WNBA better off because of Dan Hughes' contributions

San Antonio coach Dan Hughes has a picture of himself alongside Pat Summitt and Kay Yow. It's an image that, understandably, would mean a great deal to anyone who coaches basketball. But it has an additional meaning for Hughes, who had spent most of his career in men's basketball before joining the WNBA in 1998.

The photo reminds him of how welcomed he was by important figures in the women's college and pro games.

"People like Pat Summitt, Kay Yow, Geno Auriemma, Ann Meyers -- they made me feel really comfortable," said Hughes, who is retiring from his Stars coaching job at season's end. "It opened the door. They accepted me. I really went to work at understanding where the women's game was then, but also learned how it got there."

Hughes was a men's assistant at Toledo until 1996, when the Rockets' head coach moved into administration. The new coach brought in his own staff, so Hughes took the opportunity to work with the Rockets' women's team in 1996-97. Then Hughes' father suggested another possibility as well: a pro league that was launching in 1997.

"He called me and said, 'Dan, what about this new WNBA?'" Hughes said. "He told me, 'This is something you should look into.'"

Hughes interviewed for an assistant position with the Charlotte Sting in 1997, but didn't get it. But there was another opening with the Sting in 1998, and he was hired.

"I was pretty persistent," Hughes said, laughing.

Nearly two decades later, Hughes will leave the WNBA knowing that it's better off because of his contributions. He has seen the ups and downs, including the dissolution of two franchises that he worked for, in Charlotte and in Cleveland. His time as a general manager also brought home the hard business realities of the sport.

Hughes doesn't rule out the possibility of ever coaching again, but says if it happens, it will be at another level. For the foreseeable future, he is focused on being a television analyst for women's and men's college basketball, and looks forward to spending more time with his family. But he will always have a great affection for the WNBA.

"I got to be in three great franchises and part of a league in its formative years," he said. "I'm so thankful for that, and I'm excited for the WNBA and its future.

"But I also kind of want to do one more basketball experience. I like the diversity of my career. That it was coaching men and women. That it was high school, college, pro, USA Basketball. I want to see if there's maybe one more different kind of chapter."

Hughes hopes we are moving toward an athletic world in which male and female coaches have a reasonable chance at any job based on them being the right fit.

"That a woman can coach a men's team, a man can coach a women's team, or we can jump back and forth," he said. "I love the fact that now you have people like Becky Hammon coaching in the NBA."

Hughes, in his role as general manager and coach of the Stars, brought Hammon to San Antonio in 2007 in a trade with New York. Hughes said the deal was agreed to in principle a few months before the 2007 draft day, when it was finalized. He recalls feeling nervous all that time that something might derail it and joyous relief when it was official.

Hughes was eager to bring Hammon to San Antonio for two reasons. First, having coached against her, he felt like her competitiveness, leadership and on-court skill immediately would help the Stars.

But he also saw how much San Antonio fans were passionately attached to the Spurs standouts like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. He wanted the Stars to also have the kind of player that people in that city would gravitate toward.

"It was a great blessing to get Becky here," Hughes said. "And that trade actually played out even better than I hoped it would."

The highlight of Hughes' time with the Stars was a 2008 trip to the WNBA Finals, led by Hammon and Sophia Young. San Antonio made the playoffs from 2007 to 2012, but has been to the postseason just once in the past four years. The Stars are last in the league this year.

But with San Antonio having young standouts like Moriah Jefferson and Kayla McBride, and a lottery pick in 2017, Hughes has an optimistic outlook on the future. Former WNBA player Ruth Riley is now San Antonio's general manager, and Hughes said he enjoyed working with her this past season.

"I'm glad they split it into two jobs again," said Hughes, who filled both positions for most of the past decade before this summer, save the 2010 season when Sandy Brondello was head coach and Hughes the GM.

"I just feel like with two people, you can get more done and cover more ground. I realized in talking with Ruth how much I had missed having someone else to work with in that regard."

Now Hughes will move on, but the WNBA will always be a part of him.

"I came into this league, and I learned a lot," Hughes said. "Not just about being a coach but being a better man. It taught me how important it is that women get the chance to grow and have the opportunities to be all that they want to be. I love the landscape that I see now better than I did 20 years ago. I want it to keep growing."