The head coach of the Atlanta Dream — the WNBA’s reigning coach of the year — has an encore to prepare for, with a new season just days away. Like Jenga blocks, the questions pile up and pile on Nicki Collen.
Is she really that good? A shiny new, right-out-of-the-package head coach stepped in a year ago and took the Dream on a run that ended just a game shy of the WNBA finals. OK, now show us it that is the new normal, not the anomalous.
And can her team, especially with its perennial All-Star Angel McCoughtry out indefinitely with a torn knee, regain the magic that saw it win 15 of its last 18 regular-season games?
The coach sets her jaw and says: “I think our odds are like fifth or sixth in Vegas to win a championship (No. 5, at 6-to-1, according to Vegas Insider for all those with the inexplicable urge to bet WNBA). That even coming off a year we were the clear-cut No. 2 and played to the last two minutes with a chance to go to the Finals.
“I think people think we’re a contender if Angel gets healthy. That’s OK. We think we’re a contender even without (her).”
But, you know, it’s not like her husband, Tom Collen, has it so easy these days, either. Those school lunches aren’t going to pack themselves. Woe be to him if his daughter misses a cheerleading practice. Yeah, you could say juggling teenage twins and an 11-year-old is challenging. Chainsaws might be easier.
And until he recently hired a housekeeper to help with the upkeep of the family’s large home in Milton, the one-time SEC coach of the year and veteran of eight trips to the women’s NCAA basketball tournament had been forced to face the ghastliest kind of domestic horrors. “I never envisioned cleaning seven toilets once a week,” he said with a smile.
Because life hardly ever is in sync, because it guffaws at the idea of everyone in the household playing just the right note on time, Nicki and Tom Collen have spent the last 18 years seeking a compromise of passions. They both loved coaching. They loved each other. They loved the idea of building a family together, fertility issues be damned. Something – more precisely someone – always had to give. But here they are still together, still striking delicate balances and regularly recalibrating priorities.
Spanning a significant age difference – Tom is 65, Nicki 44 – the two of them are dealing with some quite non-traditional roles at their stage of life. At an age when many men are weighing an uncomplicated retirement, Tom is in charge of the care and feeding of three adolescents. And at a time when others in her profession had already built an extensive resume, Nicki found herself playing career catch-up in her 40s, quickly rising until finally landing her first head coaching position last year, literally her Dream job.
“Clearly, she’s the coach in the family now,” Tom said, embracing the flipping of the duties. “I’m just there to support her, help her raise our kids and do what I need to do to give her the freedom she needs to do her job and do it well.”
For so many years, Tom’s career path determined the course for his family. He spent 35 years in the business, a head women’s basketball coach for the last 16 of those at Colorado State, Louisville and Arkansas. When Arkansas fired him following the 2014 season, a move the couple had been mulling was made for them:
Now it would be Nicki’s turn.
It was a long time coming. Back in 2001, the Dream’s head coach was weighing a corporate career. Her playing days were done – an all-conference guard at Marquette, she played one year professionally in Greece – Nicki took an engineering job with Motorola. But then she got a phone call from Fort Collins, Colorado, and it was no robocall. The Colorado State head coach wanted her to come out for a visit and apply for a vacant assistant’s position.
Tom Collen convinced her to lay down the engineering and the real world and join the volatile existence of assistant coaching as part of the Rams staff.
Months later, he was firing her.
They had begun dating, an already delicate situation involving the boss and one of his subordinates. Then, as it turned serious and they were clearly a couple, the athletic director informed the head coach he had to let his assistant go to comply with department nepotism rules.
Nicki had her first big decision in the tug-of-war between her personal and professional goals. Hit the road and start over in coaching. Or stay in Fort Collins with Tom.
“The reality was I was in love. I don’t know that anybody thinks straight when that happens,” she said. “I don’t think I contemplated anything other than being there (with Tom). It wasn’t a turning point for me, it was part of the story, part of the sacrifice you make.”
The nepotism policy was rewritten a year later – after the football coach wanted to hire his son – and Tom was able to bring his wife back into the program. Her penchant for devising defenses and breaking down opponents’ game video was a big part of going 24-7 and winning the Mountain West Conference in 2001-02.
