Hiring coach Hill-MacDonald is Rockers’ first mistake

Just as the Women’s NBA strives for respect and looks to knock off its chief competitor (the American Basketball League), its franchise in Cleveland does something rash by hiring former Gophers women’s coach Linda Hill-MacDonald.
Oh, the humanity.
No, the Mistake by the Lake didn’t do well for itself, and just when the Indians had shed the image as the perennial losers. This time, however, the front office can’t be completely blamed for its ignorance. Still, hearts in Minnesota cry out for the poor souls in Cleveland. These are good people, do they deserve what many Minnesotans endured the past two years?
One can guess why Rockers general manager Wayne Embry hired Hill-MacDonald. It might have been her stellar 66-126 record during her seven years at Minnesota. Perhaps Embry thought she heads into the WNBA riding a wave of momentum, an 8-47 record the past two seasons. Or perhaps it’s because he knows the coach won’t have to recruit — a major plus in her case.
“It’s really easy for people to be critical when they’re not walking in your moccasins,” Hill-MacDonald said. “I wonder if these same people are criticizing the hire of (former UCLA men’s coach Jim Harrick) at Rhode Island. I don’t know why people would be critical. If you look at the long haul, my coaching success speaks for itself.”
The big distinction, of course, between Harrick and Hill-MacDonald is that Harrick won a national championship and brought the Bruins to the tournament year after year.
Hill-MacDonald reached the NCAA tournament only once with the Gophers, and that was four years ago. Her record at Minnesota speaks for itself — it’s not peppered with success. She did have some fine seasons at Temple, but that was years ago.
But Embry probably hired her, not for her skills with the Xs and Os, but because the Rockers couldn’t find anyone else.
She apparently sent the Rockers a letter asking about the job. Not quite the same way former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino landed the job with the Boston Celtics.
“Dear Boston Celtics, I’m Rick Pitino, you might of heard about me. I coach this pretty darn good team in Kentucky, but I was wondering if you might want to make me your head coach.”
Pitino didn’t have to beg for his opportunity.
Maybe Hill-MacDonald was made for the pro game. Maybe she’ll blossom into the next Red Auerbach. Then again, maybe not. The season starts June 21 and all the skepticism will be answered by late August. (The team has 28 games on its schedule.)
The hiring makes it painfully clear the WNBA can’t lure the best college coaches away to join the pro ranks. Not that the WNBA should necessarily be blamed. Pat Summit, Jim Foster and Geno Aurriemma won’t leave their well-paying, secure jobs at Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Connecticut for an unstable, brand new league like the WNBA just yet.
That might take a few years but in the meantime, the eight WNBA teams scrambled to find people to fill head coaching jobs.
The league did hire some good coaches but raised some eyebrows with others. Cheryl Miller (Phoenix), Van Chancellor (Houston), Linda Sharp (Los Angeles) and Nancy Darsch (New York) appear to be solid choices.
Darsch lead the Buckeyes to the 1993 NCAA championship game. Sharp coached Southern California to two national championships in 1983 and 1984. Chancellor built a 439-154 record at Mississippi during the past 19 years. Miller, perhaps one of the greatest women’s basketball players ever, is the league’s only coach with big name appeal.
These are good coaches, but the real stars like Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer aren’t interested. It’s a safe assumption that if Cleveland could have hired VanDerveer or any other big name coach, it would have.
But for now it’s Hill-MacDonald at the helm, and she has three years to prove herself. Perhaps the problem all along has been an inability to recruit. If that’s the case, this skeptic won’t mind eating crow.