That’s putting it mildly:
- Hughes has been a head coach in the WNBA for 19 seasons. He has coached more games than anyone in league history and is third in coaching victories.
- He guided the Storm to the WNBA title two years ago and for the second time in his career was named the league’s Coach of the Year.
- He’ll also be one of the coaches on the U.S. Olypmic women’s team that will play in the Tokyo Games, now scheduled for next year.
- He regularly conducts coaching clinics across the world. Usually they’re in person, but in these restrictive COVID-19 times, he’s now done virtual sessions in Brazil, Australia and Serbia. Monday he Zooms back into Brazil again.
- In the WNBA offseason, he broadcasts women’s college basketball games for ESPN and Fox, including the NCAA Tournament.
- Before he went to the pros, he coached several college teams in Ohio: Men at Miami, Baldwin Wallace and Mount Union. Men and women at Toledo. He also spent a year as an assistant commissioner in the Mid-American Conference and before that – as a 23-year-old first-time coach – he led the Madison Plains High School boys team in nearby London to a district title. In 2017, he and the team were inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame.
Dan Hughes, just 23, was in his first year of coaching when he led Madison Plains High near London, Ohio to the District Championships at the end of the 1978-79 season. CONTRIBUTED
Still the fact that he’s here in the Dayton area – and here now – are both unique stories.
Hughes and his wife, Mary, had been living in San Antonio, where he coached the WNBA Stars for all but one season from 2005 through 2016. And since he took over in Seattle in 2018, they’ve rented a place there during the season.
But they both grew up in small Ohio towns – he in Lowell, she in Newcomerstown – and they both went to Muskingum University. And one day they contemplated they might move back to the state.
“I think I’m a person who’s never lost his roots,” Hughes said. “I don’t care where I’ve gone, my dialect, my twang have never left me. Neither have some of those values I grew up with.
“To me that’s what’s great about Ohio and the Midwest. Those values you learn are pretty transferable to a good life wherever you are.”
The couple’s daughter Sara – a former volleyball player at Valparaiso – is married to Major Craig Bayer, a U.S. Air Force navigator stationed at Wright Patterson AFB. The couple and their four kids – Casey, Logan, Jonah and Penny – live in Beavercreek.
While Hughes’ son Bryce is a cadet at the US Air Force Academy – where he played basketball three seasons – Dan’s mother, Dolores, who has been battling health issues, still lives in Lowell, about a three-hour drive from Beavercreek.
“Family has always been important to me,” Hughes said. “It’s one of the pillars of my life.”
Dan Hughes and his family, from left, back row: son Bryce, a U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet and former basketball player for the Falcons, wife Mary, Dan, son in law Major Craig Bayer holding daughter Penny. From left, front row: Grandchildren Casey, Logan and Jonah Bayer and daughter Sara Bayer (in middle). CONTRIBUTED
And when it came to relocation, he said he was familiar with the Dayton area:
“My aunt and uncle, Juanita and Dick Wetz, lived here (in Huber Heights) for as long as I can remember,” he said. “And when Sara was at Valpo, I watched her play against Wright State at the Nutter Center.”
When he was coaching at Toledo, he said he recruited a Chaminade Julienne guard who eventually ended up at a junior college.
And he was a grad assistant on Darrell Hedric’s staff when Miami – led by Springfield’s Randy Ayers and Middletown’s Archie Aldrich – lost to eventual national champion Kentucky in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game at UD Arena in 1978.
And when he and Mary found an “incredible” place at The Woods ‘' just an eight-minute drive from Sara and her family – they bought it.
That’s about when the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to lay siege to our world and eventually the WNBA decided to condense its upcoming season and move all games to a protective bubble-like atmosphere – a Wubble, they call it -- at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
The Storm – which returns future Hall of Famers Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, both who missed all of last season due to injury – are favorites to win what is to be a 22-game regular season, followed by a normal playoff.
The season tipped off Saturday and the Storm topped the New York Liberty, 87-71.
But instead of coaching on the sidelines, Hughes watched the game behind a black mask while sitting alongside his mom in her home in Lowell.
He had planned to coach this season, especially after missing the first nine games last year as he recovered from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in his digestive tract.
But after a medical assessment by league doctors last month, it was decided the 65-year-old coach with his compromised immune system would be at a greater risk for severe illness should he contract COVID-19.
He was convinced to sit out this season and let capable assistant Gary Kloppenburg – who filled in last year – coach the team.
Hughes would stay connected to the team as a virtual coach and these days he does so daily via Zoom calls and other means.
“I’ve tried real hard to understand how to use this world we’re in right now,” he said.
He said when he first told the players he would not be joining them in Florida, it was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to communicate in my life. It was terrible.” As he wrestled with his thoughts – and his heart – he got a text message from Jewell Lloyd, one of the team’s stars, that said: “I love you coach.”
