Amidst the steady rise to recognition and prominence of women’s athletics at the U, the spring of 2004 stands as a watershed moment. As the basketball season progressed toward March that year, the Gopher women’s team was captivating the state of Minnesota with its electric play, led by the charismatic guard from Hutchinson, CEHD student Lindsay Whalen.
Whalen played with a dynamic cast that included starters Janel McCarville, Shannon Bolden, Shannon Schonrock, and Kadidja Andersson, and key bench players Kelly Roysland and Jamie Broback.
Minnesota fans hopped on the burgeoning bandwagon in time for a glorious ride, flooding into Williams Arena, otherwise known as the Barn, in amazing numbers. Sunday, February 8, set a high-water mark when the Gopher women’s team drew 14,363 fans in the evening, almost a thousand more than the men’s team drew earlier that day. In just over three decades since Title IX—the federal civil rights legislation of 1972 best known for opening school-based sports to girls and women—it spoke volumes about what was transpiring.
If you were a sports fan in Minnesota, you know the rest. In the NCAA tournament, the No. 7-seeded Gophers beat UCLA and Kansas State in the rst two rounds at home, then upset Boston College and Duke and advanced to the Final Four in New Orleans.
The dancing ended there, against Connecticut, and Whalen moved on to the Women’s National Basketball Association.
But in 2010, Whalen returned to play for the Minnesota Lynx. She helped spark a dynasty, with the Lynx winning four WNBA championships in the last seven years.
Then came the ultimate return home. On April 12, the University of Minnesota announced it was hiring Whalen as head coach to succeed Marlene Stollings, who’d taken the head coaching job at Texas Tech. Whalen will continue to moonlight for the Lynx, at least for the current season.
For Whalen—who completed a BS in sports studies in CEHD—not to mention a generation or two of fans, it was a dream come true.
“I’ve always been a Gopher and always will be a Gopher,” says Whalen. “To be back now working and contributing to the team and having an impact has really been a great blessing, and I’m so happy that it worked out. This is something I thought I might have an opportunity for at some point in my life, but to have it now has been pretty special. It’s been busy, but it’s been really fun.”
Less than two weeks after returning to the U, Whalen announced the hiring of Kelly Roysland, her teammate in 2004, as an assistant coach. A standout in her own right, Roysland earned a bachelor’s degree in sport management as well as a master’s in applied kinesiology from CEHD.
Roysland had already returned once to the Gophers, as an assistant to coach Pam Borton from 2010 to 2014, between serving as an assistant at North Dakota State University 2008–10 and as the head women’s coach for the last four seasons at Macalester College in St. Paul.
“It was kind of a dream scenario that played out,” says Roysland in the women’s basketball recruiting lounge in the new Athletes Village. “When this all started to shake out and unfold and Lindsay’s name had been thrown out there, it was cool to hear from an alumni standpoint . . . . And then for her to ask me to come on board, it was a no-brainer—something I jumped at—because obviously I care a lot about this place, just like she does. It’s our home. We’ve had some of the best memories here, and I think the University has changed both our lives in a great way.”
Shaped by strong leaders
It’s abundantly clear that both Roysland and Whalen have been shaped by strong leaders.
Roysland grew up in Fosston, Minnesota. Her mom coached volleyball and golf (two other sports Roysland excels in), and her dad coached volleyball and boys basketball before settling in as the women’s basketball coach at the University of Minnesota Crookston, 45 minutes west of Fosston. She also soaked up the spirit of her grandmother Berniece Carlin, a teacher and coach in Fosston who was an advocate for girls in sport well before Title IX. “You can be tired tomorrow” was a saying of Carlin’s that Roysland remembers with a smile.
“I probably get a little bit of my toughness from her,” she says. Both Roysland and Carlin were among the 10 initial inductees into the Fosston High School Athletic Hall of Fame this summer.
Whalen and Roysland speak with appreciation of their time at the U and their experiences in CEHD. Among their mentors, both called out kinesiology faculty members Jo Ann Buysse and Mary Jo Kane as especially influential.
For Whalen, lessons in college have resurfaced as she simultaneously juggles two challenging, if somewhat overlapping, professions.
“I’ve had to go back to everything I learned at the U of M in terms of time management and prioritizing,” she says. “And it’s true what they say, what you learn at the University are lifelong lessons. And I’ve tried to do my best at using those skills, especially now.”
