By Emma D’Arpino
When Tina Thompson was named head coach of the Virginia women’s basketball team in April, amid the excitement of landing the soon-to-be Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, there were questions about whether the star was ready for the job after only a few seasons of assistant coaching at the University of Texas.
Thompson addressed those concerns during her introductory press conference with UVA Athletics Director Carla Williams, and made it clear that not only she was ready for the chance to take the lead, but that taking the lead is where she feels most comfortable.
“In everything that I do, I want to be the absolute best, and I want to lead from the front,” Thompson said. “It’s where I enjoy being, in the front and leading and teaching.”
The first thing Imani McGee-Stafford, current center for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream and a former Texas player, said when Thompson was named assistant coach at UT in 2015 was that she didn’t see Thompson in that role—she saw her as a head coach.
“[She is] absolutely a great fit,” McGee-Stafford says of her former coach. “She just has a very strong personality so I was sure she would eventually have the top job.”
With a playing career made up of being on top, it’s only fitting that Thompson’s coaching career is headed in the same direction.
During her 17-year professional career, Thompson picked up four WNBA championships with the Houston Comets, landed a spot on the WNBA All-Decade Team, notched nine WNBA All-Star selections and won two Olympic gold medals. When she retired from playing in 2013, she left as the league’s all-time leading scorer (7,488 points in 496 games played) and remained the holder of that record for four years.
Though she was hesitant to move into the coaching realm, once she did, she made an impact right away. Her first assignment was to help senior McGee-Stafford develop.
With Thompson’s assistance, McGee-Stafford saw an increase in average points and rebounds per game, and she moved into the second spot on Texas’ career blocked shot list. During her senior year, McGee-Stafford was also named the Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year, earned honorable mention All-American honors and became the first player in program history to record the combination of 1,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 200 career blocks. McGee-Stafford then went on to be the 10th overall pick in the 2016 WNBA draft (Thompson was the first-ever WNBA draft pick when she went to the Houston Comets in 1997).
“I think for me it was mostly just about confidence,” McGee-Stafford says. “Obviously Tina is a hall of famer, and she’s one of the best ever to play the game. So having a coach who just transitioned from the player perspective who was very, very good at what she did was really helpful in terms of how to explain things.”
Thompson, who was promoted to associate head coach at Texas in 2017, works hard at getting the most she possibly can out of her players, McGee-Stafford says.
“She’s really laid-back, she’s not really a yeller, but she also demands a lot of you,” McGee-Stafford says. “But you want to give that to her. You just know she wants the best and she is the best, so what she asks, you can do.”
After three seasons with the Longhorns, Thompson accepted the job at Virginia and became the program’s fifth head coach in its 44-year history.
Although she hasn’t been on the coaching side of the court for long, Thompson’s former player points to her drive to win.
“She’s won on every level so she knows how to win,” McGee-Stafford says. “She doesn’t know the head coaching thing, but she really knows how to win. And at the very minimum, if you know how to win, you make it happen—no matter where you’re at.”
Thompson’s desire for victory will certainly be a central focus as she takes over a Virginia roster that returns a lot of talent from a season that saw the Cavaliers win their first NCAA Tournament game since 2009.
“We’re going to work hard, and I would be remiss to say that this is not going to be a process,” Thompson said. “It is. And building something great and worth having is absolutely a process. But we’re in a good place.”