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Mike Thibault steps down as Mystics coach with his son Eric taking over

Mike Thibault will step down as coach of the Mystics and his son, Eric Thibault, will be the new coach. Mike will stay on as general manager. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

Mike Thibault started to feel it last season: an elevated sense of appreciation. He began to relish little moments a bit more — time with a former player, a visit to a certain arena, the quiet moments on the bench before a game. Deep down, Thibault knew even before fully understanding — his days on the bench were numbered.

The winningest WNBA coach of all time decided to retire to the front office, the Washington Mystics announced Tuesday, handing off the clipboard to son Eric, 35, after 20 seasons, 379 wins and a WNBA championship. Mike, 72, will hold on to his general manager responsibilities and continue to lead the franchise from the front office as Eric gets the head coaching job he has been groomed for most of his life.

“I think that Eric and our staff can provide them a better coaching job than I can right now, and I mean that with all sincerity,” Mike Thibault told The Washington Post. “I’m at the point after this many years, 50-something years, that it takes a lot of energy on a daily basis to be the head coach and GM. I didn’t think I could give full service to both.”

This has been a yearly evaluation for some time, and Thibault came close to hanging it up after the 2021 season. The Mystics had missed the playoffs for just the second time during his tenure, and it was a grueling season marred by injuries and team chemistry that was off. Thibault couldn’t go out like that.

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There was a thought that 2022 could be the end, but Thibault certainly didn’t want a farewell tour. He was more concerned with winning a title with a championship-caliber roster. But there were little signs that the time might be right. Eric was handling more responsibilities in addition to his role as de facto defensive coordinator. Mike had always planned to pass along the keys to the car with a full tank of gas, and this is a roster with a core of two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne, two-time all-star Ariel Atkins, league assists leader Natasha Cloud, all-WNBA forward Myisha Hines-Allen and No. 3 pick Shakira Austin. The Mystics also hold the No. 4 pick in the 2023 draft. Additionally, Mike’s wife, Nanci, has had health issues in recent years.

All of that added up to the perfect time to leave the sideline.

“I think I needed to feel it most inside that I wasn’t going to have a regret doing it,” Mike said. “You never say never when you walk away from coaching, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable with it. Satisfied. It’s kind of one of those things where you have a job but it doesn’t feel like a job. I’ve always said to myself when it started to feel like that too much, maybe it’s time to walk away. And I was starting to get that feeling a little bit more.”

Mike talked to ownership and colleagues from both the WNBA and NBA about the right time to leave coaching. Owner Ted Leonsis said in an email that the majority of their conversations focused on ensuring the team was set up for future success, including succession plans and front-office organization. Leonsis noted that he and fellow owner Sheila Johnson will be more involved day-to-day.

Mike offered to give up his perch of an office, with the window that overlooks the practice court at Entertainment and Sports Arena, but there haven’t been any takers yet. He has always enjoyed general manager responsibilities — college scouting, free agency, trades, the draft and player evaluation. Thibault plans to travel to most road games and looks forward to limited media sessions.

Still, at 72, Thibault doesn’t expect to sit in that GM chair for another 20 seasons. He has been mentoring assistant general manager Maria Giovannetti to assume that role, and she recently received the title of senior vice president of strategy and vision. Mike envisions a future with Eric and Giovannetti working side-by-side to guide the organization forward.

Atkins noted Mike’s openness as a coach and the rare quality of being completely honest — good and bad — with players. She also pointed out that he has been able to bring in not only quality athletes but players with character.

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“It was definitely bittersweet,” Atkins said about getting the news. “I know that he has put his all into coaching. It’s definitely hard knowing, thinking that I was going to be playing for him for at least another few years. But I’m really happy for him. You can ask anyone: He’s one of the greatest minds to come through the game, be it a GM or coach. . . . Thankful to have started my pro career under his tutelage.”

Not much is expected to change. Eric has the freedom to tweak as he desires, but the Thibaults, Giovannetti and the staff have had the same philosophy for some time. LaToya Sanders will be promoted to associate head coach and another assistant will be added, but the rest of the staff will remain the same. Mike will have the final say on personnel but expects to make decisions with Eric and Giovannetti.

I don’t know,” Thibault said about how long he’ll serve as GM. “I don’t think it’ll be a long, long time. I promised Ted Leonsis a while back that whenever we got to this point that I would stay for at least a short amount of time, a year or two, and then see where it is and see how we’re doing.”

Leonsis has said in the past that he entrusted the organization to Mike, and Eric was put through a full series of meetings before being given the job. There is no WNBA requirement to interview minority candidates, and Eric was the only person to interview for the job.

“It’s going to reflect on me,” Mike said. “If we don’t do what I think we’re going to do, I’m going to get blamed for it anyway.”

Mike did wonder what it’ll be like watching games from the stands alongside Nanci after all this time. He already admits to being stressed out watching their daughter, Carly Thibault-DuDonis, the coach at Fairfield, and there were similar feelings watching Eric coach a few games when Mike was out the past two years. Nanci and Mike met through basketball when still in college, and she previously expressed a bit of good-natured concern about post-retirement life.

“I have a lot of friends to do things with, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, he’s not going to come with us, is he?’ ” Nanci said with a laugh.

Eric now takes over a position that he has been training for most of his life. He was working with Connecticut Sun players when Mike was the team’s coach and Eric was still in college. He was hired as an assistant when Mike joined Washington and has been in charge of practice and player development. He coached two regular season games when Mike was unavailable, and he was named associate head coach four years ago.

“As a young coach who can identify more with players today, I think that’s a big plus,” Mike said. “He’s on the cutting edge of all the technology and data that’s available. But day-to-day, all the players he’s worked with here have improved.

“When five other teams in the league over the last two years have wanted him, I think that would be a clue.”