- By JuliaKate E. Culpepper The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Nicki Collen was happy as an assistant coach for the Connecticut Sun, but when she was offered the head coaching position with the Atlanta Dream last week, she knew the offer was too good to pass up.
The offer to become a first-time head coach was what the Sun’s assistant coach had always dreamed.
“Without sounding too cliché, it was kind of a dream come true,” Collen said. “I’m not sure you ever know you’re ready to be a head coach, but you have that feeling that it’s your time and when things kind of line up, you know, it just kind of felt right. From the ownership to the president, Theresa (Wenzel), and the roster and just being in the league for two years and the opportunity to coach some of the best players in the world, it just kind of all the pieces played together.”
A former college player at Purdue and Marquette, Collen started interviewing for the head coaching position in early October through phone interviews with Wenzel and owners Kelly Loeffler and Mary Brock.
Collen, 42, said last week she flew to Atlanta for a face-to-face interview and, to her surprise, was offered the job.
“I was pretty flabbergasted,” Collen said. “I didn’t expect them to be offered on the interview and it just kind of made it feel very real, very fast and it just kind of showed the commitment level that they have that they felt like I was the best person to lead the Dream forward and kind of made it a lot easier to move forward.”
While the decision to say, “Yes” to the head coach position seems easy, Collen admits it wasn’t without difficulty.
Spending the past two seasons learning the secrets to succeeding in the WNBA under coach Curt Miller— who Collen called her mentor and close friend— wasn’t left behind without difficulty.
“I think sometimes you just have to kind of spread your wings and take on that leadership role,” Collen said. “I learned so much from Curt. He’s not just a mentor but one of my best friends, and I was lucky to work with him and for him to give me a lot of responsibility and trust with what we did and I think that was a big part of the reason why I know I’m ready for this...
“There are 12 jobs in this league. They’re not going to come open that often and they’re pretty special.”
On Sept. 5, the Dream fired coach Michael Cooper after four seasons with the team. Cooper had a 63-73 overall record and coached the Dream to WNBA Playoff appearances in 2014 and 2016.
The Dream finished last season 12-22, second to last in the Eastern Conference, and failed to qualify for the WNBA Playoffs for only the third season in the team’s 10-year existence, the second time under Cooper.
While becoming Dream coach will be Collen’s first head coaching role, she has plenty of postseason experience which is exactly what the Dream need.
During her nine years of collegiate level coaching, Collen helped coach teams to three NCAA tournaments and five WNITs.
Before the Sun, Collen was an assistant coach at Florida Gulf coast when the Eagles had consecutive 30-win seasons and went to the NCAA tournament in 2015. Collen also had stints as an assistant coach at Arkansas, Louisville, Ball State and Colorado State.
With Collen’s help under Miller, the Sun went 21-13 this season and clinched team’s first ever first round bye in the WNBA Playoffs.
Any amont of success, especially postseason, is reached through preparation and trust, Collen said.
“Nicki brings impressive basketball and coaching credentials along with great leadership qualities and we are thrilled to welcome her to the Atlanta Dream,” Loeffler and Brock said in a statement. “We believe her strong emphasis on player development alongside a disciplined offensive and defensive system will position our talented team to be a playoff contender.”
While Collen hasn’t yet met with her new team after accepting the position, she already has experience with the All-Stars.
During the 2017 WNBA All-Star Game, Collen served as an Eastern Conference assitant coach and worked with Dream guard Tiffany Hayes, guard Layshia Clarendon and center Elizabeth Williams. Collen said she also spent some time with Angel McCoughtry when she was recruited and signed by Louisville in 2005.
From working with the All-Stars to coaching against the Dream over the past two seasons, Collen sees strength in the young team.
“I think it’s an incredibly talented roster,” Collen said. “There are three All-Stars and that starting lineup from the season and obviously if Angel McCaughtry coming back you have an Olympian, I legitimate MVP type player. Lots of great pieces... As a coach it’s exciting to think about all the things that I could do, that I could run, offensively, defensively and take advantage of the strengths of the Dream roster.”