Short Term Focus, Long Term Goals Define Agler’s Mentality
Editor’s Note: Brian Agler is entering his first season as head coach of the Dallas Wings. He has been coaching in the WNBA for 20 years, previously at the helm of the Minnesota Lynx, Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks and as an assistant with the Phoenix Mercury and San Antonio Silver Stars. He has won two WNBA Championships (2010 with Seattle, 2016 with Los Angeles), the first coach to do so with two different teams, and stands as one of the winningest coaches in WNBA history. This is Part IV on Coach Agler. We encourage you to read the first, second and third installments of our series on him before moving on.
Eight games into the 2007 season, the San Antonio Silver Stars were 4-4 despite adding an arsenal of ability in the offseason. As assistant coach Brian Agler was about to enter practice, his phone rang.
“Hey, I gotta go to the doctor, you run practice today,” Dan Hughes, who was in his third season as San Antonio head coach, instructed his assistant.
“This is weird, okay,” Agler emphasized.
Later, Hughes appeared and met with the team. Then, the coaches collected for a meeting, and Hughes revealed he would have Achilles surgery, forcing a temporary leave. He turned to Agler and told him he would be his substitute.
The opportunity he had waited years for was finally there, and Agler capitalized.
Agler had a talented staff of Sandy Brondello, who is now starting her sixth season as the Phoenix Mercury’s head coach and winner of the 2014 WNBA Championship, and her husband, Olaf Lange, who has been the head coach of the Russian Women’s National Team since 2017. Together, they built a strong foundation for a team that finished the regular season 20-14 and advanced to the Western Conference Finals.
Others in the league took note of Agler’s work throughout the situation, namely Seattle. Agler knew Storm President and CEO Karen Bryant from their ABL days, and in 2008, their repertoire helped turn the San Antonio assistant into Seattle’s general manager and third-ever head coach.
For Agler’s first two years in town, the Storm had good regular seasons, twice placing second in the Western Conference, but failed to advance out of the Western Conference Semifinals both times. Those losses made it five-straight seasons Seattle lost in the first round after winning the 2004 title.
But things were different in 2010. They weren’t just different, they were special.
Lauren Jackson was finally free of her injuries for an entire season. Sue Bird was dishing and driving at an elite level. Swin Cash, Tanisha Wright and Camille Little brought added toughness. The team comfortably cruised as the league’s most dominant team in the regular season. Its 28-6 record was the best in the Western Conference by 13 games and tops in the league by six games. Needless to say, there were some expectations as the postseason approached. How did Agler handle them?
Tampa hosted the 2019 Women’s Final Four, and when Agler was there for it in March, he had some time to kill in his hotel room.
“I’m watching TV, local news, and sports comes on,” he said. “They’re interviewing the Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager. He says, ‘Man, we’ve had a great year, we’re good, it’s Stanley Cup or bust for us.’ When you look at it from that perspective, that means you’re not respecting who you’re playing in the first round. You’re looking to the finals already. You’re ripe for the picking. You are ripe for being picked right off the vine.”
The Lightning entered the 2019 NHL Playoffs with one of the best regular season records in history, but the last team to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, the Columbus Blue Jackets, shockingly swept them in the first round.
If only Agler had been their head coach.
“You just have to stay focused in the moment. It takes discipline,” he explained. “Here’s the thing about sports: sports are a competition. You have to always respect your opponents. Is that sportsmanship? Maybe. But when you start disrespecting your opponents, it’s just a matter of time. Someone is going to get you.”
In his second season as Columbus Quest head coach in the ABL, Agler’s team was down 2-0 in a best-of-five series to the Long Beach Stingrays in the finals. The Quest were the reigning champs and went 36-8 in the regular season, but now faced elimination with no validating title.
“You know, games were close, we lost,” Agler remembered telling himself. “We just have to focus on getting one win. Just get one win.”
They did. Then they got another. And another. All of sudden, Columbus won the three games it needed, and the Quest were champions again.
Agler has continued with that same approach in 2010. It required plenty of maturity from the players and everyone else involved, he said. But it was important the head coach keep his head, too.
One game at a time, the Storm plucked through the 2010 WNBA Playoffs. One after another, those single games piled into series wins, and after seven in a row, a WNBA championship: Agler’s first and one of the crowning achievements of his career.
It made the coach feel similarly to his Quest days, understanding in the present how incredible the team was.
“A lot of times, it takes history to look back on things to know something was special,” Agler said. “We knew in that season what this team could be. It was just a matter of us staying focused. We knew this was a special season and a special team.”
Of course, winning his first WNBA title was amazing. Agler had never stopped believing in himself, but after going through his tenure in Minnesota and spending years out of the spotlight, it made it that much sweeter.
“When you get a second lease on your career or your life or whatever it might be, you have the ability to stay in the moment and appreciate things more in the moment than you do if you don’t go through that,” he said.
Agler stayed in Seattle for four more seasons, the first three ending in a first-round defeat and the final without a postseason berth. Jackson’s health continued to be an issue, and stalwarts like Bird, Wright and others were aging. Ownership wanted to get younger, but Agler couldn’t comply.
