'They're family to me': Nicki Collen draws comfort from consistent coaching staff
Atlanta has 10 new players on the roster
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Atlanta Dream coaches Darius Taylor, Mike Petersen and Nicki Collen. Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Dream.
To say everything is different for Nicki Collen this season is almost an understatement.
The Atlanta Dream coach only has two players returning to her roster from last year — three if you count Blake Dietrick, who played for the Dream in 2018. The WNBA season has been shortened to 22 games from the planned 36 and is being played in Bradenton, Fla. due to the coronavirus pandemic. For the next few months, Collen will coach from the bubble and won’t be able to see her husband, Tom, and their three kids.
It’s all going to be different.
But when Collen looks down the bench on Sunday afternoon as Atlanta begins the season against the Dallas Wings, there will be one source of familiarity: her assistant coaches, Mike Petersen and Darius Taylor, who have been on her staff from the beginning.
When Collen took the reins of the Dream in the fall of 2017, it was the first time she’d been a head coach and had to build a coaching staff of her own. After serving as an assistant coach at five different college programs and working under Curt Miller in Connecticut at the WNBA level, Collen was in charge of her own team.
Petersen was the first hire Collen made, followed by Taylor a week later. It took her almost two months to fill out the staff from the time she was hired — and that was by design.
“Nicki was really intentional about who she hired and having the right mix of personalities, the right mix of experiences, the right mix of skill sets, all of that,” Petersen told The Next. “…Because she was intentional about it, she got what she wanted. Those things don’t happen by accident.”
As a first-time head coach, Collen wanted to bring on an assistant with a deep knowledge of coaching and the game of basketball. Petersen, who’s been coaching basketball for almost 40 years, came up on her radar. At the time, he was working as an advance scout for the New Orleans Pelicans, and before that, he coached at countless college programs on both the men’s and women’s side as both a head and assistant coach.
Collen was looking for someone with a more offensive mind because she focuses more on defense, as well as someone with head coaching experience and a background in scouting. Petersen checked every box.
“We had just this really good, open, honest discussion,” Petersen said. “We ended up in a situation where, from her standpoint, I think I was able to bring the things she wanted in that spot and from my standpoint, I knew she wanted me to do the things that I wanted to do and I had some freedom to do some stuff, so that was great.”
A week after announcing Petersen’s hire, Collen added Taylor to complete the staff. She reached out to him on her husband’s recommendation, who had seen Taylor over the years on the recruiting trail while Taylor was an assistant coach at South Carolina and Tom was at Arkansas.
Taylor had been coaching an AAU team in Athens, Ga. after leaving South Carolina when his wife, Joni, took the head coaching job at Georgia, but he’d always thought of coaching at the professional level. When Los Angeles Sparks assistant general manager Michael Fischer told Taylor he should reach out to Collen — at the same time as Tom told Nicki she should reach out to Taylor — the conversation started.
“We just started having a conversation and one day we sat down and met for lunch or dinner and kinda just got a feel for each other and talked about what her philosophy was and what her vision was for the Dream,” Taylor told The Next. “At that point, getting back into coaching with AAU, I got the itch again and I always wanted to coach at the professional level. This was ideal because of Athens being so close to Atlanta, it allowed me to still do something I’m passionate about, which is coaching, but also still be near my family. It was just a perfect situation for me.”
Now entering their third season coaching together, Collen, Taylor and Petersen have their roles down pat.
Collen and Taylor focus mainly on the defense, while Petersen runs the offense. When Collen and Petersen get intense or fiery, Taylor describes himself as the calm in the storm. All three work in concert, balancing each other out and working to create the best environment possible.
“Everybody helps one another,” Petersen said. “Everybody encourages one another. After three years or going into the third year with the same staff, I think that’s gotten stronger, because you’re better friends, you’re better coworkers, you’re better colleagues over the course of time.
“Sometimes staffs will kind of have a little rocky patch and then they’ll get through it and it’ll be okay. We never, ever had that. We hit the ground running and none of us had ever worked together before and it was phenomenal.”
In the unique environment at IMG Academy during a highly unusual season, having that familiarity and comfort level as a staff has helped all three adjust. Spending months away from your family isn’t easy for anyone, but both Taylor and Petersen were quick to clarify that while they spent some time deciding if they’d coach this season, they both ultimately felt that their commitment to Collen and the team was the most important thing.
“If you didn’t think about it, you weren’t very thoughtful,” Petersen said. “But I committed to Chris [Sienko, Atlanta’s general manager] and Nicki and Darius and our players that I’d be here, so if I said I was gonna do it, I had to do it. … We’re without our families and none of us like that. The fortunate thing is we are with friends and all of us like that.”
Especially with 10 new players on the roster this year, a seamless fit among the coaching staff has aided in the process of getting all the players up to speed and on the same page.
“When you have that consistency, it’s pretty seamless in terms of how we speak, because I think we all very quickly learned to speak the same language,” Collen said. “The longer you spend together, the more you still speak that language.”
As Atlanta gets ready to open the 2020 season amid everything that’s different about this year, having her staff be the same is incredibly important for Collen.
“You’re only as good as your staff,” Collen said. “I think any good head coach will tell you that. Both consistency [and] camaraderie. They’re family to me. There’s no doubt that those guys have become family to me, and their families have become family to me.
“…I feel incredibly blessed. I feel lucky that both those guys are by my side.”