Beyond Box Scores: Palmer part of new generation of coaches
By Rob Daniels
When UNCG last hired a women’s basketball coach before Wendy Palmer, its athletics department fielded eight teams, offered no scholarships and seldom traveled farther than Virginia to play a game. Palmer was a 7-year-old, who, while highly intelligent, had never given much thought to Hungary or even to basketball.
The arrival of a new generation in Spartan was basketball was inevitable, but Palmer’s background highlights not only the passage of time but the growth of the women’s game. Call her Generation X-squared.
The Spartans’ 36-year-old boss is among the first Division I head coaches who can tell recruits of a professional career that included national television in the United States and worn-out passports everywhere else. She has nothing but gratitude to her predecessors, whose greats included Debbie Ryan, for whom Palmer played at the University of Virginia, and the Spartans’ own Lynne Agee. But she can’t ignore the experiences that will undeniably resonate with future players.
“I don’t think there are many coaches out there who have had the experiences I’ve had,” she said as she began her first week on the job. “That’s not to discredit coaches who haven’t had a (playing) career, because everyone has their own unique experiences. I don’t think one way is better than another. People who are very good at this game never played it.
“Because I had a career that went a lot longer than college, I do have a certain credibility. We’re in the age of the Internet, and kids can Google you. It’s interesting how in typing a name in, kids will respect what you’ve done. I didn’t know if Debbie could throw the ball in the ocean, and it didn’t really matter.”
Palmer is one of 17 current Division I head coaches who have played in the WNBA. She leads that sorority in career points (3,140), rebounds (1,825), rebounds per game (5.87) and games played (311). And that’s only part of her story.
Title IX, the landmark legislation that legitimized extracurricular activities for women in higher education, became law in 1972, but society didn’t take to it right away. It didn’t get teeth until the late 1980s, which represented excellent timing for a girl born in North Carolina in 1974.
Palmer is young enough to hang on the court with her players but old enough to remember when grass-roots basketball was still bunkered underground in some places. She grew up near Durham but had to get her family to transport her to Greensboro for year-round competition. Among her first memories: sweltering Hanes Gym on the campus of Greensboro College, now a decent chest-pass from her desk.
She played in college for a coach who had built the program – like every other program of the day – from sawdust. UVa hired Ryan, among other reasons, because she was young and because she was willing to coach another sport while doing basketball. And, it didn’t hurt that hurt that the athletics director was her uncle, whose own career in college sports started when he coached the first soccer game he ever saw.
Ryan and her cohort got into coaching when competition for jobs was light and compensation was even lighter. Gradually, that group is moving on in life, replaced by women with basketball backgrounds that once seemed implausible.
A two-time All-American and two-time ACC Player of the Year, Palmer graduated in 1996 but didn’t want to become a history professor, her stated professional ambition since her early teens, just yet. The WNBA was one year from taking flight, which meant the best American collegians still had to be mobile and adventurous.
She played for teams based in Italy, Brazil, Hungary, Spain, Russia and Turkey and thinks those clubs’ travels took her to Austria, France, Germany, Croatia and Romania. The U.S. State Department added a few pages on to her original passport and then gave up and told her to get a new document.
She was so determined and durable that she played two separate stints in Hungary – one before the nation joined the European Union, the other as it was just getting settled.
“It was a great experience to see them open up to the Western mentality,” Palmer said. “Still couldn’t understand the language, though.”
Her high school and college French classes had helped with Spanish, another romance language, but neither served much purpose in Russia.
The juggling went beyond dialects. From 1997 until 2004, Palmer alternated between the WNBA and teams on other continents. In 2006 and 2007, she did something even more bizarre: She gravitated between playing (two WNBA teams) and coaching (as an assistant at VCU and Kentucky).
“It’s tough to break in to coaching when you’re still trying to play,” Palmer said. “I look back on that, and it was sheer insanity. I should have played and just gotten it out of my system, but it was a great experience because in my last few years in the WNBA, I didn’t just think as a player; I thought as a coach.”
By the time she graduated from the 18-to-34 demographic, Palmer had seen just about everything basketball could provide. She played for the Starzz (Utah’s WNBA team) and the Silver Stars (San Antonio.) She played for the Shock (Detroit) and experienced culture shock (too many places to count.) She basked in the Sun (Connecticut), weathered a Storm (Seattle) and considered it all a global Miracle (Orlando).
And you thought your taxes were complicated.
“For a while, I wondered why I had to have so many teams,” she said. “Why couldn’t I just go to L.A. and stick there for 11 years? Or why not Charlotte, when they had a (WNBA) team here? But I look back and realize I had to have all those people to come into my life and I had to come into theirs because there were things I was supposed to learn.”
About the only thing left was a head coaching position, and that became available at UNCG when Agee retired after winning more than 600 games and fronting the program for three decades, guiding it from Division III to conference championships at the NCAA’s highest level in less than 10 years. As luck would have it, Palmer would probably have needed a new job anyway; Ryan also retired after the 2010-11 season.
The recruiting calendar will fill soon enough, and when it does, Palmer will be able to relate diverse experiences to prospects without engaging in disingenuous name-dropping. No current Division I head coach has scored more points or grabbed more rebounds in WNBA play than the Spartans’ new leader. Miles traveled in pursuit of dreams aren’t as easily documented, but Palmer would probably be pretty high on that chart, too.
A popular notion says it’s pure folly to be the immediate successor to a professional icon.
“Well, you don’t replace a legend,” Palmer said. “You have to add to that legacy. And that’s where I think people go wrong. I’m not here to replace coach Agee or what she has done. She’s a pioneer, much like Debbie Ryan, in the game.
“I believe what coach Agee has done here is amazing. She’s a legend. To follow in her footsteps and build on her success here is a great opportunity.”
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