March 3, 2022
Why the Tina Thompson era ended at Virginia
And an early look at who might take the job
The Atlantic Coast Conference has its first head coaching opening of the offseason. After four straight losing seasons, Tina Thompson is out as at Virginia.
Multiple sources had told The Next that the firing of the WNBA legend was expected. Virginia announced the move at 1:55 p.m. Thursday, less than 24 hours after the Cavaliers were ousted in the first round of the ACC Tournament by Wake Forest.
Virginia said that a national search for Thompson’s replacement will begin immediately.
“Unfortunately, we have not experienced the kind of success this program has come to expect and deserve,” Virginia AD Carla Williams said in a statement. “I am thankful for Coach Thompson’s efforts and I wish her the very best.”
One source close to the athletics department at Virginia said that it wasn’t just Thompson’s on-court shortcomings that cost her the job, but she also “lacked allies” within the department and “failed” to connect with fans. Another source familiar with the situation simply said, “it’s time.”
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Thompson has one year remaining on a contract that she signed in 2018. Some of the specifics of the deal are unclear, as is if she will be paid for the remaining year. When Thompson was hired, it was reported that her contract paid $325,000 annually in base pay and $325,000 annually in other compensation.
When she was hired, Thompson had just three seasons of coaching experience, working as an assistant and then as the associate head coach at Texas from 2015 to 2018 under Karen Aston.
In Thompson’s first campaign at Virginia, she inherited a squad that went 19-14 (10-6 in the ACC) in the previous season and won an NCAA Tournament game under the direction of Joanne Boyle, who retired at the end of the season. Thompson also inherited a stellar player in Jocelyn Willoughby, who went on to be a first round WNBA draft pick.
Willoughby, along with other holdovers from the Boyle-era and recruits Thompson brought in, were not enough. The ‘Hoos went 12-19 and 5-11 in ACC play in Thompson’s first season, and 13-17 and 8-10 in the ACC in Thompson’s second season.
In Thompson’s third year, Virginia got off to a 0-5 start before it canceled the season. The Cavaliers didn’t exactly cancel their season totally due to COVID-19 though – like Duke did. It was largely because they didn’t have enough bodies. A news release from the athletics department on the cancelation said: “Injuries have also left the Cavaliers with a depleted roster impacting the ability to safely practice and compete.” Many interpreted that as a failure by Thompson to recruit enough talented and able players.
This season, Virginia limped to a 5-22 finish. While the ‘Hoos won two of their last three regular season games, that wasn’t enough to save Thompson’s job. Virginia also forfeited two games this season – one to Louisville and one to Notre Dame. One source said the Cavaliers forfeited their game against the Cardinals because of a lack of flight attendants required for a chartered flight. Virginia officially chalked it up to “mechanical and aircraft crew staffing issues.”
Wednesday night, following Virginia’s 61-53 loss to Wake Forest, Thompson said: “I’m proud of my team. It’s really, really tough to kind of have the bumps that we’ve had during the season but continue to show up and continue to fight. We just wish that this one would have ended a little differently. I kind of feel like we ran out of time.”
Virginia declined a request by the AP to make AD Carla Williams available earlier this week to answer questions about Thompson’s job status. When the AP asked Thompson about her future, she said, “I mean, it’s not a discussion that I need to initiate. It’s not my job. I’ve never led that way. Whatever’s in front of me is what I’m focusing on.”
In all, Virginia went 30-63 in Thompson’s four seasons. They went 15-37 in ACC play, and 1-3 in ACC tournament games.
Prior to Thompson’s arrival, Virginia had a total of two losing seasons since 1978 under the direction of Boyle and Hall of Fame coach Debbie Ryan.
Virginia also failed to attract top talent under Thompson. From 2012 to 2017, Virginia landed 12 ESPN Top 100 recruits. Since Thompson was hired, they’ve signed one, Shemera Williams, who transferred to USC after one season.
Before she became a coach, Thompson was one of the WNBA’s most decorated players. She helped power the Houston Comets to four straight championships from 1997 to 2000. She was a nine-time all-star, an eight-time all-WNBA selection, and has been on each of the league’s anniversary teams. She won two gold medals, is in both the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and her No. 14 jersey was retired by USC.
While Thompson was an exceptional player, things never went right for her in her first stint as a head coach in Charlottesville.
There are a few Virginia alums and those with connections to the school — from Tammi Reiss to Tonya Cardoza to Angel Elderkin to Tim Taylor — who are leading mid-major programs at the moment. There are others — like Brooke Wyckoff, Erin Batth and Rebecca Tillett — who seem ready to take over an ACC team.
Whoever Williams taps as the next coach at Virginia has a monumental task in rebuilding what was once a proud program that played in a trio of Final Fours.