Mystics coach-in-waiting is prepared for whatever opportunities lie ahead originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
As far back as Eric Thibault can remember, he was one to tag along with his dad at basketball practices. He thought having a year-long calendar centered around basketball was the coolest thing. From Mike Thibault coaching through the NBA, the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association and even into the WNBA during his summers off from college, Eric made a point to be there whenever he could.
Coaching is a family affair for the Thibaults. One could say it runs in their blood. Mike has coached for over 40 years across the three leagues. His daughter Carly Thibault-DuDonis was named the women’s basketball head coach at Fairfield University earlier this year after serving as an assistant at Minnesota and Mississippi State.
Up next to have success in the head coaching ranks, and the heir to the Washington Mystics throne, is Eric.
There’s a not-so-secret plan for who’s going to be the next Mystics head coach when Mike, 72, decides to call it a career. Eric is in line to be elevated to the position if Mike were to retire or move to a front-office-only role as general manager.
The elder has openly discussed the plan with the media on numerous instances. Team owner Ted Leonsis (and NBC Sports Washington owner) told the Washington Post that the organization trusts Mike if he were to make that decision to promote his son, among any other decisions he has about the team’s future.
That’s well and good for Eric, but he understands that he’s not the one at the forefront of this decision. All options remain open and he’s not waiting for his dad to retire.
“I don’t know that it’s my choice,” Eric told NBC Sports Washington. “Succession plan usually requires the people above you agreeing on everything. So that’s great. I mean, [Mike] and ownership have the right to change their mind, but I don’t take any of that for granted. I don’t feel entitled to anything. If it shakes out that way, that’s great and I’ll be ready, and I’ll feel proud of that.”
But it’s not just his father and sister Eric has learned from through the years. At NBA practices as a child, the now 35-year-old can list off a litany of legendary current and former NBA head coaches he was around as a kid.
George Karl (2013 NBA Coach of the Year), Terry Stotts (former Portland Trail Blazer head coach from 2012-21), Mike Woodson (NBA head coach for eight seasons), Don Newman (long-time NBA assistant coach) and Ron Adams (long-time Golden State Warriors assistant) are just a few of the coaches he was around as a youngster.
Most of those guys were on Karl’s Milwaukee Bucks staff with Mike. Adams, Stotts and the eldest Thibault were all assistants there from 1998-2002. Woodson was there for a year. Newman also overlapped with that staff.
Stotts would drive him to games and practices when Mike was out of town. The Omaha Racers’ assistant coach Eric Chapman (Mike was the head coach for eight seasons) gave Eric insight at a young age. WNBA assistants Scott Hawk and Bernadette Maddox showed him the ropes when he helped the Connecticut Sun.
“Eric was a guy that even as a young kid he liked adults,” Adams told NBC Sports Washington. “I think he liked that adult world. And he was always present. He wasn’t somewhere else. That was important to him, but he had a chance to observe a lot of different personalities, meet people.”
“I always like being around it,” Eric Thibault said. “I don’t think I consciously knew I wanted to coach until later, till I was like kind of later in college, but I always knew I liked being around it.”
Eric eventually gravitated to sports media. In another parallel universe, he’s the one writing this story on another coach whose next step is a coveted WNBA head coaching position. That only lasted for so long as he joined the staff of the women’s basketball team at the University of Missouri during his senior year in college. A then-practice player looking for a job jumped on the opportunity as a pregnancy led to an opening for a season. There, he began visualizing himself in a coaching role.
Going through the early growing pains of a coach wasn’t an issue for him as he quickly climbed up the coaching ladder. Eric loved the minutiae of team operations, leading to helping cut video, preparing scouting reports and yes, preparing the bagel arrangement. Getting into the weeds was something Eric would carry with him to St. John’s, VCU and eventually the Washington Mystics when he first joined his dad’s coaching staff in 2013.
“I still don’t mind doing like – I don’t want to say menial tasks – but like small detail, getting in the weeds, getting your hands dirty,” Eric said. “Like, so when I was started with [Mike] working for Connecticut, I was doing personnel edits of opponents, writing personnel reports for the assistant coaches for their scouting reports and charting stats during games, putting them together afterwards, send them out. So like that’s kind of where I started.”
It really didn’t matter what the task was, if it was related to basketball, he was content to handle it. Even now with the Mystics, he enjoys tasks that might not be assumed to be handled by the associate head coach.
Essentially, it’s the highest position one can hold on the coaching staff without being the head coach.
“Eric and his sister were really involved in basketball at a young age,” Adams said. “It’s kind of funny. Mike, a real basketball junkie, and the kids. Even when Eric was small, he wanted to be involved in everything. He just hung out and he just loved he loved being in the gym.”
Other WNBA teams have inquired about Eric since he’s been sitting on the Mystics’ bench. Multiple offers have been on the table for him to be the head coach for other organizations. Aside from filling in for his father due to COVID-19 and other absences here and there, Eric has never been the head person at any level.
Those head coaching interviews forced him to be on that side of it for the first time, hypothetically making decisions and designating priority on how to rebuild a team. He feels prepared. Mike agrees.
“I’ve felt all along that when I’m ready to walk away from it, he’s ready,” Mike said at the end of the 2021 season. “I felt that for a couple of years now. I have made no decision on a timetable for me.”
“I think I’m as prepared as you can be without having done it, like you haven’t flown the plane,” Eric said. “I’ve had little samples of it. I think I’ve tried to do my homework. Like different people at different times, I’ve picked their brains about what they thought was important in that job but again, I’m conscious of not making it seem like that’s what I’m spending all my time doing. I mostly spend my time doing my current job and trying to be as good as I can at that because that’s my role with this group.”
Nobody is forcing Mike out of the door to make way for Eric. All parties involved want him to coach as long as he wants. Mike says that day will come when he wakes up and doesn’t want to go to the gym or the office anymore and it will be time.
But regardless, if Eric can have a fraction of the success Mike has had at the WNBA level (and isn’t hired by another team beforehand), the Thibault imprint is going to be on the organization for quite a while.
Whether or not it’s one Thibault or two in the facility will be a discussion for a later time.
“My stories are pictorial when I look back in my mind, and I see — it was really sweet. I see Mike and this little guy and they’re just kind of glued at the hip, and it’s a really satisfying picture in my mind,” Adams said.