5:11 PM AKST, November 20, 2012
He didn't do what Van Chancellor did four times. He didn't do what Bill Laimbeer did three times, Michael Cooper did twice or seven others did once.
"Mike Thibault has done everything we asked him," Sun CEO Mitchell Etess said, "except win a WNBA championship."
After a full decade, that's why the Sun fired Thibault Tuesday. He didn't win it all.
"And they write the checks," Thibault said.
There's no argument on that point. Yet it is on the line of those checks, where it says "Memo," where we find the argument over Thibault's dismissal.
The coach would fill it in this way: Team gave up too quickly during rebuilding process.
Etess and general manager Chris Sienko would fill in: Hasn't won in 10 years and don't see how the 11th will be different.
They are two arguments, in fact, and they both are right.
If you want to argue that the Sun, as Thibault put it, "gutted the roster" early in 2010 and started over with Tina Charles, Renee Montgomery and Kara Lawson, you will subscribe to the notion the Sun got too itchy with their trigger finger in Year 3 of reconstruction. You will argue they should have at least picked up the option on the final year of Thibault's deal and allowed him one more run with a team capable of winning its first WNBA title.
Yet it you choose to believe that Thibault already had 10 kicks at the can and the Sun, who went to the Finals in 2005 and 2006, would be foolish to risk allowing a second window of championship opportunity to close without that title, then you, like Etess and Sienko, had seen enough.
"It has been 10 years, a long run," Etess said. "Chris and I spent an awful lot of time going through this. We didn't know why it would be different." If the definition of insanity, as Einstein suggested, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, one can understand their reasoning.
"I understand both arguments," Thibault said. "It's like a lawyer going into a courtroom, depending on what side you're on is how you want facts and statistics to look.
"They can say they didn't feel as if there was hope, but we entered the season with the second-youngest team in the league, ended up with the second-best record in the league, won a playoff series and lost a tough one to the champions [Indiana]."
Thibault is a good man and a top-shelf WNBA coach. You don't walk away from a conversation with him without being a little smarter about the game. Although not known by many folks in the women's game, including the Sun hierarchy, he came recommended in 2003 by no less than Jerry West and Jeff Van Gundy. Through the minor leagues, scouting, NBA assistant etc., Thibault, 62, is a basketball lifer. And as the longest tenured WNBA coach, he became as permanent a fixture at the Mohegan Sun Arena as the slot machines and blackjack tables in the adjacent casino. Only Dan Hughes has coached more WNBA games. Only Chancellor won more — and Thibault was within five W's. His teams have had the best regular season record, been to the conference finals five times. He twice has been named coach of the year. Had a huge hand in building the personnel. Done everything except …
Thibault never hit the triple bar. Never turned over a 21.
Never hit the jackpot.
"There does seem to be some intangible that has come into effect in the playoffs and we haven't been able to overcome that intangible," Etess said.
"I think we've been a model of excellence except one thing on the resume," said Thibault, who eschewed a chance to return to the NBA last summer and doesn't know what he'll do next. "And the one thing on the resume they wanted I didn't give it to them."
Of the 136 current coaches in the four men's major sports leagues and the WNBA, only seven have a longer tenure than Thibault. The Patriots' Bill Belichick, Spurs' Gregg Popovich and Angels' Mike Scioscia have won titles. The Sabres' Lindy Ruff, Predators' Barry Trotz, Twins' Ron Gardenhire and Eagles' Andy Reid have not. Reid's job also hangs by a thread.
Thibault introduced the name of ex-Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. A coach who lasted 23 seasons without winning an NBA title also is the rarest of coaching birds.
"A really, really good NBA coach," Thibault said. "He got to the Finals twice and lost to Michael Jordan's teams. I don't think that makes him a failure."
Thibault certainly wasn't a failure. He also wasn't a champion. If Nykesha Sales hits that three-pointer instead of the backboard in Seattle in 2005, he has a ring. If Lindsay Whalen didn't go lame in 2006, he has another ring. Yet look at Katie Douglas going down in the decisive Eastern Conference Finals games. The Fever not only won, they trounced the Sun at home and went on to upset a heavily favored Lynx team that home-court advantage. Champs find a way.
The Sun want to have a coach in play by the time free agency starts on Feb. 1. Thibault said Alba Torrens and Sandrine Gruda are expected to join the team next year, so the Sun should be very good and deeper. There is truth in Etess' calling the Sun coaching job "definitely the best" in the WNBA. The Mohegan Tribe has made sure the team has not wanted.
"We owe the tribe, we owe our fans a championship," said Etess, who stressed that the players did not call for the firing.
"When we got the team our objective was to win a championship within the first five years," Sienko said. "We got to the Finals twice and did not win. When Mike had his first losing season, we extended his contract, because we felt he was going to get us to that point. It didn't happen. I think we have been patient."
Thibault's last game was shocking. In 35 years of sports writing rarely have I seen a team of equal talent perform worse in a vital situation. Asked if he was embarrassed, Etess said, "Yeah and I think Mike was, too."
"Players were embarrassed themselves," Sienko said.
Yet Thibault gave a curious answer Tuesday.
"I've watched the film a couple of times," he said. "It's not the exact mirror image, but we took many of the same shots in Game 1 [the Sun won] and they went in. In Game 3 the same shots didn't go in. Is that something you fix? Maybe, maybe not."
That's not the way I saw it. I saw a team melt down on both ends of the court. And as long as we're not cutting anybody any slack …
"We believed we had all the tools in place to win the championship this year. We also thought we could get a little further [than the first round] last year," Sienko said in one breath and then in the next said, "I don't think anyone can expect anyone to come in and ultimately win a championship their first year, but it can happen."
Sorry, Chris, if Thibault should have been able to take the Sun to a title, so should the new coach.
The hard truth is the Sun will be hard pressed to find someone better than Mike Thibault.
The equally hard truth is after a full decade he doesn't leave as a champion.