“As former students of mine I couldn’t be prouder of what they’ve accomplished both personally and professionally,” says Kane, founding director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport and an expert on Title IX. “Lindsay and Kelly are quintessential Minnesotans in that they’re, to their core, authentic. They are genuinely humble in spite of their very public accomplishments, and what you see is what you get . . . . They have never forgotten who they are and where they came from. And the University of Minnesota is very lucky to have them here.”
Whalen and Roysland are also well aware of their platform as women coaches to help shape the next generation, at a time when women struggle to land head coaching jobs.
“[They both have] a deep sense of history and are keenly aware of themselves as role models for young girls,” Kane says. “When it comes to their awareness of the impact they’ve had, they are elegantly understated.”
Whalen is proud to be part of the lineage of women head basketball coaches at the U.
“I’ve learned so much during my time at the University of Minnesota, and now it’s my job to give back,” adds Whalen. “It’s my job to make sure that these women are having a great experience, they’re getting their degrees, and they’re ready to take on whatever challenge is next.”
The Lindsay factor
With his latest hiring splash for the Gophers, athletics director Mark Coyle is hoping to capitalize on a name that resonates with Minnesotans and the basketball community at large. Whalen is arguably the most recognized and revered woman of all time in Minnesota sports and one of the rare athletes—female or male—recognized by first name alone.
Fans still light up when recounting that 2004 season, the memories as fresh as when the women were dominating the local news and sports pages. It was the furthest run ever in the NCAA tournament by either the Gopher men’s or women’s basketball team. In fact, a photo shrine paying homage to the accomplishment was a popular attraction in the concourse of the Barn for many years.
That season launched Whalen’s enduring legend, which now continues to grow.
In late May at a Gopher Road Trip event near Brainerd, freshly minted men’s hockey head coach Bob Motzko reminisced with fans about basking in the glory of being the talk of the town in Gopher sports, even “kind of a big thing,” he joked. “And then one week later they hire Lindsay Whalen, and I’m not so big anymore.”
“The reaction from the community has been overwhelming at times, it’s been so positive,” says Whalen. “I’ve just been really thankful for everybody being so excited and so happy. Now I have to do my part and make sure that we’re working hard and doing our best.”
“I’ve learned so much during my time at the University of Minnesota, and now it’s my job to give back.” —Lindsay Whalen
Coyle agreed that the reaction from fans in the state has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Lindsay, I think, is the ultimate Gopher,” says Coyle. “Her dream was to play at Minnesota, and for her to come to Minnesota and take us to the Final Four—all that success—and what she’s done professionally has been awesome. And then you throw Kelly in there. When Lindsay named her an assistant coach, the energy going through our department . . . . I have never heard more people on staff talk about what a wonderful person she is with a great heart . . . . People are really excited.”
Whether there’s another Final Four in our future remains to be seen. But the memories have been tapped.
“I can’t tell you how many people sent me random messages on Twitter that I haven’t heard from in forever [saying], ‘I just got season tickets and we’re so excited to re- engage with the program!’” Roysland says. “It’s like old times, and I think people can really resonate with good memories. That Final Four was such a feel-good moment for the state.”
The enthusiasm has already translated to the box office. As of early June, more than 700 new season tickets had been sold since Whalen was hired.
“They are Minnesota,” says Coyle. “They represent everything good and everything we like about our institution, and what we like about our state. It’s a perfect fit. We’re just thrilled that Lindsay came on board, thrilled that Kelly came on board, and we really look forward to a bright future with those two.”
• Her 2,285 points were the most in Gopher history until Rachel Banham (3,093) broke her record in 2015.
• Second all-time at the University of Minnesota in assists and third in steals.
• Winningest player in WNBA history.
• Married to Gopher golf alum Ben Greve, who won the Minnesota State Open Championship in 2016 and 2017.
• Finished with 1,074 career points at the U.
• Played one year of Gopher volleyball as a fifth-year
athlete in 2007.
• Playing golf, once had a hole in one and a double eagle in the same week.
• Married to Eric Curry, a Division I men’s basketball official, and mother of one-year-old son Brekken.
Read more about Gopher women’s basketball.
Read more about 2018 CEHD Rising Alumni Award winner Kelly Roysland in a recent profile, “Forward thinker.”
Story by Rick Moore | Photos by Eric Miller and Erica Loeks | Fall 2018