When Tom moved for the Louisville head job the following season, his wife was part of the coaching package. The truth was that Nicki Collen possessed a terrific basketball mind, but she was kind of typecast as her husband’s helper. How would she ever break out of that narrow definition?
“She was caught in my shadow, and I think she knew that, and I think there were times that was really hard for her,” Tom said. “In the back of her mind she knew how good she was. I always knew that. But nobody else knew that.”
Then came the happiest kind of complication – family. The two had been through an unsuccessful round of in-vitro fertilization and the heartbreak that entails. Then the procedure took. Nicki was pregnant with triplets – she lost one early in the pregnancy – and another decision brewed. This time it was to put aside all thoughts of coaching in order to launch the kids. When she became pregnant with her youngest, Logan, a couple of years later, the choice was reinforced.
Nicki would spend six years out of coaching, with her children, before re-joining her husband in the coaching offices at Arkansas.
“When I speak at leadership stuff or I’m talking to women at a time when women’s empowerment is so important, I don’t have that obvious stair-step path to getting to where I’m at,” she said. “There were twists and turns. I had to step back and step away. It doesn’t mean I didn’t ultimately get to where I was supposed to be.”
Arkansas fired Tom in March 2014 following a 19-11 season and two consecutive seasons out of the NCAA tournament. By then he was 60 years old and in no mood to seek another job. He would take over on the home front and free his wife to get as far in coaching as her talents would take her. Her professional needs began to take precedence, as the family moved to Florida when she was hired as an assistant at Florida Gulf Coast, and stayed anchored there when she got a WNBA assistant’s post at Connecticut. When she killed the interview and won the Dream head coaching job, they all moved to Atlanta.
In retrospect, there always will be the question about which parent drew the most difficult years: Those early ones when the children need everything or, now, a decade later, when they think they know everything.
As the person running the household now, Tom’s cooking is suspect, he reports and Nicki confirms. But his driving skills are unquestioned. One twin, Reese, is into riding and cheering; the other, Connor, into lacrosse. The youngest, Logan, alternates between lacrosse and tennis. That all adds up to a lot of afternoon chauffeuring.
The least surprising aspect of where Tom finds himself now is the rapid ascent his wife made in the coaching profession once she focused intently upon the job.
“Oh, my gosh, she’s the most accomplished of us. In the classroom – she graduated valedictorian in her class in mechanical engineering,” Tom said. “She played in the Final Four (his own playing days stopped at high school). She played overseas. I tell her this all the time – and anybody else who will listen – but as a head coach she far exceeds my 35 years in the profession already.
“She doesn’t have the resume or the longevity, but she is incredibly intelligent, she makes adjustments quickly, she’s got the right personality for the job. I don’t think there is another coach in the WNBA like Nicki Collen – she’s young, she’s energetic, she relates to the players. They buy into her energy. They know that she knows what she’s talking about.”
The Dream picked up on all that when it took a chance on a Connecticut Sun assistant still filling out her coaching bona fides independent of her husband.
Not that they’re in the business of relationship coaching, but she and Tom might also bring a little of that to the table, too, if you look closely enough at their partnership. It all comes back to coaching one way or another, to hear Nicki tell it. Doesn’t it always with this family?
“When it comes to relationships, I don’t care if you’re the same age or you’re in two different professions, relationships don’t survive without sacrifice,” she said. “It’s not always easy and ours isn’t a fairy tale. We’ve had tough personal moments – even trying to have kids and the struggles of infertility, things like that. Our challenges are different than other people’s, maybe because we worked together. People tell me all the time I couldn’t work with my spouse. But that’s all I knew working up to a certain point. I didn’t necessarily see it that way.
“We have unique challenges because of our age difference. I think some days he probably wishes we were the same age and we could go travel the world because he’s retired now. But he had his kids later. There are unique challenges all around. It’s not always perfect, but we keep trying to find a way. It’s no different than when you’re scouting an opponent and trying to figure out how are we going to beat this team? That’s kind of how we work together in our marriage: How will we make this work?”