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Sparks' GM Penny Toler keeping her options open regarding coaching search

October 19, 2009 |  1:40 pm

With the WNBA season ending only 10 days ago, Sparks General Manager Penny Toler could have taken a vacation during what she called a "quiet period." After all, she had often remarked during the season she couldn't recall the last time she has taken one.

Toler doesn't plan any R & R any time soon, telling The Times this morning she anticipates "an interesting offseason for us."

That's because there are already a bunch of moving parts.

Coach Michael Cooper left the Sparks to coach the USC women's basketball team. Three-time league MVP Lisa Leslie retired after an accomplished 13 years in the league and is already staying busy during post-retirement.

Though she signed a three-year deal in March, Sparks forward Tina Thompson says she wants to assess how she feels physically before committing to what would be her 14th season in the league. Sparks guard Kristi Harrower said the same thing during the team's exit interviews and has recently become the general manager of the Bendigo Bank Spirit, a professional team in Australia where she is also one of the team's guards.

Yet, Toler says a lot of her offseason decisions will hinge on the news reported today that the Detroit Shock will relocate to Tulsa, Okla. Though the Detroit Free Press article indicated the WNBA will officially announce the move today, Toler says she hasn't received direct confirmation from the league.

"If it's a new team, then there's an [expansion] draft," Toler said. "If it's existing team, there isn't an expansion draft but there will be a holding pattern."

Regardless, the Sparks are gearing up for a busy offseason, beginning with the coaching search. And even if it is only October, Toler appropriately remarked, "The early bird gets the worm."

Who will succeed Cooper?

As soon as USC announced Cooper would be leaving the Sparks following their 2009 season, Sparks co-owner Kathy Goodman said she, co-owner Carla Christofferson and Toler all pledged to hold off the coaching search until the season ended.

"We didn't want the season to be about 'Who will we be hiring next year?'" Goodman said recently. "We've been pretty rigid about not talking about anybody."

Toler said she's "still trying to compile a good list."

"That's been a long process," she added. "At the moment, we're really starting to look deeper into that and see who's available as a candidate" -- a process Toler and Goodman said they hope will be solidified by January.

ESPN analyst and women's basketball Hall of Fame inductee Nancy Lieberman repeatedly said during Sparks telecasts that assistant coach Marianne Stanley should be Cooper's successor. I've been told she is indeed a candidate, but it is unclear who else she will be competing with for the job.

"Absolutely," Leslie said Friday when asked if Stanley indicated interest to her about the position. Leslie became the Pacific 10 Conference's all-time leading scorer and rebounder playing for Stanley at USC. "It's obvious she would love to coach for the Sparks. That has nothing to do with me. That's what management will decide to do."

When asked what qualities Stanley would bring as a head coach, Leslie replied, "She's a great coach. She was a great college coach for me and she recruited me. Her chances are just as good as anybody else. It's up to the Sparks and whether they decide to keep her or not."

Stanley is on vacation, said team spokeswoman Alayne Ingram, and wasn't immediately available for comment.

Toler said she remains open as to what qualities she is looking for in the team's next head coach and she hasn't ruled out hiring an assistant coach.

"We're not afraid to give an unknown person a chance," she said. "They have to have some coaching experience, but they don't even have to know the WNBA because we can always hire an assistant who knows the WNBA. We won't box ourselves in and put barriers up. We'll have potentially good quality people interview for the job and go from there."

During the team's exit interviews, forward DeLisha Milton-Jones and guard Betty Lennox were more specific in outlining qualities they'd want in the next head coach.

"I would want someone that would come in and coach the team and just do their job," Milton-Jones said."I’m not comparing this coach to Coach Cooper, these are just qualities that I think would be great for a coach to have – someone who comes in and demands respect and demands to be respected to and be fun and be open to change sometimes. The game is definitely changing. We have a lot of younger players coming in the league and it’s a different brand of basketball. We have to keep it interesting for them but still be able to teach them at the same time."

No matter who replaces Cooper, Lennox suspects there will a huge adjustment period. She has often said Cooper -- winner of two league championships -- was her best coach in her 10-year WNBA career, which has included stints with Minnesota, Miami, Cleveland, Seattle and Atlanta.

"It’s not going to be based on my personal opinion as far as what I want in a coach, but it’s going to be tough to follow Coop’s footsteps," Lennox said. "It’s going to be hard. Whoever wants to be put in that position has to be willing to accept a lot of things and be willing to work hard for a lot of things before they even walk into his footsteps."

As for Cooper, he suggested his successor maintains a positive attitude during adversarial moments -- a demeanor he inconsistently displayed during the Sparks' 2009 season.

"If I were to say one thing to another coach, it’s always enjoy what you do," Cooper said. "Keep a smile on the team’s face. I think overall that’s the most important thing. Yeah, it’s hard work and all that other stuff and that comes into play. But there’s nothing better than to see people smile. It helps you get through those tough moments."

Return to the Fabulous Forum on Tuesday to get a glimpse on how Toler plans to assemble next season's roster.

--Mark Medina