Dream coach comes up with winning design in first year

Back as one of those bona fide student-athletes at Marquette, Nicki Collen had not a clue that today she’d be leading a team into the WNBA semifinals. She didn’t, after all, sign up for the mechanical engineering degree because she wanted to build a better power forward.

But a wiser, older, more prescient soul could foresee the path that led Collen to the front of the Atlanta Dream’s bench. “My college coach said to me, I don’t know why you’ve spent all that time in engineering labs because you’re going to coach someday,” Collen recalled.

“I remember sitting in his office saying I don’t think I could coach because I was such a gym rat, spent so much time investing in my game. I just thought I would get frustrated at times with some of my teammates who were more naturally gifted than me. Thinking wow, if they spent half as much time in as I do, they can truly do this for a living. I wasn’t sure I had the mentality to be able to work with someone who didn’t want it as badly as I wanted it.”

She seems to have worked through such thoughts. At 43, having spent nearly two decades apprenticing as an assistant coach at six different college and professional way stations, Collen landed her first head coaching position with the Dream this season. The career choice just may be paying off. Tuesday she was named the WNBA’s coach of the year. Sunday afternoon, she’ll orchestrate her first postseason game at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion when the Dream begins a five-game semifinal series against the Washington Mystics.

Joked Collen, “I thought about in an acceptance speech (for the coach of the year award) I should just retire. I’m not sure it isn’t all downhill from here.”

No, the pressure of a first postseason doesn’t seem to be wearing on her.

Know this about the coach who has helped put the Dream back on the tracks: Once she decided on this course for her life, there were no half measures. Not only did she commit to the vagabond life of coaching, she further married into it. Her husband Tom, who now is at home with their three children when he isn’t on a consulting gig, has 349 head coaching wins at the women’s programs of Colorado State, Louisville and Arkansas. This is very much the family business.

Not that she considers the mechanical engineering degree a waste.

“I don’t think the way I coach is that much different than how I would analyze a problem if it was related to heat transfer or thermodynamics or any of the things I once studied,” Collen said.

As you might guess, she’s very much into analytics, and the all the advanced statistics that can clutter up a simple game. When, in fact, there are some quite uncomplicated numbers that spell out why the Dream finds itself the second-seeded team in this postseason, and why it believes further advancement may be in order.

After an 8-9 launch to this season, the Dream kind of went nuts. Won eight straight and 15 of its last 17.

It just doesn’t fritter away games, 17-0 in those it led after three quarters.

It is resilient and balanced, attributes that have come in handy after Angel McCoughtry – ninth all-time in league postseason scoring – blew out her knee. Having an All-WNBA first-teamer in Tiffany Hayes helped soften the blow. Having depth – no player has averaged more than 30 minutes a game – provides further cushion.

And there isn’t a team left in the playoffs that the Dream can’t beat. It is 2-1 this season against Washington, 2-1 against Seattle and 1-2 vs. Phoenix.

“Our players know how to close. We’ve won a lot of close games because we’re the best in the league defensively (11-0 in games decided by six points or less). When we decided to lock in late, we made it difficult for people to score and that’s what you have to have,” Collen said.

There is no hiding behind careful cliches for this coach. Selling the Dream is an important part of her job. The city has been slow to wake to what has been a semi-spectacular turnaround season. An announced crowd of fewer than 5,000 came out for the Dream’s most recent home game. So, at various times, Collen will without hesitation call the Dream the loosest, most athletic, best defensive team in the WNBA.

There is no reason not to feel good about what’s to come for the Dream, its first-year coach figures.

“I think our confidence is high,” Collen said. “We knew we had the pieces. We had good players, we had good depth, we had players who would do different things. It just took us time to figure it out.”

With proper engineering should come a certain belief that your product can handle all stress.