Penny Toler to take over as coach

Penny Toler didn't like the inconsistency the Los Angeles Sparks have shown this season. So the team's general manager and executive vice president decided to make a coaching change and let Carol Ross go over the weekend. Figuring it would be difficult for any outsider to step in and take over the Sparks with 12 games left, she thought she'd be the best person to take the coaching reigns.

"If we're going to make this change, I'll go down there and coach the team," Toler said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Monday night. "It's a difficult situation for any coach to come into, so I'll go to the bench, and I'll coach the team."

She joins a rare club of WNBA coaches who had no previous coaching experience before getting a head coach position.

"I'll definitely be nervous for the first game on Wednesday," Toler said. "I'm going to rely on my assistants a lot. The last couple of days, I've never looked at so many plays in my life."

Top assistant Gail Goestenkors left when Ross was let go. Current assistant Gary Kloppenburg will stay on and be joined by Steve Smith, who returns after three previous stints as a Sparks assistant. Smith had been serving as athletic director at a high school in Los Angeles.

Toler said she will only be coaching the club until the end of the season and doesn't plan on coaching after this year.

"I could have hired myself a long time ago if I wanted to," she said. "I know the players and know what they are capable of. We needed to bring some new energy into the team. We were playing lackluster. We all know it's not one person's fault. and in a situation like this we didn't want to bring an outsider in to coach the team."

In 1997, when she played for the Sparks, Toler became the first woman to score a basket in the WNBA. She retired from playing in 1999 and became the team's general manager in 2000, which led to her presiding over the Sparks' back-to-back WNBA titles in 2001 and 2002.

Now she can add coach to her resume.

"That's been the running joke all day -- of what to call me," she said. "It's just Coach Toler. It's been funny, but I told the players, 'Just call me coach.'"

Los Angeles (10-12) has struggled with consistency this season. Despite their record, the Sparks are still in fourth place in the West, which would be good enough for a playoff spot. Los Angeles is 8½ games behind West-leading Phoenix but just a half-game behind third-place San Antonio.

"Our goal is to make the playoffs first," she said. "This is a very tough league. We still have 12 games to go. We're going to take it one game at a time and try and secure a playoff spot. With the way season is going, we can't assume we're in the playoffs. We have to win."

The Sparks had been playing better lately, before Ross was fired. They won three in a row on a recent road trip before falling at home to Washington before the All-Star break. Los Angeles has struggled at home this season and gone 3-7 at Staples Center.

"This is one of those things where we have to get some consistency -- you can't stumble into a championship," Toler said. "If you look back in the Sparks' history, I'm hard pressed to see us being 3-7 at home. This is an extremely difficult situation. It was a very tough decision."

Toler will make her debut when the Sparks host the New York Liberty on Wednesday night.