By Seth Dahle
From the outside looking in, Dan Hughes is a mastermind at developing players and putting them in the right spot; however, his direction and leadership also placed a lasting impact on his staff, notably assistant coaches who went on to take bigger roles.
While Hughes’ resume is certainly rich in history, his basketball connections and WNBA head coaching tree are especially eye-grabbing.
Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello, who served five seasons (2005-2009) as an assistant under Hughes at San Antonio, said the new Storm head coach put a lot of faith in his assistant coaches.
“Dan was a head coach that gave his assistants much responsibility in the Xs and Os of the game,” pointed out Brondello. “This opportunity to be hands-on from day one aided my development as a coach and one I am forever grateful for.”
Even in tough situations, Hughes did what was best for the team and organization. In 2007, he tore his Achilles mid-season in San Antonio, forcing Brian Agler, now head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks, to step in as interim head coach. Once Hughes was cleared to return near the end of the campaign, he saw fit for Agler to finish the season to avoid disrupting the Stars’ rhythm.
“This typifies who Dan is – high on character, selflessness and teamwork,” commented Brondello. “His goal was to always do what was best for the team, even though he had full right to return to his position. He still was the leader of the team but allowed Brian to run the show. I am sure not many others would of done the same thing.”
Hughes’ trust in his assistants allowed them to flourish. With Brondello (Phoenix), Agler (Los Angeles), and Cheryl Reeve (Minnesota), who just recently directed the Lynx to their fourth league title, Hughes has helped three former assistants become WNBA head coaches.
Agler, who coached the Los Angeles Sparks to a WNBA title in 2016, played collegiately against Hughes while attending Wittenburg University in the Ohio Athletic Conference. Agler said Hughes came from a “very disciplined basketball program” that was “very defensive oriented.”
“Dan’s offensive philosophy has turned into a hybrid from philosophies that he has been exposed to over the years,” commented Agler. “He has a very sound philosophy defensively based on principles he played under in his college days.”
Agler remembers hiring Hughes in 1996 for a basketball operations position with the Columbus Quest of the now-defunct American Basketball League (ABL).
“He [Hughes] came and watched almost every practice, and soon after he told me was going to resign due to his desire to continue to coach,” recalled Agler. “He reciprocated by hiring me to be his assistant in San Antonio in 2005.”
In his final season at Cleveland in 2003, Hughes led the Rockers to the Eastern Conference Semifinals with Reeve by his side as his assistant (the two are seen below). Since then, Reeve has been an assistant at both Charlotte (2004-05) and Detroit (2006-09), before taking over Minnesota (2010-present), where she’s notched two WNBA Coach of the Year awards.
Hughes gave a lot to the game as both a coach and general manager, and now he’s about to give more as he sets his eyes on his latest challenge – returning the Storm to championship contention.
He obviously saw something in the Seattle Storm. It’s not like Hughes had to come out of retirement. With two WNBA Coach of the Year awards and the third-most wins in the league at 237, Hughes’ resume seemed fruitful enough to rest on the shelves amidst admiration and content.
But the itch to return to the coaching realm and develop players has always been there for Hughes, and that desire certainly escalated when he saw the chemistry on the team.
“They seem offensively to enjoy playing with each other,” said Hughes. “But I also identify with the personnel. It was a situation as I looked at these players and wanted to coach these players that I saw. They were players that got my coach’s juices going.”
To Hughes, the Storm is well on its way to greatness with back-to-back playoff appearances and a mix of seasoned veterans and upcoming superstars; however, the team far from its potential.
“This is not a team that’s in the beginning stages of rebuilding to a championship,” said Hughes. “It is not to the championship form, but it’s along the way.”
A defensive-minded coach, Hughes saw areas where the Storm needed to improve.
“There is work to be done defensively,” said Hughes. “I think there’s work to be done in some time and score situations. They got to become a team that learns how to win the competitive games that the WNBA has.”
After initially retiring from coaching in 2016, Hughes strung together what he called a “year of giving back to basketball.” He served as an on-air commentator, conducted basketball clinics in Canada and Mexico and addressed coaching groups all across the country. Then, Hughes got a phone call from Storm President and General Manager Alisha Valavanis.
“It wasn’t something I set out to do, but it was something that undeniably was the next thing I wanted to do with basketball,” said Hughes. “I talked to [my family] and evaluated the situation of where I was. It’s just kind of funny how life takes you to a moment that everybody agrees that this was something that was a fit.”
The 2018 campaign will mark Hughes’ 17th season in the WNBA, and with that experience comes accolades and achievements, including 10 postseason appearances and one WNBA Finals appearance with San Antonio in 2008.
With 10-time All Star Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart, who nearly averaged a double-double in 2017 with team highs of 19.9 points and 8.7 rebounds per contest, Hughes will have a solid foundation in Seattle to reboot his WNBA coaching career. The Storm rallied to notch its 13th playoff appearance in 2017, averaging a franchise record 82.6 points per game and connecting on a league-best 7.3 three’s per outing.
WORD ON THE STREET…
“Dan is an icon of women’s basketball. It is no surprise that many of his assistants have gone on to be head coaches in our league. As much as he is a great coach, he is an even better person.”
- Sandy Brondello, Phoenix Mercury Head Coach
“Dan is a great individual and communicates very well. His basketball coaching style should give the Storm organization an extremely strong foundation to build on.”
- Brian Agler, Los Angeles Sparks Head Coach