MINNEAPOLIS — Lindsay Whalen had already secured her legacy in the state of Minnesota.
She led the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team to a Final Four as a player, after growing up in Hutchinson, Minn., about an hour’s drive from campus. After a successful tenure with the Connecticut Sun, she returned to Minnesota in 2011 to join the Lynx, and served as point guard for four W.N.B.A. championship teams and two other trips to the finals, a vital cog in the most sustained success by any group in league history.
And yet, there was a new reason to cheer this month when Whalen joined her teammates on “Minnesota Lynx Night” at Target Field before a Twins game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Whalen became the women’s basketball coach at Minnesota in April, and will continue to be the primary point guard of the defending champion Lynx for the W.N.B.A. season, which begins Friday.
Her two offices are about three miles apart, and a source of some emotional whiplash.
“You just kind of have to compartmentalize things, prioritize,” Whalen said after a recent Lynx practice. “And you have to wear different hats at times. If it’s recruiting, if it’s fund-raising, whatever it is, after practice or at night, you kind of have to switch gears pretty quick.”
The two seasons won’t quite overlap, even if the Lynx take their usual trip to the W.N.B.A. finals in mid-September, about two months before the Golden Gophers play their first regular-season game.
But physically, the dual roles mean fitting a job within a job — early-morning calls and emails before coming into practice to give her 36-year-old body the strength and vitality necessary to power through its 15th W.N.B.A. season. And then what?
“Just finished practice and going to go over to the U to work for the rest of the day,” Whalen said, matter-of-factly, as if everyone works two such high-profile jobs.
Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve had no doubt that Whalen could handle this path. She even reached out to Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle within an hour of the previous coach, Marlene Stollings, leaving the program for Texas Tech.
The number of people who have successfully navigated this two-track course can be counted on one finger: Dawn Staley, who built the Temple women’s basketball program as she finished her W.N.B.A. playing career. Reeve saw it firsthand as an assistant with Staley’s Charlotte Sting.
Staley, too, is a believer in Whalen’s ability to manage the two jobs and offered her some advice: Get your workout in early, or it won’t happen. Prepare to give up most of your social life. Assemble an elite staff, which Whalen has, hiring Carly Thibault-Dudonis away from Mississippi State and bringing in her former Gopher teammate Kelly Roysland, who had been the Macalester College coach.
“I told Lindsay today that she needs to be a player as long as she can,” Staley said in a conference call with reporters this month. “It is great satisfaction to be on both sides of the whistle. And mentally, it’s a little bit different. It’s a breath of fresh air for her to play for the next four or five months and then get into the swing of things of coaching a college basketball team.”
Reeve is watching Whalen take that next step in real time, one she herself made when, after a successful run as a W.N.B.A. assistant, she took the helm of the Lynx in 2010. She said the transition was about accessing different parts of her personality.
“One time you have to be very organized and vocal and plan and be the voice,” said Reeve, who is also the general manager. “And other times, you’re still the voice, but it’s a little different in terms of what you think about.”
Whalen said there is a difference not only in what she says, but in the way she listens. As she is practicing with the Lynx, she has begun to mentally jot down approaches Reeve takes, even asking her coach to show her what a particular play or drill is and how she teaches it.
“It’ll be kind of like having another summer internship where I’ll be learning even more from her and watching her even more closely than I probably had before,” Whalen said of Reeve. “The way she does things as a team together is really at the highest level. I’ll be learning from one of the best for sure.”
This is part of a multiyear plan Whalen had already put in motion before the Minnesota job came along. Two years ago, she took an internship with the Lynx during the off-season, working with Reeve and Roger Griffith, the general manager at the time. She did player evaluations, cutting up video clips and seeing what kind of fit the front office would be once her playing career ended. And this past off-season, Whalen worked in the broadcast realm, contributing to Timberwolves telecasts on the men’s side, and working women’s games for the Big Ten Network.
The pursuit of a championship in the hypercompetitive W.N.B.A. is serving as a training ground for Whalen’s new coaching job. A 36-year-old point guard needs to limit her minutes to remain fresh for the W.N.B.A. playoffs, so any recruiting trips Whalen has to fit into her summer schedule can be rest for her. And making FaceTime calls to prospective players may carry a bit more weight when it comes from, say, the locker room of a four-time W.N.B.A. championship team.
It has certainly worked so far. Two players — Mercedes Staples and Sara Scalia — have already signed on.
In Scalia’s case, no introduction was needed. She and her family, who are from Stillwater, Minn., about 30 miles east of Minneapolis, are Lynx season ticket holders.
There were plenty of those season-ticket holders, for both of Whalen’s teams, on hand at Target Field, too, before the Twins-Blue Jays game. As she waved to fans she will be seeing, summers and winters, as long as she wants — the Lynx have committed to her for as long as she wishes to play, though she is taking it year-by-year — her teammate, the 2017 W.N.B.A. Most Valuable Player Sylvia Fowles, bowed to her, “I’m not worthy”-style.
Whalen knows she is breaking new ground in Minnesota basketball, but she has not had much time to consider her legacy.
“I will at some point when I’m able to sit back,” Whalen said. “It’s obviously an amazing honor, but I’ve been busy. I’ve been working. I’ve got to get as much done as I can.”
And with that, Whalen left training camp … to get to work.