Phoenix Mercury confident in decision to hire Nate Tibbetts despite widespread criticism

New Phoenix Mercury coach Nate Tibbetts, here with his wife, Lyndsey, and twin daughters, Londyn and Jordyn, said he understands the backlash surrounding the hiring, but he also believes he can be a good fit for the organization. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Mercury)

PHOENIX – Nate Tibbetts has zero experience coaching women’s basketball. Now, he reportedly is the highest-paid coach in WNBA history.

The juxtaposition of those two facts did not sit well with many who wondered why diversity did not play a prominent role in the final decision.

“I think it’s a valid question,” Mercury general manager Nick U’Ren said Friday at Tibbetts’ introductory press conference. “The response and the question is not one we take lightly. We know as we run a WNBA organization. Diversity and opportunity are critical. I would say our process, our candidate pool and our finalist pool all reflected that.”

Tibbetts’ resume, although impressive, had many questioning the Mercury’s decision to hire him as the head coach. Previously an assistant with the Orlando Magic, Tibbetts has been involved in the NBA for nearly two decades. His basketball knowledge is undeniable, but this was an entirely new challenge.

Tibbetts is an outlier.

Half of the league’s coaching spots are held by former WNBA players, and every other head coach has experience coaching women’s basketball. Nancy Armour, a prominent USA Today columnist, wrote that the team’s leadership “could have just had T-shirts made up with a middle finger on the front. The effect would have been the same.”

The sentiment was echoed by many, with Tibbetts’ lack of experience coaching women’s basketball a focal point of the debate, alongside discussions about gender and race.

“I don’t really live online,” Tibbets said. “Me speaking to the players and them welcoming the way that they have, that has made me not worry about things that they’re not worried about to be completely honest.”

U’ren added, “Nate’s vision for how he wants to lead this operation and organization, both now and moving forward, align so well with what we’re looking for in a head coach.”

Although Tibbetts has never coached women’s basketball, it’s worth noting his family connection. Growing up, he would watch his late father, Fred Tibbetts, coach girls high school and women’s college basketball. In over 30 years, Fred won 11 state championships in South Dakota.

“Being in those practices with him over the years, and seeing how he treated his players is going to have a big impact on how I’m going to treat our players here,” Tibbetts said.

Nate was emotional when talking about his father. “I really looked up to him, and I know he’s smiling down,” Tibbetts said.

Diana Taurasi, the all-time leading scorer in the WNBA, said she was thrilled when Tibbetts got the job.

“I know Mat (Ishbia), Josh (Bartelstein) and Nick (U’Ren) are going all in,” Taurasi said Thursday at a “Read to the Final Four” event at a Phoenix middle school. “I think you could feel that with the hiring of Nate.”

Taurasi also pointed out that the team had been in a similar situation before. When Paul Westhead took over in 2005, he had never coached women’s basketball. Two years later he led the team to a championship. “I have pretty good experience in that realm,” Taurasi said.

Despite finishing the season with a record of 9-31, the X-Factor and players rallied behind interim coach Nikki Blue, with many advocating for her to stay.

Taurasi was one of those players that supported Blue.

“She has a wonderful way of being in the gym and with players,” Taurasi said. “She has a great future in coaching because that’s her passion and her love.”

“Being an interim head coach is really difficult,” U’Ren said. “You could ask me a hundred questions about Nikki and a hundred times I’m not going to tell you anything negative. Ultimately, it was about what Nate brought, not what Nikki or any other candidate didn’t have.”

Muffet McGraw, the former coach of Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team, was among those who questioned the hire on social media.

“We need more male advocates and more women leaders who do the hiring,” she wrote on X. “Women are judged on their success, men on their potential. It’s time we started believing in the potential of women.”

Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon, who just won back-to-back championships, was the highest-paid coach in WNBA history, earning $1 million per year. Hammon was an assistant coach alongside Gregg Popovich in San Antonio for eight seasons. Tibbetts’ salary has not been disclosed, but it has been reported that he will earn more than Hammon.

Tibbetts understands he has much to prove in order to silence the critics. As he takes the reins of the Mercury, the organization has expressed its full support, hoping that Tibbetts can lead the team to its fourth championship.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Sebastian Sanchez expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Sanchez is a content creator and is working toward a job as a beat writer.