November 15, 2022 

Mike Thibault retires as Washington Mystics head coach, will remain general manager

Eric Thibault slides into head coaching role after 10 years on his father’s staff

After the 2021 WNBA season, longtime Washington Mystics general manager and head coach Mike Thibault was asked about retirement. He had missed the team’s final two games after testing positive for COVID-19, and his son and associate head coach, Eric Thibault, stepped in to lead. It was a preview of the Mystics’ likely succession plan whenever the time came.

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“He’s ready” to be a head coach, Mike Thibault said in September 2021, “… but I’m not sure I’m giving it to him yet.”

Fourteen months later, on Tuesday, Thibault was ready to pass the baton. He will retain his title of general manager, but Eric Thibault will take over as head coach after serving on his father’s Mystics staff for the past 10 years. He served as interim head coach three more times in the 2022 season, but this will be his first permanent head coaching job at any level.

“I am proud to have been the Head Coach of the Washington Mystics the past 10 years. After 55 years in coaching (the last 20 in the WNBA), I feel like it is time to turn this team over to Eric and his coaching staff on the court,” Mike Thibault said in the team’s press release. “… I’m excited to still be around the wonderful core group we have returning this coming season.”

“I am incredibly honored and excited for the opportunity to lead the Washington Mystics as head coach,” Eric Thibault added. “… I’m ready to help the Mystics get back to the championship level that our fans, players, and staff expect. D.C. has become home for my family and I, and I’m thrilled to be continuing our journey with this exceptional organization.”

Mike Thibault said in September 2021 that he would know it was time to retire when he was no longer excited about getting up to go to the gym. But he was still invigorated by coaching, waking up in the wee hours of the morning with ideas for new plays or adjustments, and he didn’t want to leave the Mystics on a down note after they missed the playoffs in 2021. So he signed a multi-year contract extension in November 2021, and his top assistants also re-signed with the team.

But every offseason, Thibault takes a few months to weigh his future. He told The Washington Post’s Kareem Copeland that he knew that it was time to retire after the 2022 season because he believed that Eric would do a better job than he could as head coach. He also felt he could no longer juggle head coach and general manager duties.

Thibault steps aside as the winningest coach in WNBA history, with 413 wins across the regular season and playoffs. He led the Connecticut Sun from 2003-12 and made eight playoff appearances, advancing to the WNBA Finals in 2004 and 2005 and winning WNBA Coach of the Year in 2006 and 2008. But he was fired in 2012 after failing to win a championship, and the Mystics — coming off of 11 total wins in the previous two seasons — hired him to engineer a rebuild.

“It couldn’t have been any worse than when I came here,” Thibault said in 2021. He has told the story multiple times of coming to play the Mystics at the end of the 2012 season and wondering whether that franchise would still exist after that year because of the on-court struggles and lack of fan support.

Instead of the franchise folding, Thibault rejuvenated it. He recovered from infamously bad luck in the 2013 WNBA Draft lottery to get future WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman in the second round, and the rebuild was on. The team finished 17-17 that season — a 12-win turnaround from 2012 — and advanced to the playoffs, and Thibault earned his third Coach of the Year award.

Thibault kept building from there, making two more playoff appearances in as many years. He continued his prowess in the draft, picking up future franchise point guard Natasha Cloud in the second round in 2015 and future All-Star Ariel Atkins and all-WNBA honoree Myisha Hines-Allen in 2018.

In 2017, he signed WNBA champion Kristi Toliver and traded for WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, who led the Mystics to their first WNBA Finals appearance in franchise history in 2018 and their first WNBA championship in 2019. The Mystics had the best offense in WNBA history in 2019, then had the league’s best defense in 2022.

Injuries, most notably and persistently to Delle Donne, hurt the Mystics’ chances of winning another championship from 2020-22, but Thibault’s 173 regular-season wins with the Mystics alone rank fourth all-time, right behind his 206 with the Sun.

“When we first hired Mike 10 years ago, we assigned him a large task: to make the Washington Mystics relevant in the WNBA,” Ted Leonsis, the founder and CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, said in the release. “And he more than delivered.”

Throughout Thibault’s career, his peers have also recognized his ability: He has received votes for the best coach in the league in 17 straight preseason surveys of general managers and received the most votes five times.

Washington Mystics associate head coach Eric Thibault talks with star Elena Delle Donne during a game against the Indiana Fever at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 14, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Eric Thibault has been considered for several WNBA head coaching jobs over the past four years, but the associate head coach decided to bide his time with the Mystics. He will be rewarded with a 2023 roster that includes a healthy Delle Donne, Cloud, Atkins, Hines-Allen and 2022 No. 3 overall pick Shakira Austin. According to Copeland, the rest of the staff is also expected to return, though one assistant coaching position is open with Mike Thibault leaving the bench. That continuity should help the Mystics build on a fifth-place finish and playoff appearance in 2022.

“It’s very rare if somebody’s coming in their first year to have a chance to win the championship,” Eric Thibault told ESPN’s Alexa Philippou. “We’ve got a team that, if we make the right moves this offseason and we do the things we’re supposed to do and develop as a group, we’ll be a contender … We know the time is now.”

The Mystics also made two other staff moves on Tuesday: Former player and assistant coach LaToya Sanders was promoted to associate head coach and assistant general manager Maria Giovannetti added senior vice president of strategy and vision to her title. For Sanders, it has been a rapid ascent since retiring in March 2021 and joining the Mystics’ staff first in a player development role and then as an assistant coach.

“I am excited to continue my coaching career alongside Eric as he becomes head coach,” Sanders said in the team’s release. “As a player and coach, I have witnessed his passion and brilliance for the game. I look forward to continuing to work with the players to bring another championship to D.C.”

Sanders played seven seasons in the WNBA and four with the Mystics, and she was the defensive backbone of the Mystics’ 2019 championship team as an undersized center. Since joining the Mystics, she has tutored frontcourt players such as Hines-Allen and Austin — and still given them fits in one-on-one matchups — but her impact has gone beyond the paint.

“I think we’re getting so much value out of her role in the sense that she’s touching all of our players in a different way,” Eric Thibault told The Next in August. “Yeah, she works with the posts, but she’s a great perspective for even some of the veteran guards, [Cloud] and Ariel and [Alysha Clark], [with] the way she saw the game, the way she knew how to play with them … It’s helpful for everybody on the team.”

Giovannetti is one of the Mystics’ longest-tenured employees, getting her start in game day operations before joining the sales department in 2007. She moved to the basketball side of the organization as director of basketball operations a few years later and was promoted to assistant general manager in 2017. “Somewhere down the road, she’s probably my heir apparent as the GM,” Mike Thibault told The Next earlier this year.

That plan is still in motion, as Leonsis said in the team’s release that he expects Giovannetti to continue to learn from Thibault “and eventually lead our basketball operations.” Thibault told Copeland that he isn’t sure how long he will remain the general manager, but he doesn’t expect it to be “a long, long time.”

Overall, the moves comprise a rare organizational shake-up where someone retires yet no one is departing. But with Mike Thibault giving up his head coaching chair, there is still a new Coach Thibault in town.

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, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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