Hill-MacDonald defends new job

by Aaron Kirscht

More than a few jaws dropped and plenty of eyebrows rose on May 6, when the Cleveland Rockers — one of eight teams in the upstart Women’s NBA — announced that former Gophers coach Linda Hill-MacDonald had been named their first coach.
Several months ago, while the Gophers were putting the finishing touches on the worst season in team history, the notion of Hill-MacDonald at the helm of a WNBA team would have seemed ludicrous.
But in a very short period of time, the veteran coach has come a very long way. And she’s not about to apologize for where she is.
“I think the people who are scratching their heads are the people who haven’t seen me coach, who haven’t been to a practice, who don’t know a thing about what I know about the game,” she said.
“The people who are questioning this are the people who don’t have a clue and are always questioning everything. I don’t feel bad at all.”
Hill-MacDonald left the University in early March, having resigned her position under pressure from women’s athletics director Chris Voelz.
Her departure wasn’t surprising, though. Hill-MacDonald had compiled a 66-126 record in her seven years at Minnesota, including a woeful 8-47 record the last two seasons. During that time, the Gophers limped to a Big Ten record 32-game losing streak.
Near the end of her tenure with the Gophers, Hill-MacDonald said a season beset by injuries, the loss of key players and what she perceived as a lack of support from Voelz and the athletics department in general had taken its toll.
Her confidence wavered, but through it all, Hill-MacDonald said working and developing bonds with her players made the job worthwhile.
“I was not disappointed with what that team did last year,” she said. “With their record, yes, but we got the most out of those players given the circumstances.
“I don’t know how much more they could have given of themselves or how much more we as a coaching staff could have done. They — we — put it all out there.”
And now, Hill-MacDonald is preparing to put her 17-year coaching career on the line as the new coach of a new team in a new league. She’s looking forward to the challenge — and the validation.
“I’m very flattered that the WNBA is confident enough in my abilities to take this program where they want to see it go,” she said.
Cleveland Cavaliers President and General Manager Wayne Embry, who oversees both the Cavs and the Rockers, said Hill-MacDonald was an attractive candidate because of her experience. The recommendation of Temple men’s coach John Chaney probably didn’t hurt, either.
But the pros? After a 4-24 season? Hill-MacDonald said it’s basketball, first and foremost, and last season doesn’t matter.
“I think I’ve always approached the game in the same way I’m approaching it now,” she said, “with a great deal of intensity and as a student (of the game). I’m thrilled about the chance to work with the young women that are coming into this program.”
Hill-MacDonald was contacted by the Cleveland Cavaliers administration in late March about her interest in the job. Other candidates for the Rockers position reportedly included Wisconsin’s Jane Albright-Dieterle, who turned it down, and former Ohio State coach Nancy Darsch, who will lead the WNBA’s New York Liberty.
More than 200 players will be in Cleveland this weekend for a shot at two roster spots and two developmental spots. Included in that mix are former Gophers assistants Cara Pearson and Crystal Flint.
“We’re creating opportunities for our women athletes to play at home,” she said. “That’s important, not only for equality but for expanding the fan base and bringing attention to women’s basketball.”
The WNBA hopes to expand from eight to 16 teams in the next five to 10 years. As the league’s reputation continues to build, Hill-MacDonald said she expects other coaches to follow her lead.
“I don’t think it’s going to take too long,” she said. “I think people are already looking at it and marveling at what’s been done. It’s going to be great.”