As Pro Women’s Leagues Gained Speed, Agler Took the Ride
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. We encourage you to read the first installment of our series on him before moving on.
Brian Agler learned to accept, “No,” at UMKC, but when a chance to move two hours down I-70 came, he said, “Yes.”
In 1993, he accepted the head women’s position at Kansas State, making the jump to the Big 8 after having gone 5-0 versus the conference a season before at UMKC. Agler said those five games helped him understand the level he was now dealing with, but the rebuild was an undertaking.
Before Agler, Kansas State won three Big 8 games in two seasons, going 3-25 against its conference competition in that time. The team’s 1-13 in-conference mark in the 1992-93 season was the worst in school history, coming one year after the Wildcats closed the 1991-92 campaign with 13-straight losses.
“That was a rebuild situation. They dropped off,” Agler said. “My last year at UMKC, we were 5-0 against Big 8 teams, so I sort of had an idea of the level that was. But it was different. Manhattan, Kansas, is a lot different than Kansas City.”
In his first season in Manhattan, he already achieved something the program hadn’t done in years. Back-to-back victories over Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in late January were the program’s first consecutive conference wins in three years. The team finished 13-14 (5-9), a sign of great progress and plenty of work still to be done.
The march forward continued with a 14-13 (6-8) record his second season, but it was stopped in 1996. In February, Agler was suspended pending an NCAA investigation into alleged infractions in the program. Jack Hartman, the winningest coach in Kansas State men’s basketball history, served as interim for the final seven games of the season.
Kansas State discovered payments to players and recruits for summer camp work in 1994 and 1995 in violation of NCAA rules and self-reported to the governing body. The NCAA also concluded practice and tryout rules were broken, and recruits were given free food and housing in those same years.
The school relieved Agler and eventually accepted its punishment from the NCAA: 11 forfeited games from the 1995-96 season, two years’ probation, a scholarship reduction and summer camp restrictions.
For many coaches, the situation would mark the end of their careers, or at the very least their peaks. But not Agler.
It was a tough time for him. The story received national attention, and his name was used unflatteringly in major publications. He said it was crucial for him to have his close confidants at that time, like his family and Larry Hunter.
Hunter was Agler’s coach when he played at Wittenberg University in college 20 years earlier. Hunter was the head men’s coach at Ohio University at the time, and he and his former player remained close well after Agler graduated.
“Through all of my coaching career, ups and downs, it didn’t matter, he was there to support,” Agler said of Hunter, who passed away in 2018. “Always extended congratulations on successes, and always was there calling me through difficult times. Those are the kind of people you realize are really for you.”
Looking back on his time at Kansas State now more than two decades later, he’s turned that negative into a positive and grown from it.
“It was a good experience. I learned a lot,” Agler explained. “It didn’t end well. I was let go there. But like anything else, when you go through difficult times, it’s a great learning experience.”
Not only did he improve from weathering the storm, but coaching at that level taught Agler new aspects of coaching he hadn’t mastered before, he said.
“It helped me understand how to communicate with players better,” he said. “It helped me understand the importance of really building more of a team concept. It helped me understand the kinds of people I work and relate best to. More team dynamics, leadership, than even X’s and O’s.”
That would mark the end of Agler’s collegiate coaching career and be the impetus for his next challenge: women’s professional basketball.
By coincidence, at the same time Agler left Manhattan, the women’s pro game was in its infancy stages in America and new coaching jobs were created.
A group in California was aiming to launch a league: the American Basketball League (ABL). Meanwhile, the NBA was beginning the work to start its own league, the WNBA, to begin play a year later in 1997. The women’s national team was getting publicity with its national tour as the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were right around the corner. All in all, there was a general buzz surrounding the game, and when it was announced the ABL would come to Columbus, Ohio, it made the news.
Agler’s mother sent him an article from the Columbus Dispatch detailing the city’s latest team. Immediately, he was interested at the prospect of coaching basketball at home. Ceal Barry, an assistant for the national team and long-time head coach at Colorado at the time, called the ABL on behalf of Agler and recommended her good friend. He flew to California for the interview, working hard to put a plan together beforehand, and presented his ideas. Agler requested the Columbus job, and he was made the first-ever head coach of the Columbus Quest.
“It’s funny how the world works,” he said. “I go from K-State, that difficult situation, I get the Columbus Quest job within a couple months. I get a chance to move back home, and I make twice the money. And I get a chance to coach the best players in the world.”
Coming back to his natural habitat was a blessing in of itself, but perhaps most exciting was his team. The squad was stacked, headlined by a combination of Nikki McCray, Katie Smith, Tonya Edwards, Valerie Still, Shannon Johnson and Andrea Lloyd-Curry. The ABL lasted for two-and-a-half seasons and awarded two championships: both came to Columbus. In those two campaigns, the Quest went 67-17 in the regular season and were off to another good start before the league folded.
“Our team here in Columbus, we had a great platform, and we had a tremendous amount of success,” Agler remembered. “Our team was unbelievable. I don’t know if there was a better women’s professional team ever, including the Houston Comets, than the Columbus Quest.”
Agler’s wife was the team’s general manager, and he otherwise loved the rest of the people who made up the Quest organization. For the two odd years he was there, it couldn’t have been better.
“You know how special it is when you know you’re in the middle of it, and you know that you’re never going to have a team like this again,” he said. “It was so fun. You know it can’t be like this again, so you enjoy every moment of it.”
All things are temporary, and the ABL and Agler’s situation with the Quest were no exceptions.
In 1998, Agler knew the league was in dire straits financially and the clock was ticking. The WNBA was adding two new teams for its upcoming third season: the Orlando Miracle and Minnesota Lynx. Orlando found its coach, but Andy Landers rejected Minnesota, leaving the Lynx lacking a leader.
Late into the summer of 1998, Agler asked the ABL if he could talk with the Lynx. He interviewed and got the job. It led to his resignation from the Quest less than a month before the league collapsed.
But Agler was there to clean up the rumble with everyone else. His wife was still the general manager, and he had built strong bonds with his cohorts in their couple of years.
“I remember going down and helping pack up and helping them move,” Agler explained. “We had to put everything in storage and do those things. It was a sad time.”
Agler would escape the ABL wreckage to begin his WNBA career in 1999 as the Minnesota Lynx head coach. His time in Minnesota and more will be explained in the third installment of our coverage of Agler.
Photo by Evan Gole/NBAE via Getty Images, provided by UMKC Athletics.