November 20, 2022
‘Nothing different’: Why new Mystics head coach Eric Thibault is ready to hit the ground running
Thibault grew up immersed in the game, now gets first head-coaching job
On Wednesday, Mike Thibault entered the Washington Mystics’ press conference in a jovial mood. Wearing a black suit, light blue shirt and darker blue tie, he opened his remarks by thanking the crowd for attending and the team’s ownership group for its support over the years.
“My next task in all this,” he said, “is to introduce you to the new head coach of the Washington Mystics, Eric Thibault.”
Mike Thibault officially retired as the Mystics’ head coach on Tuesday, but he will remain the team’s general manager. Eric Thibault moved from associate head coach to head coach, and LaToya Sanders and Maria Giovannetti also earned promotions.
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Eric hit all the right notes in his opening statement, which included a mention of Brittney Griner’s wrongful detainment in Russia and many thank-yous. He didn’t seem nervous, speaking to the media just as calmly and confidently as he had as the Mystics’ associate head coach and, for five games in 2021 and 2022, acting head coach. His final thank-you was to the man seated to his left and looking on proudly:
“I’m gonna thank my dad, who just created an environment here where everybody has a chance to grow and to be themselves … More than anything else, I’d like to handle myself with the type of class he’s shown for 55 years, which is an unbelievable number.”
When Eric was born in 1987, his father had already made several stops on his coaching journey. Mike started coaching at the high school level when he was in college, then moved on to the junior college and NAIA levels. Between 1979 and 1986, he worked for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA, and he joined the Calgary 88s in the World Basketball League in 1988.
The first team of Mike’s that Eric remembers was the Omaha Racers in the Continental Basketball Association, for whom Mike was the head coach and general manager from 1989-97. “I’ve had a front-row seat to [Mike’s coaching] my entire life going back to Omaha, Nebraska,” Eric said at Wednesday’s press conference.
“He’s grown up in pro basketball,” Mike added, “… and so his life’s experiences as a coach are certainly way ahead of where I was at the same time.”
In 1997, the Racers folded, and Mike became an assistant coach for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks from 1998-2002. He then got his first head coaching job at the professional level in the WNBA, leading the Connecticut Sun from 2003-12 and the Mystics ever since. He has also had stints with USA Basketball on both the men’s and women’s sides dating back to 1993.
Eric went down the basketball path early: Mike often rocked an infant Eric to sleep while he watched games, and several years later, Eric was drawing up plays and pantomiming the Bulls’ starting lineup introductions.
“Coaching always seemed like a fun job,” Eric said of growing up watching Mike work. “And you see coaches sometimes who seem miserable or like they’re at the end of their rope, and everybody has those days, but it always seemed fun. Being around a team, being in that environment, I got to be around a lot of great coaches from a really young age.”
Beyond his father, Eric’s biggest coaching influences include Terry Stotts, an assistant with Mike in Milwaukee; Bernadette Mattox and Scott Hawk, Mike’s assistants in Connecticut; and Kim Barnes Arico, for whom Eric worked as a graduate assistant at St. John’s from 2010-12. Eric also built his basketball resume by serving as a practice player and graduate assistant in college at Missouri, helping the Sun with player development from 2008-12, and working as an assistant coach at Virginia Commonwealth from 2012-13.
Mike had known that Eric would be a good coach since Eric started working with the Sun in college. When Mike accepted the Mystics job after the 2012 season, there was an opening to hire Eric as an assistant coach, but Mike paused, wondering whether Eric’s youth would make it hard for players to accept him. So he asked Sun veterans Asjha Jones and Kara Lawson for their opinion.
“I said, ‘How do you think this will work?’” Mike recalled. “… They said, ‘You’re crazy if you don’t hire him. He’s going to be great.’ And they were right.”
Eric credited the Mystics’ leaders at the time, Ivory Latta and Monique Currie — both of whom are older than him — with accepting him right away. He has been with the Mystics for the past 10 seasons and was promoted to associate head coach in January 2019.
Even before that promotion, though, Eric believed that he was ready to be a head coach in the WNBA. He had interviewed for a few positions already, and he naturally started to think like a head coach.
“My first focus is always doing my job and being as good of an assistant as I could be,” he said. “But you do think about, ‘Okay, tough loss last night … What would I say if I was walking in and in charge of the meeting?’ … And so once I kind of had a clearer picture of how I would handle those moments, I knew I felt more ready [to be a head coach].”
The Mystics have had a succession plan for a while, though the job was never promised to Eric. And, until recently, Mike wasn’t ready to give it up. But this offseason, he began to think that Eric would do the job better than he could.
“I was ready for Eric to be the head coach. I was ready for Maria to take on more of the [general managing] responsibilities,” he said. “And I can be a sounding board for them. But it’s kind of like, let them do their thing now.”
Even though Eric was the only candidate interviewed for the job, Mike insisted that the decision was about finding the best candidate, not nepotism, pointing out that his reputation as general manager depends on hiring a good coach. “He’s ready for this,” Mike said. “And I think he’ll be a star at it.”
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Under Eric, not much is expected to change. He’ll lead a team that finished fifth last season and has legitimate championship aspirations in 2023. The continuity he’ll experience is rare for a new head coach, and it sets him up to hit the ground running.
The Mystics’ style will remain the same: predicated on sharing the ball, spacing the court, and, as Eric put it, “being really tough to play against every night.” The plan for 2023 is still to pick up the pace, improve offensively and continue their staunch defense after ranking last in the WNBA in pace, seventh in offensive rating and first in defensive rating in 2022. And they will continue to emphasize player development, which is something Eric has led and will continue to be hands-on with even as the head coach. (In fact, his introductory press conference came after a morning of on-court workouts with players.)
“At the center of everything we’ve done is our player development, and that’s going to continue to be the core of what we do,” Eric said. “Everybody that walks in this door here should feel like they have a chance to get better, whether they’re a rookie in their first training camp or a vet.”
With Mike staying on as general manager, he, Eric and Giovannetti will continue their daily conversations about the draft and the roster. That roster has continuity, too, as the Mystics’ top five scorers from last season are all under contract for 2023, and four of those players have been with the franchise since at least 2018. What will change is that Mike will bow out of coaches’ meetings and Eric will make the final decisions there. But everyone in the organization is used to Eric’s input and his voice, and the buy-in from players is clear. Players’ relationships with him may evolve with him in charge, but they are unlikely to break.
In 2021, when Mike contracted COVID-19 and Eric served as acting head coach for the team’s final two games, point guard Natasha Cloud told reporters, “I can’t speak enough about how ready Eric is for this moment … I have no worries in the world. I’m really confident in him.” Cloud returns in 2023 as the Mystics’ longest-tenured player and their leader on and off the court.
In addition, when Mike and assistant coach Shelley Patterson entered COVID-19 protocols and missed two games in June 2022, Mystics veterans Ariel Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen were asked what it felt like hearing more of Eric and Sanders — who is now Eric’s associate head coach — on the sidelines.
“That’s normal,” Hines-Allen said.
“Yeah, that’s normal,” Atkins added.
Hines-Allen continued, “That was nothing different. They’ve been our voices on the bench for us, telling us what they see, what we can do better … So it was nothing different.”
For Mike, there will be nerves, and pride, next May when he sits in the stands and watches Eric coach the Mystics. But for Eric, there is excitement mixed with gratitude, because it’s time for him to experience the magic he saw as a kid watching his dad lead teams.
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 and FanSided.