Then Stewart messaged him: “Can I call you?”
And during the session, the 39-year-old Bird, a 17-year WNBA veteran and 11-time All Star, addressed her teammates, telling them how Hughes had prepared them for this moment.
“I was feeling pretty lousy and when my three key players reached out, it made me feel better,” he said.
It still hasn’t been easy and some of that came out recently when he spoke to Becky Hammon, the six-time All Star he coached at San Antonio, who’s now an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs:
“That particular day was especially tough,” he said. “My grandson’s appendix had burst and he was in the hospital. My mother was in the hospital back home.
“Becky’s always pretty profound and she said, ‘Coach, I think there’s a reason you’re not coaching this year. I think you’re needed in other places.’”
Dreamed of being a coach
It was at Wittenberg where he fell in love with Mary Regula.
“I think I’m married to her because of a game we played at Wittenberg,” Hughes laughed. “I was a bench player at Muskingum and we were at Wittenberg and they were just thrashing us. We were down by 35 and I happened to look over at our cheerleaders.
“I didn’t know Mary at the time, but there she was just cheering her heart out like it was a two-point game. I said to myself, ‘There’s something about that woman!‘’' He married her, but stayed wed to the game he’d loved his whole life.
“Since I was young, I dreamed of being a basketball coach,” he said. “You don’t forget that. It’s ingrained in you like a tattoo.” It was while he was at Toledo that he switched to coaching women and within a year he was an assistant with the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting and, by the end of the season, the interim head coach.
He became the Cleveland Rockers head coach – where he won his first coach of the year award – and when the franchise moved to San Antonio, he did, too.
San Antonio Stars head coach Dan Hughes, right, talks San Antonio Stars' Moriah Jefferson, left, during the first half of a WNBA basketball game, Thursday, May 5, 2016, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
He had retired in 2017 and was doing clinics around the world when Seattle contacted him. The Storm hadn’t had a winning season since 2011, but he said the situation – with Bird, Stewart and Lloyd on the roster – seemed perfect.
His first season, the team went 26-8 and won the 2018 championship.
Last year even with his nine-game absence and the loss of Bird and Stewart, the Storm advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
“It was actually one of my favorite years of coaching,” Hughes said.
That’s why he was so looking forward to this season. But he now realizes last season prepped him for his current situation, as well:
“With that period where I had to step away and heal, it’s almost like God was giving me a little trial run to prepare me for this year.”
“I was about six or seven years old and I was at my neighbor’s house when I saw the Beatles come on the Ed Sullivan show,” Hughes recalled. “Everything changed when I saw that. I was like ‘WOW!’
“After that I remember my mom and dad were going to Columbus. We were small town folks – there were maybe 700 people in Lowell – and I remember asking them, ‘Can you get me a Beatles record?’
“And by golly they did. They got me ‘Meet the Beatles!’
“Since that time music has filled an absolute void in me. Some people listen to music of their generation and then kind of evolve. But it means as much to me now as when I was a kid.”
WNBA coach Dan Hughes with the Beach Boys iconic singer and songwriter Brian Wilson, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. CONTRIBUTED
Hughes has an extensive record collection and in his travels he has gone to scores of concerts and met dozens of well-known musicians.
While he’s visited with legends like Brian Wilson, Roger Daltrey and Jackson Browne, he’s developed real friendships with rockers like Tommy Shaw of Styx and, most notably, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Richie Furay, who grew up in Yellow Springs and founded groups like Buffalo Springfield and Poco, while also becoming an ordained minister.
“Our team trained in the gym at an inner city church and we loved the pastor, but he died of cancer,” Hughes said. “My daughter was getting married and she says, ‘Dad, I need a minister. Can you help.?’ That’s when something struck me and I said, ‘What about Richie Furay?’
“To be honest, I’d never met the man. But I looked up the church he was at and shot him an email.” Furay initially declined, but a day later changed his mind and he ended up not only marrying Craig and Sara, but singing at their wedding. And now the friendship between Hughes and Furay has grown.
Just before Hughes and I spoke by phone the other day, he and Mary had had a lengthy web chat with Mike Nesbitt of The Monkees. Hughes also had been in contact with Kevin Cronin, the lead vocalist with REO Speedwagon.
Last weekend he was texting back and forth with Shaw, who two years ago sent him a congratulatory video as soon as the Storm won the WNBA crown.
“I’ll admit it, I’m a fan,” Hughes said. “I don’t want to talk sports with them, I want to talk about how they wrote the songs, their craft. But they like sports. So it makes for an interesting combination.”
It’s kind of like with the folks in Beavercreek.
Except sometimes a walk of fame turns into fame just wanting to walk with you.