PHOENIX — As Phoenix Mercury president Vince Kozar walked toward the security checkpoint at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport the morning of Jan. 5, the masked agent checking IDs and boarding passes looked familiar.
He had a 9:46 a.m. flight, and Kozar was hoping no one would notice him. As Kozar moved to the front of the line, it dawned on him: The TSA agent also worked security for Mercury games at the Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix.
She recognized Kozar.
“Are you and Mr. Pitman going to find our next head coach?” she asked.
Moments earlier, Mercury general manager Jim Pitman had had a similar interaction with the same agent. Kozar thought their cover was blown.
The agent, along with every other Mercury fan and employee, knew they were looking for a head coach. Kozar was sure their trip would end up on message boards and all over #WNBATwitter.
“It was this clandestine trip that just the two of us were making, and then it was, ‘Here’s this person that knows,'” Kozar said with a laugh.
Kozar and Pitman were headed to New Orleans to interview Pelicans assistant Teresa Weatherspoon, one of four finalists for the Mercury’s vacant head-coaching job. It was one of the most stressful moments in the Mercury’s coaching search, which lasted 44 days and included more than 20 candidates, hours of phone calls and meetings, and four in-person interviews — and culminated with Monday’s introduction of Vanessa Nygaard as the franchise’s 10th head coach.
THE MERCURY’S SEARCH didn’t start in earnest until Dec. 7, the day after it was announced that coach Sandy Brondello’s contract wouldn’t be renewed after eight seasons.
Pitman sat in his office on the 200 level of the Footprint Center and started compiling a list of potential replacements. He relied on his 25 years of WNBA experience to come up with names, he talked to Mercury vice president and Naismith Hall of Famer Ann Meyers Drysdale for her suggestions, and he got input from Phoenix’s star trio: Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith.
Pitman was hoping to hire a former WNBA player who was committed to living in Arizona full time. He valued a coach who could foster a close atmosphere and embrace the Mercury’s three organizational pillars: winning championships, sustained success and being community leaders.
“I’m a big chemistry guy,” he said while sitting in Kozar’s office Friday. “I believe that chemistry is as important as talent and in some cases more so. You can win with less talent if you have great chemistry. You can’t win with no chemistry even if you have great talent.”
Pitman noticed a fair amount of overlap in the suggestions from the committee, which helped him start focusing on a handful of names early on. His initial list had more than 20 names, and he started to narrow the list by talking to everyone and anyone he could: former players and coworkers, mutual contacts, friends. Feedback from those conversations helped rule out some candidates.
The Mercury focused on candidates they thought they could get. If they found out during their research that a candidate likely wouldn’t take the job, that name was removed from the list. The Mercury also had to decide on an approach. Did they want an experienced head coach? Did they want a young head coach with a veteran assistant?
But in Nygaard — a former Stanford star who went to the Final Four three times from 1995 to 1997 — Pitman saw an ability to create a cohesive team.
“It’s really her relationship-building and communication skills,” Pitman said. “People that I talked to were just really high on how good of a relationship-builder and communicator she is, not to mention how good of an X’s and O’s person she is. That’s what really mattered to me.”
At that point, the list had shrunk to 12, and though it was sometimes difficult to find their agents, Pitman began calling each of the remaining candidates the week of Dec. 13 and continued until Dec. 21. He told them all he was hoping to have a new coach hired by Jan. 15 but wasn’t going to set it as a firm deadline.
“I know that Jan. 15 is the start of free agency and you can start talking to free agents,” he said. “But it was more important for me to get this right than to be done fast.”
Pitman said he spent about 45 minutes on each call, all made from his office in the Footprint Center. Nygaard described her initial conversation with Pitman as “fluid.” She hung up thinking they were on the same page about “a lot of things.” She also felt he liked a few of her jokes.
“It was long enough to really get a flavor for what their basketball knowledge is, what they’re all about as a person and how they could help make the Mercury a better basketball team,” Pitman said.
NARROWING THE LIST from 12 extremely qualified candidates to four was “really hard,” Pitman said.
The list of four finalists went through numerous iterations, but a couple of candidates made every version. At one point, Pitman thought he would have five final candidates. At another, that number was three. Eventually, he settled on four: Nygaard, Weatherspoon, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Natalie Nakase and Stephanie White, former Indiana Fever and Vanderbilt head coach.
The narrowing to four candidates took place over the holidays, and Pitman scheduled interviews for the first week of January.
Nygaard was driving from her home in Ladera Heights, California, with her wife, Kristine, and their three children to see her parents in San Diego for Christmas when a text arrived from her agent. The Mercury wanted to interview her in person. She didn’t tell the kids right away but shared the news with a few friends and mentors.
A four-person panel would interview each finalist: Suns general manager James Jones, senior vice president for people and culture Kim Corbitt, Kozar and Pitman. (The Mercury and Suns are part of the same ownership group.)
Jones, who was part of the coaching search that led to the Suns hiring Monty Williams in 2019, said it didn’t take long for Nygaard to stand out.
“She embodies everything that we’re about,” he said. “She loves the game more than anything, she’s extremely competitive and she’s been a part of some great programs, great teams, and worked with some great people. And so that’s our DNA, and I thought it matched up with what we are and what we want to continue to become.”
As a quartet, they would determine whom to recommend to owner Robert Sarver to be the Mercury’s next head coach.
