Lack of experience ultimately led to Liberty parting ways with Walt Hopkins

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  • Walt Hopkins
    American basketball coach
  • Sandy Brondello
    Basketball player

General manager Jonathan Kolb and the Liberty didn’t say much immediately following the firing of former head coach Walt Hopkins on Dec 6. But they didn’t really need to.

The silence in what wasn’t said then, like why the Libs decided to move on from Hopkins after he helped end their playoff drought in 2021, spoke volumes when the next head coach was discovered.

Media got wind of the expected hiring of Sandy Brondello, the former proven and winning head coach of the Phoenix Mercury, on Dec. 31. So, clearly, the problem was exactly Hopkins’ level of inexperience.

“Every season, after every year, we thoroughly evaluate the staff. It’s what we do,” Kolb said Friday, speaking to members of the media for the first time since Hopkins’ firing. “It’s what we did last year after 2020, it’s what we did after 2021 season. I think it was really important for us to look at the season as a whole and when we looked at it in a bookend format.

“We got off to a really great start, and then hey, we beat Washington and we were really competitive... against Phoenix and the single elimination playoff game and that all feels great. But what happened in between?”

Kolb brought up the eight-game losing streak and the two wins the Libs mustered in their last 11 games of the 2021 season. He also briefly mentioned the Libs’ rise in the beginning of the season to a No. 6 seed in the league despite missing one of their best, most experienced players, Natasha Howard, to international commitments and injury.

“‘What do we need going forward?’ And for us, it was truly experience,” Kolb said. “It’s somebody that’s proven. It’s somebody that’s battle tested, because no longer are we in a situation where the eight seed is our goal. We’re looking for sustained playoff success.”

Enter Brondello, who in her first season with the Mercury in 2014, captured the team’s third WNBA title with a veteran Diana Taurasi and a second-year Brittney Griner. And under Brondello’s leadership, the Mercury has not missed a playoffs in eight years.

That’s what the Libs are hoping Brondello — whose hiring was made official on Friday — will do for them, a team with all the right pieces just needing the right coach to push it further.

The last we really saw of Hopkins after getting fired was an Instagram stories post he shared of a quote, by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, that read: “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.”

Kolb commended Hopkins’ ability to nurture his team of mostly rookies in his own rookie season as a head coach.

“You know, 2020 we had a lot of young players — seven young players, seven rookies — and coming into this season I think their games have grown,” Kolb said. “I do think Walt did a great job developing that talent pool.”

But how much Kolb would recommend Hopkins for a future head coaching job on another team? He wouldn’t say, adding that he did not “want to speak for Walt” and that he didn’t “know what Walt would like to do in the future.”

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