June 7, 2023
‘He’s got his big-boy pants on’: Inside the transition from Mike to Eric Thibault in Washington
A foundation of trust has made the transition smooth
WASHINGTON — Washington Mystics general manager Mike Thibault has a new seat for home games this season. After 55 years spent in coaching, the last 20 of which came in the WNBA, he stepped aside as the Mystics’ head coach in the offseason. So, instead of patrolling the sideline in front of his team’s bench, he sits with his wife Nanci on the opposite sideline at center court. Sometimes he can even have a midgame snack as he watches his team and his son Eric, who succeeded him as head coach.
During the Mystics’ season opener at home on May 19, Eric glanced over in Mike’s direction just once, he told reporters afterward. “[Mike] was yelling, and I think I was yelling the same thing,” Eric said. “So some things don’t change.”
In fact, a lot feels familiar for the Mystics this season, as it’s been a largely smooth transition from Mike to Eric. As forward Myisha Hines-Allen told The Next when asked to differentiate between the Thibaults, “One’s younger, one’s older. One has gray hair, one doesn’t. One wears glasses, one doesn’t.”
There’s good reason for that similarity: Eric grew up watching Mike’s teams, and over Mike’s 10 seasons leading the Connecticut Sun and 10 more in Washington, Eric progressed from a practice player to an assistant coach and, eventually, the associate head coach in Washington. Mike gradually gave him more responsibility, to the point where Eric sometimes ran the Mystics’ practices and called plays in games, and Eric also led the team five times on an interim basis in 2021 and 2022.
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In part because of those experiences, Eric has been in command from the start this season. He is secure in his identity, telling reporters on May 16, “I don’t think I have to set a tone of how I’m different or this is my team now. I think I need to do things the way that makes sense to me and that feel[s] natural.” Many of those things are similar to how Mike did them, not only because Mike mentored him but also because the Mystics didn’t need a makeover, not with their top five scorers from 2022 all returning.
In his press conference before his debut as the permanent head coach, Eric lightly bounced his legs under the table. He admitted to feeling some nerves. “I think it’s part of [the game],” he said. “Had it when I was an assistant, have it now. … But that’s what’s exciting about it. You know you’re in something important.”
Regardless of those nerves, players say that Eric’s confidence has been evident all season, which rubs off on them.
“Listening to E, it’s like he’s got his big-boy pants on, if that makes sense,” veteran guard Kristi Toliver said on May 1. “He’s speaking things with his chest because he’s the boss, he’s our leader, and he understands the responsibility and the task at hand.” Toliver played for the Mystics under Mike from 2017-19 before returning this season, and she is also an NBA assistant coach in the offseason, both of which give her a unique insight into the coaching dynamics this season.
“I expected more jitters out of him. He was real calm,” two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne said after the season opener against the New York Liberty. “… He was certainly ready for this moment … He made it look easy.”
One example of that came in a third-quarter timeout as Eric spoke quickly and decisively, gesturing for emphasis and not hesitating to deliver his message.
“I thought his demeanor and his body language was really good,” Toliver told The Next postgame. “The messages were simple, to the point, and that’s what you want. Keep the game as simple as possible, put players in positions to have advantage and stay out of the way, and he did a phenomenal job.”
Despite following the winningest coach in WNBA history, Eric is not afraid of failure. He is eager to try things and see what works and what doesn’t. For example, after an unsuccessful coach’s challenge on opening night, he half-jokingly told reporters that he was trying to be the first WNBA coach to succeed at it because this is the first season coaches have been able to challenge calls. He has also talked about experimenting with three-big lineups — something Mike used only rarely in his last three seasons — once Hines-Allen can play more minutes coming off of offseason knee surgery.
“Eric has his own thing, and it’s not a clone of his dad,” assistant coach Shelley Patterson, who has known Mike and Eric for over a decade, told The Next. “He is his own guy and very smart, highly intelligent, really thinks the game and puts a lot of pieces together.”
(Even Hines-Allen, who rattled off only superficial differences between the Thibaults at first, later said that Eric “tries to put his spin on the game now,” though “it’s not way different.”)
Eric has also been eager to collaborate, getting input from his assistant coaches and from players — and from his sister Carly Thibault-DuDonis, the Fairfield head coach and a recent guest at practice. Late in a loss to Connecticut on May 23, he shouted to his players as they awaited a Connecticut free throw, “Rebound and timeout,” wanting to draw up a play. But when a player on the court disagreed, he allowed them to push the ball after the missed free throw, which led to a quick basket for Delle Donne.
“He trusts everybody, and I think that builds a lot of camaraderie,” first-year assistant coach Ashlee McGee told The Next. “… He allows everybody to speak, he allows everybody to put their thoughts out there, and then we work on problem-solving together.”
