Editor’s note: Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans will have a weekly conversation with a newsmaker in the WNBA. This week she speaks with Penny Toler, who is executive vice president and general manager of the Los Angeles Sparks. Toler fired coach Carol Ross and accepted the resignation of assistant Gail Goestenkors on July 20. Toler assumed the coaching duties herself for the Sparks’ final 12 regular-season games despite not having any coaching experience on any level. Toler won her first game Saturday against Seattle and is 2-2 overall.
Seattle Times: The new ownership group, led by Lakers legend Magic Johnson and Dodgers controlling owner Mark R. Walter, pushed for this change?
Penny Toler: The owners didn’t like the vibe. We want to win, but regardless, the effort has to be (high). Unfortunately we were at home and if you look at some of those games (under Ross), it was like, ‘Who are these people?’ I was saying, ‘Get the milk cartons, the Sparks are missing’ because of the energy level. The owners, they were seeing it live. Men’s or women’s, these are basketball people. They didn’t like the vibe.
Q: That loss to Washington, 79-75 at home July 17, had to play a part in Ross’ firing. The Sparks haven’t won at home since June.
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Toler: We had a really nice road trip (winning three games) and we came home and made a boo-boo. It was really ugly. From a GM perspective, I didn’t want to get down to the end (of the season) and we’re still searching for our personality.
Q: Was Ross blindsided? She was the Coach of the Year in 2012 and signed a contract extension in February.
Toler: If you’re not winning and your team’s not successful and you were picked as one of the favorites (to win the WNBA title), are you blindsided by it? With the fans, we’re in L.A., they were calling for it (the firing) after four games. It’s my job to protect the coach but when other decisions are made, it’s my job to carry out those orders.
Q: It’s your coaching debut, but from watching the games, it seems assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg is the lead voice in the huddle during timeouts.
Toler: As GM, I’ve never had to worry about X’s and O’s. When (past) head coaches offered me a playbook, I’d say “No, I can see if we’re running something or not.” That was the hardest part about (now coaching). But, like I told the players, I’m not an egotistical person because of how it looks on TV. What Klopp is doing is when I say, “Hey, I need a play for Nneka (Ogwumike),” he’s doing the diagraming.
Q: And it’s the end of the season; coaching decisions shouldn’t be major, right?
Toler: Exactly. They’re professionals and are paid to know this stuff. It is easier because you see the game plan and everybody should be in shape and everybody should be ready. People have asked if I’m motivating them. If I have to motivate them at this point, I’ve got a problem.
Q: Does this make you a better GM?
Toler: The bad thing for the players is the GM is on the bench. Now I get a firsthand view if something is not working. You hope some players come in with a certain mentality and then they just don’t have it. I’ll just say this is a wrap, because I’m the GM and the coach.
Q: Have you started to think about replacements?
Toler: Not really. If we would have brought somebody in at this point, they would have asked for a contract extension. The owners said the best option is for me to go to the bench because it keeps our options open. This is huge for Klopp, too, because I’m sitting side-by-side to see what he does.
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or firstname.lastname@example.org.