Nate Tibbetts says he’ll learn how WNBA works in Mercury head coach introduction

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Mercury PORTLAND, OREGON - FEBRUARY 01: Associate Head Coach of the Portland Trail Blazers Nate Tibbetts reacts on in the third quarter against the Utah Jazz during their game at Moda Center on February 01, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

New Mercury head coach Nate Tibbetts responds to backlash surrounding his hiring. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) (Abbie Parr via Getty Images)

The Phoenix Mercury introduced newly hired head coach Nate Tibbetts on Friday. The 46-year-old views the new role as a “heck of an opportunity to become a head coach and continue to grow,” he said.

He has no experience in the WNBA, but is reportedly the highest-paid coach in the league now. That title previously belonged to Becky Hammon, who just led the Las Vegas Aces to their second WNBA championship in the two years since her hiring.

Tibbetts’ addition was widely scrutinized by prominent figures in women’s basketball, including former Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw.

Phoenix made the subsequent choice to add “Girl dad” when listing Tibbetts’ qualifications on social media, a move that seemed to only attract more criticisms of gender bias surrounding his hiring and pay.

While the former Orlando Magic assistant declined to address his salary Friday, he addressed the backlash.

“I don’t really live online. Me speaking to the players and them welcoming [me] the way they have, that’s just made me not worry about things that they’re not worried about, to be completely honest,” he said.

In his 13 seasons in the NBA, Tibbetts also made stops with the Portland Trail Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers. He has head-coaching experience in the G League, in addition to his career as a basketball player for the University of South Dakota.

“I know I’m going to need to rely on our team to learn how this league works. That’s why I’m here,” he told reporters Friday.

Mercury star Diana Taurasi offered public support for Tibbetts before his introduction, saying she was “thrilled” he decided to come to the WNBA after 14 years at the “highest level.”

When asked about his lack of experience on Thursday, she referenced former Mercury head coach Paul Westhead, who led the team to a title in 2007 having “never coached women before.”

“So I have pretty good experience in that realm,” Taurasi added with a smile. The decorated veteran reportedly sat front row at Friday’s news conference.

The WNBA has changed since 2020, when just four of 12 head coaches were women and only one was a Black woman. At the end of this season, nine head coaches were women, and three of them were Black. Tibbetts is one of three male head coaches in the league, a fact he acknowledged.

“I understand, I’m sensitive to the situation,” he said. “I take responsibility for that, I know that people are questioning it, and agree or disagree, I’m going to do the best job that I can and do.”

Tibbetts’ arrival comes months after the Phoenix hired Golden State Warriors executive Nick U’Ren as general manager. Team owner Mat Ishbia has shaken things up, recently investing $100 million that will contribute to state-of-the-art facilities for the Mercury.

The Mercury finished this season on an 11-game losing streak that culminated in a league-worst 9-31 record. Interim head coach Nikki Blue was thrust into managing the situation after Vanessa Nygaard’s ouster. Some fans wondered whether Blue would be considered for the permanent head coach position, as players deemed her “an amazing asset” during exit interviews.

Sitting next to Tibbetts at the podium Friday, U’Ren said he felt the team could go in a different direction, but he believes in what the league represents.

“We know, as we run a WNBA organization, that diversity and opportunity are critical. I would say our process, our candidate pool and our finalist pool all reflected that,” U’Ren said.

He pledged to take action for more diversity and opportunity in the Mercury organization going forward.

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