Based on that openness and the longstanding relationships that Eric has with most of the roster, the players have a lot of trust in their rookie head coach. Hines-Allen pointed out how, unlike in most coaching changes, Eric has coached her throughout her six-year WNBA career and knows her strengths and weaknesses much more than a newcomer would. For guards such as Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Eric was their position coach for several seasons.
“We have that relationship,” Walker-Kimbrough told The Next. “That relationship has built the foundation and the trust is there … Whatever he needs, he’ll tell me directly, like straightforward, and I can go and have that dialogue [with him]. And it’s so easy being a player [for] a coach like that.”
As associate head coach and former Mystics center LaToya Sanders quipped, “You can still have a sense of comfort with Coach E like you do with Coach T.”
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Even with that trust and comfort level, though, Eric knows he has much to learn. He has never been a permanent head coach at any level, and he is still finding his rhythm with this year’s team and determining how the players work best together. The Mystics are 3-3 this season, sporting the WNBA’s second-best defense but a sputtering offense, and Eric will need to pull the right strings to get the offense in rhythm.
He is bound to make mistakes, and he volunteers blame in press conferences when he believes he made an ill-advised decision. So far, his self-critiques have included his substitution patterns and rotations as well as his play calls to get Delle Donne and guard Ariel Atkins easier shots.
Crucially, as Eric learns on the job, Mike has given him space to try things, fail and adjust. At practices and shootarounds, multiple players confirmed, Mike sits in a chair on the sideline, often with his hands behind his head and his legs outstretched and crossed. He watches, but the man whom everyone still calls Coach T doesn’t say anything. “It’s just still a little weird” not to hear his voice, said forward Tianna Hawkins, who played for Mike for seven seasons. “But, I mean, I like it.”
Mike and Eric also made a deal before the season began that shows the general manager’s commitment to empowering the coach: If Mike gestures for a coach’s challenge in the first half of a game, he owes Eric coffee. And, after Eric got his first win in the season opener, it was Mike who handed him the game ball — a near-literal passing of the torch.
“He handed over his keys. So it is Eric’s team,” point guard Natasha Cloud told reporters. “I know that he is confident in that and we are confident in that. … It’s hard to walk away from your team, and [for] someone that’s coached his entire life, I can only imagine how he’s biting at the nails here and there … But he’s done a really good job [as] not only a GM but a dad of just backing off and giving [Eric] the full keys to the car, and that’s a really cool thing to see.”
As Cloud alluded to, though, the coach in Mike still emerges during games. He still mutters under his breath — or a little more loudly — when he disagrees with calls, regardless of whether he’s sitting courtside with Nanci or, more recently, in overflow seating next to the media. “He can’t help that,” Walker-Kimbrough said. During at least one game, Mike held a folded-up piece of paper in his hand, just like he used to as head coach.
Opposing coaches, too, have noticed how smooth the transition has been in Washington. New York head coach Sandy Brondello tipped her cap to how Eric coached against her team, telling reporters, “Even though I hate losing, I’m happy for Eric.” Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said that it “seems like a natural transition” for Eric and joked that she envied Mike’s newly laid-back lifestyle. And Dallas Wings head coach Latricia Trammell echoed Cloud, calling it “absolutely incredible” how Mike has been “unhooking the leash and just letting Eric be Eric. I think it says a lot about Dad.”
As Mike and Eric have adjusted to new roles this season, they have both experienced career milestones, starting with Eric’s first win. When the buzzer sounded on that victory, Eric knew a water bath was coming. He held his then-four-month-old son, Dean, for as long as possible to stave it off, but eventually, his players soaked him.
“Drenched. Drenched,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “[We were] just so excited.”
Hines-Allen added, “It doesn’t matter who it’s going to: You tell me a water bath, I’m going in on them.”
“Nobody had the decency to take the bottles out of the fridge for a bit beforehand,” Eric lamented later.
Less than a week later, on May 25, Mike traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, as his 1993 Omaha Racers, a now-defunct men’s minor-league team, were inducted into the city’s Sports Hall of Fame. That day, Eric told the Mystics players about the Racers, and he showed up to his media availability wearing a shirt commemorating the Racers’ 1993 championship.
“When I was a kid, it was the Omaha Racers, then the Chicago Bulls, then everybody else,” Eric said, listing off two teams that Mike coached and Eric watched up close. “So just want to give a little shoutout to the Racers today.”
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Fast forward 30 years and, instead of Eric watching Mike’s Racers, Dean makes occasional appearances at the Entertainment and Sports Arena to see Eric lead the Mystics. On those nights, there are three generations of Thibaults in one place, coming together around family and basketball.
These are still the early days of the Eric Thibault era in Washington, so there have been and will inevitably be bumps along the way. But so far, it’s been a strong blend of old and new, the father and the son still working together but finding their groove in different roles.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided and Power Plays.