Somewhere in Beavercreek, Ohio, Dan Hughes is sure to be glued in front of a TV next to his wife Mary – his partner for the past 43 years – watching Sunday’s WNBA game between the Storm and the Wings.
And he’ll pay particular attention to the coaches on the sidelines, Seattle’s Noelle Quinn and Dallas’ Vickie Johnson – two of his former players and assistants who were promoted to head coaches upon his departure from their respective teams.
Hughes knows he’ll feel a certain amount of angst and anxiety while noting, “Choosing sides between them is like asking a parent which of your children is your favorite?”
But more than anything, Hughes will feel an overwhelming sense of pride knowing he has played a significant role in reshaping the evolution of WNBA coaches, considering five of the league’s current 12 coaches were assistants on his staff.
The other three include: Phoenix’s Sandy Brondello, Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve and Chicago’s James Wade.
And yet, the past two games between the Storm and Wings – Seattle won 105-102 on Friday night – are particularly significant because Johnson and Quinn represent the 18th and 19th Black female head coaches in the history of the WNBA respectively.
Furthermore, the coaching battle between Quinn and Johnson is a historical footnote because it’s the first pairing of Black female head coaches who played in the WNBA.
“For years, I thought that was a great untapped resource and I’ve always wanted to see former players have an opportunity to coach,” Hughes said. “So to see Noey and Vickie out there, it will be a moment where you kind of feel like the world is moving in a way that you hope it does.
“And at the same time, you feel like maybe I had a little to do with that. And that’s good. It’s a source of huge pride for me. People who really know me know that I appreciate people that worked for me beyond just the moment that we’re together on the court. To watch their lives has always been a big part of my gratitude of what they’ve done for me.”
It’s been a week since Hughes abruptly retired and walked away from the Storm (7-1), which is seemingly poised to compete for a second straight WNBA title.
In saying goodbye, he ended a 44-year coaching career, which included 20 years in the WNBA with Charlotte (1999), Cleveland (2000-03), San Antonio (2005-16) and Seattle (2018-21).
The 66-year-old Hughes said he’s in good health and his decision to leave was not medically related.
In 2019, Hughes had a cancerous tumor removed from his appendix, which forced him to miss the first nine games of the season. And last year, he was not medically cleared by the WNBA to coach during a season held entirely at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., because the league feared he would be at high risk if he contracted COVID-19.
“Everything is progressing like it should,” Hughes said. “There’s no major issues.”
After briefly leaving the Storm this season to attend his son’s graduation from the Air Force Academy, Hughes seriously began contemplating retirement. He coached the Storm to an 82-72 victory on May 28 and two days later, announced he was walking away.
Hughes, a two-time WNBA Coach of the Year (2001 and ’07), ranks first in league history in seasons coached (19), second in games coached (598) and is tied for the third most wins while compiling a 286-312 record.
“I had a good career up to when I thought I was going to retire and I had an even better career after I thought I was going to retire,” said Hughes referring to his initial retirement in 2016. “I’m pretty blessed.”
When pressed about the timing of his recent retirement and the possible distraction it might have caused, Hughes said: “Hindsight is 20/20. Obviously, things change. That’s the only way I would answer that. It was right for this moment. It was not right at that moment (at the beginning of the season). That’s probably the best way I can answer that.”
The future for Hughes is unclear after he fulfills obligations this summer as an assistant with the USA women’s basketball team that will compete in the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Last week, he spent time with his mother who is in hospice care and accompanied his 6-year-old grandson to his first basketball camp.
“I don’t know what’s next,” said Hughes, who worked as a broadcaster and ran basketball clinics before the Storm pulled him out of retirement in 2018. “It could be nothing. As I told the team, I’ve had my run, in terms of the WNBA. I know it won’t be there. I know that.
“I’m open to whatever the next chapter means. I have no plans to be a head coach. I can’t even imagine accepting that. But I still love basketball. And I still feel attached to being a teacher and coaching. I just don’t feel the attachment to being a head coach anymore. I don’t know the answer. It might be nothing. It might be something. What I do have is the ability to really enjoy people that I know and people that I’ve worked with. … I’ll let the good Lord tell me what might be next. What won’t be next is being a head coach. That much I know.”
During his final meeting with the Storm last Sunday, Hughes shared his favorite memories with the team during his 3½-year tenure that included a 49-25 record and a 2018 WNBA championship.
“There was a moment after (the Game 3 win and 3-0 series sweep over the Washington Mystics in the WNBA Finals) that I saw my wife,” Hughes said. “Seeing her and realizing what a partner she has been for me in this career. That was a moment that I will never trade.”
Hughes also reflected on the relationship he forged with assistant Gary Kloppenburg who took over twice in the past two seasons, which included leading the Storm to a 2020 WNBA title.
“I had to step away from the team when I had cancer and Klop came in and took care of the team,” Hughes said. “It was seamless. That relationship with a coach, that’s rare in this business. Those two moments stand out.”
And yet, Hughes’ legacy will ultimately be a network of former assistants who comprise a sprawling coaching tree that’s spread to nearly half of the teams in the WNBA.
“Coach Dan was more than just a coach for me,” Johnson said. “He was a father figure. When I was a free agent after playing nine years in New York, I wanted to play for Dan. I asked him could I come to San Antonio and play for him. I was a two-time WNBA All-Star and our relationship grew a great deal.
“He focused on defense and I’m a defensive person. He’s been with me through my hard times of losing my mom, my grandmother and my brother. He stood by my side. He’s more than just a coach. He’s a role model and a mentor. I can truly say he’s a father figure and a friend. Extremely detailed about how to approach the game, how to prepare for the game and how to treat players. Honesty and transparency is key for him. And then, defensively. Defense wins championships. He always taught me that. I’m just so happy that he has been a part of my life for so many years.”
Johnson played four years for Hughes, and after retiring in 2009 she spent six years (2011-16) on his staff as an assistant in San Antonio before taking over in 2017 when he retired.
“The biggest thing is he trusts us,” Johnson said. “He gives us responsibilities. He doesn’t look over our shoulder. He allows us to make mistakes and he corrects us the right way. He allows us to be ourselves. That’s the best thing about him. … He makes you think the game. He’s not going to tell you a whole lot. He questions you. He’s going to prepare you and he’s going to allow you to do your thing. He’s not one of those coaches that’s trying to control every little thing. I appreciate that about him and I’m sure all the other coaches do as well.”
Hughes inherited Quinn upon his arrival to Seattle in 2018, which was her 12th and final season in the WNBA. The next year, the Storm ownership group, front office and Hughes offered her a spot on the coaching staff.
“Coach Dan has empowered me in so many ways,” Quinn said. “In 2019, he dealt with cancer and for me to be seeing his battle and coming back, that was huge. It’s more than just basketball here. To see his fight and to see his dedication, you just understand what type of man he is. And then to give me responsibility and a role to use my voice to help this team, (it) impacted me in a way that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my journey in coaching wherever it takes me.”
Quinn added: “When I win, when the Seattle Storm wins, Dan wins. We’re all connected in that way.”