Meet the Rookie WNBA Coach Who Is Married to the Game
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this mom has the Dream.
By Matt Foley
How does a woman who grew up dreaming of becoming a tennis superstar become a WNBA head coach in one of America’s premier markets?
“I never thought I would coach,” says Nicki Collen, whose unlikely rise to the top of women’s hoops crested this fall when she was named head coach of the Atlanta Dream. “If I could still play, I’d be Manu Ginóbili out there,” Collen says. “It doesn’t get much better than playing basketball for a living.” Second best? Coaching a three-time Eastern Conference champion built around a core group of talent, including 2017 WNBA All-Stars Layshia Clarendon, Tiffany Hayes and Elizabeth Williams.
Even after earning a college scholarship, Collen never thought her future would be tied to basketball. Sure, she loved the game, but a promising mechanical engineering career beckoned. Then plans changed. In the 20 years since graduating from Marquette University in 1997, Collen has played professionally in Greece, worked as an assistant coach for five Division 1 universities, stepped away to raise three children, returned and, this past fall, reached the WNBA bench. Now, as the league tries desperately to attract and connect with fans, Collen believes her atypical path could be a positive.
The Atlanta Dream fired former Los Angeles Lakers star Michael Cooper last September, following the team’s worst mark (12–21) since its inaugural expansion season in 2008. Like many WNBA teams forced to compete with more popular acts in town, Atlanta has struggled to cultivate a steady following. The Dream drew an average attendance of 4,452 fans per game last year — down 20 percent from 2016 and 27 percent from 2015. Such a precipitous drop could spell doom for a franchise, but Collen finds reason for optimism. “Every roster is filled with the best players in the world,” she tells OZY. “If we can get people in the door, they’ll come back.”
Being a mother with a young family who took a unique path to the league, I’ll help reach a different market.
Isiah Thomas, the Hall of Famer and former Detroit Piston, has coached every level of basketball. Now, as team president of the New York Liberty, he is all in on the women’s game. “There’s been such little attention paid to the WNBA because of gender stereotypes, but the WNBA is the purest professional sport in existence right now,” Thomas tells OZY. “It hasn’t been tainted by all of the outside forces — money, overexposure, athletes controlling their image — that have disrupted male sports.”
But to win over the Atlanta community, Collen will need to rely on her story, her reason for investing in the Dream. In a sport where, due to low salaries, many players head overseas in the off-season, Collen could become the club’s most recognizable representative. “Being a mother with a young family who took a unique path to the league, I’ll help reach a different market,” she says. “I’m excited to be able to share that with the city and introduce more people to our incredible players.”
Growing up near a country club in Indiana, Collen believed she was “destined to be the next Chris Evert.” Then, when she was 10, the family relocated to “a house with a cement driveway and basketball hoop at the end” in Platteville, Wisconsin. The self-described “tomboy” was crazy about all sports but after sinking a buzzer-beater in sixth grade, she suddenly had a new focus. “From that moment on,” says Collen, “the only thing that mattered was being the best.”
And, while small, Platteville offered a particularly vibrant basketball community. You see, before Bo Ryan became a Hall of Fame coach at the University of Wisconsin, he won four national championships across 15 seasons at Wisconsin-Platteville and made Platteville the winningest college basketball program of the 1990s. Collen started going to Ryan’s camps in sixth grade — “and he allowed me to come to the boys’ camps,” she adds. “Even in high school, I would practice against some of his assistant coaches. He certainly provided me an avenue to get better.”
Collen began her college career at Purdue, playing in the Final Four in 1994 and the Elite Eight in 1995, before transferring to Marquette in search of more playing time. There she started on two additional NCAA Tournament teams and finished her mechanical engineering degree. So, when the WNBA launched in 1997, Collen’s senior year, she wasn’t much interested. Most top players were still traveling overseas, and Europe was the only compelling argument for postponing her engineering career. After a short stint playing professionally in Greece, Collen — then Nicki Taggart — returned to the States, having realized what her coach at Marquette had predicted years prior. “He would always tell me, ‘I don’t know why you’re wasting your time with engineering. You’re going to coach!’ ”
Her first coaching gig was at Colorado State. Her boss? A guy named Tom Collen. When the two started dating, the head coach up and fired his assistant. Nicki spent the next year as the assistant coach at Ball State in Indiana before she and Tom got married. The couple both coached in Louisville in 2003, but when Tom was named Arkansas head coach in 2007, she decided to focus on raising their kids. Six years later, with three children starting school, Collen got the itch again. She spent three seasons at Arkansas before taking a job as lead assistant at upstart Florida Gulf Coast University. “Nicki has a brilliant basketball mind,” says Florida Gulf Coast coach Karl Smesko. Together they led the Eagles to consecutive 30-win seasons and the program’s first ever NCAA Tournament victory in 2015. “She was excellent at conveying her message to the players. She had a huge impact while she was here,” says Smesko, adding, “It was really obvious that she would make a terrific head coach.”
In 2016, the Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller, another of Tom’s former assistants at Colorado State, came calling. Miller knew something the rest of the WNBA would soon find out. With Collen’s help, he improved a 14–20 team to 21–13 and was named the 2017 WNBA Coach of the Year. Suddenly, Miller’s secret weapon — same as Smesko’s and Tom Collen’s before him — was a secret no more.
The Dream intend to keep in that way.