Phoenix Mercury introduce Vanessa Nygaard as head coach

PHOENIX — During the car ride from her home in Ladera Heights, California, to the airport for her flight to Arizona to be introduced as the Phoenix Mercury’s head coach, Vanessa Nygaard’s 9-year-old son wished her luck and then told her she was the shepherd.

Nygaard was confused. What did he mean?

“You take care of the GOAT,” he said, referring to Mercury star Diana Taurasi.

“I was like, ‘All right, buddy, I got you,'” she said.

With that, Nygaard hopped a flight Monday for her new job in her new city, the task of guiding the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer to another championship awaiting her.

The Mercury announced Nygaard as their coach during a news conference Monday afternoon. She replaces Sandy Brondello, whose contract wasn’t renewed after taking the Mercury to the WNBA Finals last season, and becomes the 10th head coach in the franchise’s 25 years.

“We just thought it was time for a new voice for our team,” said general manager Jim Pitman, who was alongside Nygaard during her introductory news conference. “It’s a long time. Eight years is a long time to be with one group of people.”

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Nygaard became the WNBA’s eighth female head coach, which she called “real progress.”

“There’s a commitment in this league to honoring diversity and representation that maybe other leagues aren’t doing, but we are definitely doing that here,” she said. “And as a former player, I’m excited about the opportunity to see more former players get into coaching. From a young age, so many players, even in the W, have never been coached by a woman, and until you see a female coach or you play for a female coach, you don’t think that that’s a job that you would have.”

Nygaard, 46, talked about everything from coaching Taurasi to calling Brittney Griner the best center on the planet to how coaching high school players prepared her for the youngest generation of WNBA players.

Sitting on the dais inside the bowels of the Footprint Center, flanked by Pitman, was a moment Nygaard had worked toward for almost 20 years. She made being a WNBA head coach her goal since her days playing in the league ended in 2003. She said she tried to become a college head coach, but that opportunity never materialized, leading her to spend nine years as a high school head coach at the Windward School in the Los Angeles area. Earlier this year, when COVID-19 decimated the high school sports schedule in Southern California, the basketball season was pushed back to April, but Nygaard had already committed to being an assistant coach for the Las Vegas Aces, her first WNBA coaching experience since she was an assistant with the San Antonio Silver Stars in 2008.

A few months after Las Vegas was eliminated from the WNBA semifinals by the Mercury, Nygaard is now their coach.

“I think I’ve always wanted to be back here,” she said. “It’s been my dream. I took an unconventional path. I needed to get reps as a head coach, and nobody was going to give me those and I tried at the collegiate level, and I couldn’t get them and so that was where I could get them.

“But I do think I had maxed out what I could do at the high school level and I was ready for a new challenge. And I knew immediately that first day that I arrived back into the coaching with professional athletes in Las Vegas last year, that that is where I was meant to be. That’s where I’m supposed to be, and I’m ready for that challenge.”

Nygaard has resigned as the Windward coach and plans to move her family to the Phoenix area, with which she is familiar. Nygaard was born in Scottsdale but moved away when she was a year old. Her father, who is from Tucson, two hours south of Phoenix, went to the University of Arizona, and her mother went to Arizona State — a house divided. Both of Nygaard’s brothers were born in Arizona, and she spent the hot desert summers visiting her grandparents in Tucson. One of her brothers recently moved to Tucson.

One of Nygaard’s first priorities as the Mercury’s coach was to connect with all her players, most of whom are playing internationally. Next will be to build her staff and handle free agency and the draft.

“I’m just gonna stay awake for the next, I don’t know, year?” Nygaard joked.

Nygaard, who described herself as a “lifelong learner,” said she looks forward to learning from Taurasi, whom she called the “greatest player of all time.”

As her drive to the airport on Monday continued, she said to her son that the GOAT takes care of herself.

“But,” she added, “I’m looking forward to that engagement and learning so much from the greatest player of all time. I mean, this opportunity as a coach, how could anyone pass it up?”

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