“I don’t have tanking in my DNA. As long as we have a chance to get in the playoffs and advance, it’s all out,” Agler explained. “I don’t know if (ownership) wanted us to completely start over, but they wanted to build through the draft.”
With one year left on his deal and no assurance from the team he would be around to see through the plan he presented to ownership, Agler asked for permission to talk to other teams. It was granted, and soon the coach was going south to L.A.
In 2015, the Los Angeles Sparks hired Agler as their head coach, and it didn’t take long for him to make his mark.
In his first season, the Sparks went below-.500 in the regular season but qualified for the playoffs, losing to the No. 1 seed Minnesota Lynx in three games in the Western Conference Semifinals. In his second season, Agler became the fifth-ever coach to win multiple WNBA championships and the first to lead two different teams to a title.
In the regular season, the team went 26-8, second in the league behind the Minnesota Lynx and five games ahead of the next-closest competitor. A new playoff format for the 2016 postseason allowed for teams from the same conference to play one another in the WNBA Finals, and it happened the first year it could.
With its bye to the Semifinals, Los Angeles only needed to win one series to get to the championship. A 3-1 series victory over the No. 4 seed Chicago Sky sent the Sparks to the Finals to face the Lynx, who had dispatched of the No. 8 seed Mercury in their Semifinal matchup.
“We had played even in 2015,” Agler said. “We went the distance in the first round, lost a close game at their place in Game 3. And then, in 2016, our regular season series with them was really competitive. Going in, we had confidence, but we also knew what they were capable of and how good they were.”
It turned out to be one of the best series the league has ever seen, and Game 5 in particular will be remembered forever.
In Game 1, Minnesota’s Maya Moore drove baseline and made a layup with 24.7 seconds remaining to tie the game at 76. Coming out of a timeout, Agler put the ball in Chelsea Gray’s hands at the top of the key. She drove right and found Alana Beard open near the three-point line, and Beard drilling the game-winner as time expired, giving Los Angeles a 1-0 series lead.
The Lynx responded in Game 2, 79-60, to knot the series, 1-1, before the Sparks returned the pain and took Game 3, 92-75. Minnesota forced a Game 5 with an 85-79 victory in Game 4, setting the stage for a winner-take-all situation. Naturally, the game came down to its final moments.
Candace Parker hit a layup with 19.7 left in the fourth quarter to give the Sparks a 75-74 advantage, invoking a Minnesota timeout.
“You have to take the emotion, as much as you can, out of it,” Agler said. “You have to keep your head, stay in the moment, and then just coach the moment. Always think ahead of what could happen for strategy, but you have to stay in the moment.”
Out of the break, Moore swished a turnaround jumper with 15.4 ticks to go to put the Lynx up, 76-75.
Agler remained calm on the sideline and said it wasn’t difficult.
“It was easy because going into the game, I told myself, ‘We just want to give ourselves and opportunity here. We want to be in striking distance or in position at the end of the game,’” he explained, “and that’s where we were.”
Gray hustled the ball down the court and eventually settled for a contested fadeaway jumper with 6.9 seconds to go. It drew iron, opening the door for Nneka Ogwumike to grab her fifth offensive rebound of the game. But Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles blocked her put-back, so Ogwumike hauled down another board and lofted up one-legged prayer as she fell to the floor, watching the rock gently drift through the nylon and rip through the Lynx’s heart.
“That’s not anything we drew up. They had the last timeout, we had no timeouts left,” he said. “It was like me standing back and watching all that unfold. You have to let go. You have to come to the point in your mind where you understand, you can’t control the outcome of the game. You can only have opportunities to influence it here and there. But you better be ready when those moments come.”
In 2017, the Sparks and Lynx met in the WNBA Finals again with another five-game series, but this time, it was the Lynx who celebrated under confetti. From 2015-17, the two teams met in each postseason and quickly became the hottest rivalry in the WNBA. From the start of the 2016 WNBA Finals through Game 4 of the 2017 rematch, their combined scores were 908-908.
“If you study that series all the way, ’15, ’16, ’17, it was almost dead even,” Agler remembered. “Wins and losses, points scored, points allowed. It was almost dead even. It was incredible.”
The next season would be Agler’s last in Los Angeles. In December 2018, he left to accept the head coaching job at the Dallas Wings, becoming their second non-interim head coach since the team moved to Texas between the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
“I’m excited about the challenge,” Agler said. “I wanted to go down and help Dallas have success. I know that’s real general, but that’s how I feel.”
Neither Seattle nor Los Angeles had won a championship within the few years prior to Agler’s arrival, and in both situations, he had them on top of the WNBA within three seasons. It would take plenty of work to make the same thing happen in Dallas, a franchise that has struggled mightily since moving from Detroit to Tulsa at the start of the decade, but if nothing else, the Wings know for certain they have a coach who knows what it takes to get there.
The 2019 campaign is Agler’s 16th as a head coach in the WNBA and 21th in the league overall. The parallels he has found between basketball and life, what he thinks most affects a team’s success and more with be featured in the final installment of our series on him.