First-year WNBA coach Nicki Collen spent the past two years working closely with Connecticut Sun head coach and the 2017 WNBA Coach of the Year Curt Miller. Collen got her first head coaching shot when the Atlanta Dream hired her in October. Collen spent several years in the Division I college ranks before moving on to the WNBA. Her husband, Tom Collen, was a long-time head women’s basketball coach at Arkansas. She has boy-girl twin children Connor and Reese, 13, and another son Logan, 10.
The Atlanta Dream missed the WNBA playoffs at 12-22 last season, but Collen has played a part in another major franchise turnaround. With Connecticut, the Sun went 21-13 in 2017 after a 14-20 season in 2016. Staff writer Taylor Denman caught up with Collen before the Atlanta Dream begin their season May 20 against the Dallas Wings.
TD: Lot’s of people set out as assistants at the professional level with ambitions to make it as a head coach. How’s the job been so far?
NC: I spent a lot of years as an assistant coach in college and then in the pros. I think most assistants want to be head coaches. The longer you’re in it the pickier you are in some ways and wanting to be successful. Being in the pros the last two years, I knew the Dream and their roster. When the job opened the process happened so organically, it just felt right. We had a great turnaround in Connecticut, so I wasn’t looking to leave. The opportunity had to be a good one and it’s been a great experience. Over the last seven months, I’ve learned a lot about the organization and how they do things. I’ve gone through free agency. The best part is now I’m doing what I think I do best, which is coaching basketball.
TD: Since you brought it up, is roster management and dealing with day-to-day transactions the biggest change for you as a head coach?
NC: In some ways, I worked so closely with our head coach in Connecticut that I was always involved in player personnel. That wasn’t unique in terms of knowing the players I wanted to pursue. I think the biggest change is administratively. As an assistant, you think you know what a head coach does administratively, but you don’t. Whether it’s the media and interviews and PR events, and some of it is a ton of fun, but you’re also trying to understand things like, what’s the situation with our apartments, and the budget and things like that.
TD: Where are you from and when did basketball become such a big part of your life?
NC: I’m born and bred a midwesterner. I was born in Michigan but we followed my dad’s career path to Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin. I spent most of my childhood, at least the latter part, in Wisconsin. Like how coaching is such a nomadic profession, home has always been where my husband and I have been. When we had kids, home is where they are.
TD: Was your dad a coach as well?
NC: No, he was in accounting, but he went from an accountant to an assistant controller to a controller to a CFO to a CEO. It was this natural progression in finance for him.
TD: When does basketball come in?
NC: I started playing in third grade, and I really didn’t think I was very good. At that point, we were in Indiana, and I thought I would be the next Chris Evert, a professional tennis player. So that was my passion even though I played all sports. My family made a move to a small town in Wisconsin and there weren’t tennis courts. It wasn’t the fiber of the community. I picked up a basketball in fourth grade and started playing on an all-boys team. I remember the moment it happened when I hit a game-winning shot in a rec league game. That was the “ah-ha” moment when I developed that passion for the game. From then on I continued to play all sports through high school.
TD: Did you play more than one sport in high school?
NC: I played four sports: volleyball, basketball, softball and a club soccer team.
TD: Your first college was Purdue, and those were some successful years, even though that was early in your college career. In 1994 (Collen’s freshman year), that was the furthest the program advanced at that point.
NC: The program’s first Final Four trip. We had no seniors and the National Freshman of the Year in Leslie Johnson. We were a surprise. We won the Big 10, beat Stanford at Stanford. We ran into a buzzsaw in North Carolina, who the won the national championship that year. I didn’t have the role on the floor I wanted. Even though I had a great experience, I knew I only had a finite number of years to play basketball, so I decided to transfer to Marquette, basically for more opportunity.
TD: Was Marquette closer to home, since you mentioned you lived in Wisconsin for a few years?
NC: It was, but my parents were at most of my games at Purdue as well. It wasn’t necessarily a desire to get closer, it was just finding the right fit and finding a program I could help win. It was a great experience transferring to Marquette and helping them to their first NCAA tournament win. It’s not the Final Four, but going in and playing 35 minutes per game and helping them advance in the NCAA Tournament was really special for me.
TD: You had a brief professional career in Greece, so what made you turn to coaching so quickly after that?
NC: I’d still be playing now if I could. I’d love to be the Manu Ginobili of the WNBA. Even though I got my degree in mechanical engineering, I never really thought about what I’d do after that. You’re so invested in your craft. I had a WNBA tryout. The WNBA was just getting off the ground, and a lot of the top players were in the ABL, because it had a traditional season and it paid a little bit more. When I didn’t make WNBA I went overseas hoping to make another run at it. When I went overseas the ABL folded that season. There was great talent moving from the ABL to the WNBA. I was a 5-5 point guard. As much as I thought I could impact a team, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I did a lot of interviews that summer for engineering jobs and kept my eye on coaching as well. I took a job with Motorola in Illinois, but before I started I got a job offer in coaching. I wasn’t going to take the job, but they said, ‘You need to come out.’ I did and realized basketball wasn’t out of my system yet. Engineering was always going to be there, but it would be harder to get into coaching after being in the business sector. Here I am, 20 years later, and I’m still in coaching.
TD: If you had that business career to fall back on, when did you feel like you weren’t going back to that?
NC: I’m not sure I ever felt settled in. My career was not a typical stairstep. A lot of that was for personal reasons. I went to work for who became my future husband. He’s 20 years older than me and further along in his career. We followed his career. We wanted to have children so we took that path. I was out of coaching for a few years but knew I loved it. I felt like I was good at it. I knew I was respected by our players, but it took my husband retiring and me carving my own path for people to know I wasn’t a college coach because my husband was the head coach. It was because I was good at what I did. I think that’s what helped elevate me from Florida Gulf Coast to the Connecticut Sun, then to become a head coach.
TD: Two years at Connecticut and your head coach Curt Miller was the 2017 Coach of the Year. What could you glean from him and transfer to your new job in Atlanta?
NC: Curt’s one of my best friends. He was the best man at my wedding. I was there the day he adopted his sons. Working together was truly an honor, but also a blast. Even though he was a college head coach, the Connecticut job was his first WNBA job. We kind of navigated the waters together. He gave me a voice in huddles, scouting, game planning. If there’s anything I learned from Curt, he’s got a great basketball mind, but he doesn’t get outworked. It doesn’t matter how much he knows the information he’s going to keep pushing, keep watching film and keep looking for ways. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fear of failure, which I think all coaches have driven by some fear of failure to keep your edge. He’s always had (an edge) so he prepares that way. It’s that as much as anything. ... So it’s that as much as anything, how he prepares and when it takes.
TD: You’re stepping into a team that was 12-22 last year. What are your thoughts on what you can do in your first year to make those improvements?
NC: I think it started in free agency, getting Renee Montgomery and Jessica Breland, two players that have experience. Getting Angel McCoughtry to come back — whether she would have come back, I don’t know — but building that relationship with her and letting her know we want her back and how I was going to coach was important. A big part of what we did in Connecticut was changing the culture and sharing the basketball, buying into one person helping other be successful. If there’s one thing I’ve tried to do since I’ve come it’s its getting to know these players and their games and getting them to buy in. I think we have the talent to be successful, but I think it takes them figuring out how to share the basketball and taking a better shot.
Atlanta was not a 12-22 team a year ago, even without Angel and without the free agents we added. The talent was there. It was like I had an empty cupboard, and I think we added new pieces. It’s continuing to trust the process, bring energy and when things aren’t going your way, continue to play together and not be frustrated with officiating. I’ve been kind of going through that process with them.