When it comes to basketball coaching greats with Indiana ties, the question is not where to start the list—John Wooden,
Bob Knight, Tony Hinkle and Bobby Leonard would qualify as an initial Mount Rushmore—but where to end it.
Among women, the list is significantly shorter, but there’s one name that would be right at the top.
No, she’s not a native Hoosier, but there’s no denying the profound influence she had on women’s basketball in Indiana—and, by extension, girls high school basketball—during a nine-year run at Purdue University beginning in 1988.
All she did was build the Boilermaker program into a national power, winning 75 percent of her games and three Big Ten championships, advancing seven times to the NCAA tournament, where Purdue reached the Sweet Sixteen on four occasions and the Final Four once.
Those teams were stocked with Indiana talent—current Purdue coach Sharon Versyp and Stephanie White were among her recruits—and made women’s intercollegiate basketball matter in a state then dominated by IU’s Knight and her Purdue men’s counterpart, Gene Keady.
Dunn left Purdue in 1996 to pursue the professional ranks. She took Portland from worst-to-first in the women’s American Basketball League. Then, after the ABL folded, she guided the Seattle Storm from a WNBA expansion franchise to the playoffs, enabling the Storm to become one of the most successful WNBA franchises at the gate and an eventual WNBA champion.
Finally, the long-and-winding coaching road brought her back to Indiana in 2004, first as a scout and then as an assistant for the Indiana Fever. When the Fever let Brian Winters go after the 2007 season, Dunn was a logical choice to become head coach.
Now, in her second year, the Fever—before a road trip to Sacramento and Seattle—have a WNBA-best 19-5 record and are on the verge of clinching the Eastern Division regular-season title and home-court advantage in next month’s playoffs.
For sure, Fever General Manager Kelly Krauskopf has assembled a stellar cast, led by perennial WNBA all-star Tamika Catchings and former Perry Meridian High School and Purdue star Katie Douglas. But Dunn has kept a steady hand on the wheel, especially when the team lost its first two games on opening weekend and then lost veteran Yolanda Griffith to a career-ending injury in the season’s third game.
“We just had to keep everything in perspective,” Dunn said last week following a practice at Conseco Fieldhouse. “It was a tough way to start, but we didn’t let it get us out of sync. There was no panic. We knew we had a good team, and we knew we were going to get better.”
What ensued was a franchise-record 10-game winning streak and the Fever have been rolling ever since. Now, Dunn’s challenge is to maintain her team’s focus with the playoffs still three weeks away.
“We have to be really careful about getting complacent and relaxing,” she says. “There can be no sense of entitlement here. All we can look forward to is the first quarter of our next game. We still need to play with a sense of urgency.”
It’s a good story that’s unfolding with the Fever. The players are of solid character, many involved with youth groups and charities. And it may be that the public is starting to respond. The Fever’s last home game Aug. 15 drew 9,900 fans. It was the second-largest crowd of the season and the largest in the month of August since 2003.
Overall, attendance is averaging 7,702, a slight increase over last year.
“I’d be naïve to say I’m not aware of the economic challenges of these times,” Dunn says. “But the good news is, we’re affordable family entertainment.”
The Fever’s upcoming playoff run will commence in mid-September. The playoff format in the first two rounds—both best-of-threes—lends itself to the possibility of upsets of favored teams because there is so little margin to overcome an off performance. Ergo, preparation, execution and, of course, coaching will be keys.
“Well, I’m no rookie or neophyte,” Dunn says, chuckling.
No, she’s a veteran of 25 years of head coaching with more than 500 wins. A WNBA title would be a fitting capstone to an outstanding career, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. As Dunn says, there’s no sense of entitlement.•
Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.