Eric Thibault is taking over as Washington Mystics head coach ahead of the 2023 season upon the retirement of his father, WNBA legend Mike Thibault, from coaching. Mike will still work for the organization as general manager.
"I'm really excited," Eric, 35, told ESPN this week. "My life is here. 10 years here, I've grown up here in a way. I feel really honored to be able to lead this team now to hopefully where we want to go."
After spending the last decade on Mike's Mystics staff, including the past four years as associate head coach, Eric will seek to return Washington to championship contention. The Mystics -- who under Mike made the postseason eight of the last 10 years and won the franchise's only championship in 2019 -- fell in the semifinals of the 2022 playoffs to the Seattle Storm.
"It's very rare if somebody's coming in their first year to have a chance to win the championship," Eric said. "We've got a team that, if we make the right moves this offseason and we do the things we're supposed to do and develop as a group, we'll be a contender.
"We felt at the end of the season this year, that we were in that group. We probably weren't the favorite... those last few steps from here to the top are sometimes the trickiest ones, but luckily we've navigated that terrain before."
The so-called "succession plan" for Washington has been somewhat of an open secret in recent years, pending Mike's final say and approval from Mystics ownership. Eric had previously interviewed for other jobs around the league, but following Washington's title decided to "stick it out" in D.C. in hopes things would work out there.
"I always thought this is the place I wanted to be and if there was a chance of that happening, I thought [staying with the Mystics] would be in my best interest," Eric said.
Mike Thibault issued a statement, saying: "I am proud to have been the Head Coach of the Washington Mystics the past 10 years. After 55 years in coaching (the last 20 in the WNBA), I feel like it is time to turn this team over to Eric and his coaching staff on the court. He is ready and prepared for it. I am looking forward to my continued role as GM, working together with the incredible energy that Maria, Eric and the rest of the staff bring in order to continue our pursuit of another WNBA Championship..."
Washington is set to return its core -- two-time league MVP Elena Delle Donne, all-defensive first-team selection Natasha Cloud, and two-time All-Star Ariel Atkins -- in 2023. The Mystics recently drew the No. 4 overall selection in next year's draft, earning a spot in the lottery after acquiring a pick swap via trade.
Eric's vision is to marry the team's defensive toughness from last year with the offensive prowess that defined its 2019 championship run.
"We've got to get back to sharing the ball and moving it and spacing the floor and creating opportunities to get to the rim and make 3s," he said. "We only did that maybe in flashes last year."
He prides himself on being collaborative, a "connector" who "[tries] to pull the best out of everybody," someone who embraced forming his own relationships with players even with his dad as head coach.
Atkins, Cloud and Delle Donne -- the latter whom Eric said feels the strongest she has in a long time coming off back issues that sidelined her for parts or all of each of the past three seasons -- will be free agents in 2024. Eric says even if they were signed on longer, "we all feel like we don't want to waste any years."
"Everybody's early in their prime, middle of their prime, late in their prime, where we know the time is now," Eric said.
A fixture of the Mystics' 2019 championship team who's served as an assistant for the last two seasons, LaToya Sanders will be promoted to associate head coach -- "she'll be a head coach at some point if she wants to be," Eric said.
Mike retires as the winningest coach in league history (379 regular season wins) and as a three-time WNBA coach of the year (twice with the Connecticut Sun, once with the Mystics). He also worked as an assistant on multiple NBA teams, coached in both the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and World Basketball League (WBL) and won gold with USA Basketball, most recently as part of Cheryl Reeve's staff at the 2022 FIBA World Cup.
Thibault, 72, won't go far given his general manager role, which he first assumed in addition to head coaching duties when hired by Washington in Dec. 2012.
"I think he and I will still talk all the time about basketball and our team and what we need," Eric said. "He knows he'll need to give some room to breathe in coaches' meetings, for everybody else to have their input and for my voice to be the one that, when we have to make decisions about style of play or how we're going to cover a pick and roll that night, it's going to stop with me. [But] I'd be crazy not to use him as a sounding board."
Topping off a life-changing 2023, Eric and his wife, Andreya, are expecting their first child in January. He points out the pair got married nine days after Washington's championship.
"We seem to just do everything in big major life groupings," Eric said. "It's exciting. It'll be a journey on two fronts for sure."
With Thibault's retirement, none of the 12 active WNBA head coaches held that position prior to 2010.