When Anne Donovan informed Seton Hall in January she would resign as coach to take over the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun everyone said the right things.
Her bosses were supportive, even though she had barely started the third year of a five-year contract. Sun management was patient, even though they would not have their new coach on site for five months.
But there was one reaction much harder to predict. How would Donovan’s players react to the reality of playing for someone who would soon be leaving them?
“I wasn’t as concerned before the season about how it might go, certainly not as concerned as some of the people around me were,” Donovan said. “I have a very good relationship with my players and it was very hard to tell them that I was leaving. I had promised them all that I would be here with them to try and build it [the program].
“But ultimately when you have trust and respect, and I believe there is a lot of that which mutually exists between us, that after the emotion wore off we got back to being competitors. We understood our position at Seton Hall; that nothing comes easy. You need to stay focused or run the risk of getting throttled.”
The Pirates have played hard for Donovan. They are 8-15 and 3-7 in the Big East with wins over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati (both winless in Big East play) and archrival Rutgers, who the Pirates beat 45-42 on Jan. 27.
In her first two seasons, Seton Hall was 2-30 in the Big East, 16-45 overall. So progress has been made.
“I consider myself a worker and the work of building this program did not scare me off,” said Donovan.
And why would it? She coached the WNBA’s Seattle Storm to the 2004 championship and preceded Geno Auriemma as coach of USA Basketball’s Olympic champion in 2008.
Still, Donovan knew she would need to spend time making things right with her players.
“I had a big “this is how life is” discussion with the team as a group and my sophomore, Ka-Deidre Simmons and I have had a lot of heart-to-heart discussions because she had committed to me [by picking Seton Hall],” Donovan said.
“In the big picture, I’d have to say that my players understand that change in life comes all the time, whether you are ready or not. The life lesson comes in how you adapt to change. That was one of the reasons I came back to college. I looked forward to those encountering those life lessons with my kids. We’ve embraced that philosophy as part of the process [of building the program].”
Once the Big East tournament ends, Donovan will take a few days to tie up loose ends at Seton Hall and then move into her new home near the Mohegan Sun Arena.
Until then, Chris Sienko, the Sun’s GM, says he’s dedicated to making her life easier.
“As you would expect, her concern is that she’s coaching two teams right now,” Sienko said. “We understood this would the case when we hired her. And Anne is very committed to do what’s right for Seton Hall. But she feels badly that she can’t focus on [the Sun] all the time, like all the other coaches in the league can.”
In deference to Seton Hall, she has tried to minimize the amount to time she spends of WNBA business, leaving much of the scouting to new assistant, Jen Gillom, the two-time WNBA head coach who was on Auriemma’s USA Basketball staff for the 2010 World Championship and 2012 Olympics.
“I was so excited she was available,” Donovan said of Gillom, who spent last season as an assistant in Washington. “First off, I trust her and that is so important. We are all working to the same goal. We’ve known each other since the 1980s and a love her as a person.
“She has a lot of expertise internationally and in the WNBA as a head coach. She knows what it takes and is willing to whatever I ask her. She was excited about not only our roster, but working for the organization, as most of the people in the league are.”
Coordinating with Gillom, who is scouting on the west coach, and communicating almost daily with Sienko is all she can do right now.
“I can help her with everything else,” Sienko said. “I’ve talked to other coaches. I’ve talked to our players. I make sure that anything she possibly needs is taken care of. Ultimately, I want her to feel comfortable in this environment when she gets here.
“She will be fine. When we talk, and we talk just about every day except on her game days, I can tell she is very excited. Once her obligation ends, she will come on board and we will up to speed on everything that needs to be done and what she needs to know. And we will still have a month before the draft.
“We knew this would be a part of the equation when we hired her. I am not concerned about it … As long as she is comfortable, she knows when she comes here for the first day everything can move forward.”