Pitman had a video call with Taurasi and Diggins-Smith to update them on who the four finalists were. Kozar held a separate call with Griner, who’s playing in Russia. On both calls, Pitman said, the players briefly discussed the candidates and the conversation shifted to free agency.
Three of the finalists were interviewed in person in Arizona, starting with Nygaard on Jan. 3, followed by Nakase and White.
The schedule was similar for all three: a six-hour day that began with meeting Pitman at the Footprint Center. He then drove each to the Mercury’s new practice facility, located about 10 miles northwest of the arena. There, the candidates toured the new facility and met with Jones. Their meetings with Corbitt took place at either the arena or practice facility depending on her schedule. Back downtown, they had lunch at the Arrogant Butcher, an upscale restaurant across the street from the Footprint Center. After lunch, the candidates met with Kozar in his office, where he emphasized his desire for a mutually beneficial relationship between the basketball and business side of the Mercury.
“Both sides have to be fully aligned on the W side, because otherwise we’re not gonna be able to grow this thing,” Kozar said. “The players are more a part of it than in any other league, the coaches, and that means access for my staff.”
Sometimes that means allowing cameras in the locker room after a big win, he said, or the flexibility to move a practice time because season-ticket holders were promised an open practice.
Kozar’s meeting for each of the three candidates in Phoenix was about an hour long. If they stayed the night, the Mercury put them up at the Hotel Palomar, just down the street from the arena, where visiting teams stay.
Pitman and Kozar flew to New Orleans to meet with Weatherspoon. They didn’t leave the Four Seasons for the duration of their quick trip. For three hours over dinner at Chemin à la Mer, Pitman and Kozar interviewed Weatherspoon.
When Pitman and Kozar retired to the Chandelier Bar for drinks, they had just one interview remaining and thought they were in a good place.
“We felt like we were 3-for-3,” Kozar said.
“We felt like we couldn’t make a bad decision,” Pitman said.
By 5:30 the next morning, they were heading to the airport for a flight back to Phoenix.
The last interview took place on Jan. 7, the same day Brondello was announced as the New York Liberty‘s new coach. That was eight days after the Las Vegas Aces replaced Bill Laimbeer with Becky Hammon. The hires didn’t impact Phoenix’s search.
“It left my candidates on the table,” Pitman said.
Kozar noticed Mercury fans getting antsy on Twitter, complaining that their head-coaching vacancy would be the last to be filled. Pitman saw it as an advantage.
“I knew that I wasn’t competing necessarily with anybody else over a candidate,” he said.
For the first time in a month, he could take a breath.
Over the next week, Pitman, Kozar, Jones and Corbitt had dozens of conversations — some together, some one-on-one — and their choice started to come into focus.
THEN A BOMBSHELL hit at 11 p.m. Arizona time on Jan. 18: Weatherspoon withdrew her name from consideration after the Pelicans reportedly pushed to retain her.
“It was disappointing,” Pitman said. “She was someone that I thought was a really good candidate for us.”
The next morning, Pitman called Sarver to inform him that the Mercury’s list was down to three. But in reality, Pitman said, it was already down to two, and they knew who they wanted to offer the job to over the next 24 hours.
“I don’t know that it changed a lot,” Pitman said of the impact of Weatherspoon’s decision on Phoenix’s search. “But it certainly helped us crystallize that path.”
Because of all she’d bring to the Mercury as a coach, leader and communicator, Nygaard started to emerge as a front-runner. And Pitman liked that she was committed to the franchise and to living in Arizona year-round.
When Pitman asked Nygaard whether she wanted to be in Arizona, she said yes. Other candidates had “relocation issues,” and when it came down to it, Pitman decided that being in the Phoenix area full time and not just during the season was a requirement on which he wasn’t willing to budge.
“In the past, a lot of teams have … it hasn’t been an issue to have your coach there only during the season,” he said. “As our league is getting bigger and broader, it becomes more important, in my mind, that we have someone that’s here.”
Nygaard, who was born in Scottsdale but moved when she was a year old, said the promise of getting a house with a pool helped sell her kids on the move.
Nygaard said she thought living in the market showed a higher level of seriousness by both the team and coach, and that it shows everyone that the WNBA “isn’t just some kind of summer league. This is actually the premier women’s league in the world.”
Pitman told Sarver on Thursday that Nygaard was the choice and arranged a call for the two to talk. Sarver gave the green light, and from there, it was a matter of getting her contract done. She received and signed the formal offer on Thursday, making it official.
Before Nygaard was announced, the Mercury’s big three of Taurasi, Griner and Diggins-Smith talked with their new coach.
It was a full-circle moment for the 46-year-old, who played six seasons in the WNBA, her last in 2003. She returns to her home state after 19 years in the Los Angeles area.
“My goal since I finished playing was to be a WNBA head coach,” Nygaard said Monday. “It’s been a journey for me.”
The Mercury sent out a news release naming Nygaard as its coach at 3:01 p.m. ET on Monday.
A couple of hours later, she walked into the Footprint Center through a visitor’s entrance undetected, a noticeable bounce in her step. Standing at midcourt in the middle of an empty arena, her face and name on every screen in the building, she soaked in the moment.
As she made her way through the arena, Nygaard reached the Mercury’s locker room. She was told that she could make any cosmetic changes she wished to the walls. She had just one idea: adding a picture of another championship trophy.
Phoenix had its coach.
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