The Washington Mystics ushered in a new era on Wednesday, but with very familiar faces sticking around. Mike Thibault stepped down as head coach, a position he held for the past decade. Eric Thibault takes over the reins of the coaching staff while Mike will remain as the Mystics’ General Manager. Eric has been an assistant coach on Mike’s staff since the duo came over from Connecticut in 2013.
After a lifetime of following his dad to practices, Eric followed Mike into coaching during college. Eric did not originally go to school with coaching in mind. But Mike said he knew Eric would be a good coach when he spent his summer break from the University of Missouri working with Mike’s Connecticut Sun team.
“I had thought at one time about trying to talk him out of coaching and that didn’t go real well,” said Mike during Wednesday’s press conference.
“You didn’t try that hard,” Eric quickly corrected.
Eric joined the Mizzou basketball program as a practice player then as a graduate assistant. He worked for Kim Barnes Arico at St. John’s as a grad assistant before his first full assistant coaching job at VCU in 2012-13. Then, he joined Mike’s staff in Washington the following season.
“I talked to a couple of our players that I coached Asjha Jones and Kara Lawson,” Mike recalled about when he first wanted to hire his son for the Mystics. “I said, you know, ‘how do you think [hiring my son] will work?’ They said, ‘you’re crazy if you don’t hire him, he’s going to be great.’ And they were right.”
The Mystics also promoted two other mainstays in the organization: Maria Giovannetti and LaToya Sanders. Giovannetti, who joined the Mystics in 2010 as the Director of Youth programs, gained the new title of Senior VP of Strategy and Vision in addition to her current position of Assistant GM. The promotion gives Giovannetti more basketball-related responsibilities, such as salary cap management and roster construction. Sanders moves one seat over on the Mystics’ bench from Assistant Coach to Associate Head Coach, the position Eric had for the last four seasons. She continues her 10-year run of making the Mystics better, especially defensively, as a player and coach.
Washington hopes its continuity will give Eric a runway into the job. Despite potential opportunities to coach other WNBA teams, this will be Eric’s first head coaching job at any level. He has served as interim head coach on five occasions when Mike has missed games. But coaching your own team is a very different challenge than being an assistant.
The Mystics seem to have the infrastructure to support the first-time head coach with Mike remaining as GM, a stable coaching staff that has worked together (except one yet to be named addition), and a roster full of veterans who know everyone involved. Eric hopes to keep doing the things he’s doing now, including getting on the court with the players.
“I’m not gonna be able to help myself from getting my hands dirty with a little bit of everything,” he explained when I asked him about participating in drills. “It’s important, at least right off the bat for me to have strong input on the court into what we’re doing and how we’re going to do things. But when we have somebody like Latoya coming up on the staff. It would be crazy for me not to have her get more involved and develop as a as an on the court coach, especially with things like our defense.”
While Eric Thibault is just beginning to leave his mark on the Mystics, Mike Thibault exits the coaching world with a world-class resume. It’s important to note that Mike is not going anywhere, as he immediately said in his opening remarks. But his 43-year professional coaching career deserves a moment of reflection.
In most of Coach T’s stops, he got to coach legendary players. He started as a scout for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979 when the franchise drafted Magic Johnson. Then, he served as an assistant coach and Director of Player Personnel for the Chicago Bulls when the franchise drafted Michael Jordan. Later, he would trade for the pick that became Tina Charles as the head coach of the Connecticut Sun. Afterwards, he orchestrated the Mystics’ most important transaction ever by trading for Elena Delle Donne in 2017.
“They’re bigger, faster, stronger, particularly in this league,” said Mike when I asked him how basketball players have changed over his coaching career. “I think the great players are always that way, but the skill sets have obviously changed. I think what’s changed all of sports, and this is not on the court or on the field is social media and I think that there’s such more much more scrutiny of everybody.”
He leaves the Mystics’ bench as the WNBA’s winningest coach with 379 wins. He made the playoffs in 16 of his 20 seasons as a WNBA coach, which is the most playoffs appearances by a WNBA coach ever. Washington had won just one playoff series in the 15 seasons preceding Thibault’s arrival. They’ve won six series since, including the 2019 championship.
Simply put, it’s hard to imagine the Mystics in their current state without Mike Thibault at the helm. His aggressive team building and comprehensive player development system has turned the franchise into one of the league’s best. With Mike in the front office, continuity on the coaching staff, and Elena Delle Donne on the court, Washington has good reason to believe that Eric Thibault can build on his father’s work.