In WNBA, Phoenix Mercury coaching hire by Mat Ishbia nonsensical


The Phoenix Mercury’s leadership could have just had T-shirts made up with a middle finger on the front. The effect would have been the same.

A team that has Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, two of the greatest players in the history of the game, and that’s won three WNBA titles and played for two more, is now being coached by a journeyman NBA assistant with zero experience in the women’s game. Not as a WNBA assistant, not at the college level, not even for funsies at the local junior high.

But Nate Tibbetts is a “Girl Dad” everybody, so that makes it all OK!

Not content with the skewering they were getting on social media following the leak of Tibbetts’ hiring, the Mercury decided to go full dumpster fire and confirm the news with a cringe-worthy post. Less than an hour before Game 4 of the WNBA Finals tipped off, no less. If new Mercury owner Mat Ishbia and Nick U’Ren really have this dim a view of their team, and the women’s game in general, they should do everyone a favor and put the team up for sale. Now.

It shouldn’t be that hard to treat women as equals to men rather than objects to be patronized or, the other default, pitied. Yet here we are. Again.

What’s particularly disheartening about Ishbia and U’Ren’s moves, aside from (waves hand in the air) everything, is they arrived in Phoenix with such promise. Earlier this month, Ishbia said he would invest more than $100 million in a state-of-the-art practice facility for the Mercury and adjoining headquarters for them and the Suns.

“We’re going to do it right, and we’re going to do it fast,” Ishbia said.

This, however, is as far from right as it gets.

It’s possible Tibbetts will end up being a terrific coach. He’s apparently well thought of in the NBA, though not enough to get a head coaching job. But he doesn’t know the women’s game, and it’s an insult to everyone to suggest that doesn’t matter.

Basketball is basketball, but there are different rules between the WNBA and the NBA. Tibbetts also has no familiarity with the personnel, on his team or any other. As a coach, he’s got no experience with the different challenges the women’s game will present. Challenges like pregnancies. Child care. Injuries that are more likely to occur in women athletes than men.

If there was no one else out there who was qualified, the Mercury’s move could be understood. Accepted even. But there are plenty who are, and anyone who cares about the game could easily have given Ishbia and U’Ren a list.

Instead, they looked around and decided a guy with no experience was better than a woman with years of it, for no other reason, apparently, than Tibbetts is a guy.

READ MORE: Mercury owner can learn a lot from Mark Davis about what it means to truly respect WNBA

“We need more male advocates and more women leaders who do the hiring,” former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said on X. “Women are judged on their success, men on their potential. It’s time we started believing in the potential of women.”

For decades, women’s sports have been run by men who thought they were doing the girls some big favor by giving them a place to play. First-class facilities, professional support staff and savvy marketing campaigns – what would women need with that? A pat on the head will suffice!

Thankfully, most people have woken up to the fact that these are world-class athletes, every bit the professionals as LeBron James and Stephen Curry. And the smartest owners have realized there’s a boatload of money to be made, if only you treat your women’s team the way you would your men’s.

It’s no coincidence the teams in the WNBA Finals were Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty. Aces owner Mark Davis and Liberty owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai have poured money into their teams, building dazzling practice facilities and, you guessed it! Hiring the best coaches.

All Becky Hammon has done in her first two years in Las Vegas was bring Davis back-to-back championships.

Men can coach in the WNBA. Plenty do. As McGraw pointed out, 50-plus years after Title IX, more than 60% of women’s teams are coached by men.

But it has to be the right man. Not some guy whose main qualification seems to be that he’s a “Girl Dad.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.


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