalen said.
Whalen was given a five-year contract, with an initial base salary of $400,000. While she's still under contract with the Lynx, according to a memorandum of understanding for the agreement provided by the university, her position won't be considered full time. Raises subject to Coyle's approval are scheduled to boost her salary to $547,391 by the fifth year, and her contract includes standard bonuses for academic and on-court performance by the team.
Coyle long kept Whalen on his short list of candidates for the job, as any AD does, hardly deterred by her lack of experience as a head coach or dual duty as a professional player.
"She is the Mount Rushmore, right? She'll be able to get into any living room," Coyle said. "The recruiting's the backbone of any program."
Whalen and the Lynx have won three WNBA championships in the last six years. She'll play the 2018 season for sure and assess her playing career on a year-by-year basis after that. Whalen, who won Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016, decided this winter she's done with international competition.
The Gophers reached the NCAA Tournament only once in program history until Whalen arrived from Hutchinson, a small town about an hour's drive west of Minneapolis, and came to inspire a generation of young girls in Minnesota to love the sport.
After the Gophers reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament her junior year, she returned from a broken hand to help lead them to the program's only Final Four appearance as a senior. In 10 career NCAA Tournament games, Whalen averaged 20.2 points while the Gophers went 7-3. In the 15 seasons since she left, the Gophers have been back to the NCAA Tournament only six times, going 4-6. They went twice in four years under Stollings.
"There are a ton of great players in this state. We're going to do our best to make sure those players are wanting to stay home," Whalen said.