Mike Thibault Returns as Veteran Voice on USA Women’s Coaching Staff
The 71-year-old coach returned to the bench after more than a decade away from the national team.
Mike Thibault couldn’t help but think that his work with USA Basketball had come to an end.
After the veteran coach worked with the U.S. men’s and women’s teams in various capacities during his 40s and 50s, his 60s came and went. During that decade, others served as head coaches and assistant coaches with USA Basketball. Thibault, for his part, focused his full-time energy on the WNBA, where he became one of the most successful coaches the league has ever seen.
A three-time WNBA Coach of the Year with the Connecticut Sun and Washington Mystics. A proud WNBA champion with the 2019 Mystics. The league’s all-time winningest head coach with 357 career victories.
Thibault certainly has earned his share of accolades over the years.
However, after assuming his USA Basketball coaching career had ended in 2008, Thibault once again finds himself back on the sidelines. The 71-year-old legend is an assistant coach for the women’s national team at the training camp and subsequent FIBA World Cup Qualifying Tournament games taking place this week in Washington D.C. — and he’s loving every minute of it.
“This is fun,” Thibault said over the weekend. “It’s interesting because I had kind of assumed that I might not (coach with USA Basketball) again. It was a great experience when I did it and I loved it, but it was just one of those things that I didn’t think about again.”
When approached by USA Basketball about a return to the bench, Thibault sat down with his wife, Nanci, to discuss the intriguing opportunity.
“We said, ‘Let’s do it!’” recalled Thibault. “I’ve always enjoyed my USA Basketball experiences. Representing your country is a big deal. I’ve enjoyed the staffs that I’ve been on — and certainly the players too. I’ve coached the best players in the world in some of the world’s best events.”
Thibault’s journey with USA Basketball dates back to 1993, when he was the head coach of the USA Men’s World Cup Qualifying Team. Two years later, Thibault served as head coach of the U.S. men’s silver medal-winning team at the 1995 Pan American Games. He later became an assistant coach on three USA women’s medal-winning teams: the 2006 USA World Cup Team (bronze), the 2007 USA squad at the FIBA Americas Championship (gold) and the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team (gold).
That last one, of course, took place more than 13 years ago. Some of the women Thibault is coaching at this week’s training camp were in elementary school then. And, in turn, many of the stars from the ’08 Olympics have since hung up their sneakers.
As for the current pool of players, there are some different faces in this week’s camp, compared to previous USA squads. Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi recently stepped away from international competition.
And veteran stars Elena Delle Donne, Angel McCoughtry and Breanna Stewart, who own five Oympic and five World Cup golds between them, are coming back from injuries.
With several veteran leaders needing to be replaced on and off the court, it’s possible that experienced coaches like Thibault could have a bigger role — and a bigger voice — than has been necessary in recent years.
“It’s a little bit of a changing situation,” Thibault said. “It’s an experimental time for us. We’re bringing in some players who have not been on the Olympic team or World Cup team. It’s a way for us to look at a group of players and see who fits going forward in the short term and the long term.”
Another motivating factor for Thibault to return to coaching with the USA was the opportunity to work with some of the best coaches in the sport.
“It starts with Cheryl,” Thibault said of new USA head coach Cheryl Reeve. “She knows what winning is about. She’s been an assistant in the USA program already. She’s well prepared for what’s to come. And then coaches from our league — Vickie (Johnson) has won, James (Wade) just won a championship, Curt (Miller) has had one of the best records in the WNBA over the last several years. It’s great working with them. They’re innovative and we have different styles, so we can bounce ideas off each other.”
The opportunity for innovation is critical for the USA because, as Thibault noted, international opponents continue to get better every year.
And as for Thibault himself, the long-time coach may no longer be in his 40s or 50s, but his youthful passion for USA Basketball clearly hasn’t lost a step.
“I think it’s an incredible thing,” Thibault said. “When you’re a kid and you watch the Olympics on TV, you say, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great to do that?’ And then it’s like, ‘Oh I’m actually getting to do it!’ It’s a humbling experience. It’s just an awesome thing to be a part of.”
Drew Silverman is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.