The Fairfield women’s basketball team ushered in a new era last season with the grand opening of their new home, the Leo D. Mahoney Arena. The unit had a solid showing at home, going 8-5, including 7-3 in conference play, with all three of their losses being decided in the final minutes of overtime. The brand new barn, along with the rejuvenated Red Sea, gave the squad high levels of excitement and momentum for years to come.
In addition to the new arena and what it has to offer, there is a lot more to be excited about going for the herd as well. If you attended any home games last season, you may have glared at the Fairfield sidelines at one point or another. There, you may have noticed an unfamiliar face leading the charge: it is head coach Carly Thibault-DuDonis, who enters her second season at the helm. She could not have arrived at a more perfect time, as her energy and passion for the game of basketball meshed perfectly with the excitement of the new barn and its Red Sea.
On another note, this is Thibault-DuDonis’ first coaching opportunity. She has been around the game of basketball for the entirety of her life. She credits her family, in particular her dad, who is a coach, as one of the reasons why she is in the position that she is in today.
“I grew up around it. I think my whole life was kind of decided around basketball,” coach Thibault-DuDonis explains. “Actually when my mom was pregnant with me I was induced so that my dad could get to the NBA Summer League. So I think I was born to be in basketball, but with my dad coaching in the NBA, I obviously got to watch a lot of great basketball, but I think the shift happened for me when we moved to Connecticut when I was in seventh grade, and that’s when my dad started coaching women.”
“He coached the WNBA and that was the first time I’d seen not only professional women’s basketball players, but also professional female coaches. That was the first time I’ve ever really seen female coaches. So I got to have great role models. I always really liked if you can see it you can be it and that was the first time I’d seen high level women’s basketball players. I played it. I started playing AAU. I started getting more competitive in basketball and that was really kind of a turning point for me in basketball.”
Her father, Mike Thibault, has a wealth of coaching experience in both the NBA and WNBA. He has been an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, and Milwaukee Bucks in the past, but has seen his greatest success as the coach of the Connecticut Sun and the Washington Mystics. He is a three-time WNBA Coach of the Year, along with winning the 2019 WNBA Championship with the Mystics.
Thibault-DuDonis notes that her father never forced her to be in the gym. It was her choice. She credits her fathers’ supportive nature as one of the reasons why she fell in love with the game.
“My dad and I had kind of a deal, when I was in high school, that if I wanted to work out, I had to ask him to put me through a workout or rebound or shoot or, you know, watch film or anything like that,” Thibault-DuDonis says. “I had to ask him to do that. So that allowed me to develop my own love and passion and not have it forced on me. I mean, for a long time I thought I would be like a normal college student and he was totally fine with that. I don’t really listen, you know, to direct advice, but one of the things that really stuck with me is when he was coaching, I would go talk with him a lot and because the WNBA plays in the summer, I would go to work at six or seven in the morning and be there from shooter ons and early practices to the coaches meetings. And it never seemed like work you know, it’s something you love to do and get a lot of passion for. I mean, you need to be in the gym for a living. And so I saw that from an early age you can love what you do.”
“And then I think the second thing that has always stuck with me and it wasn’t I wouldn’t say specific basketball advice but he’s a lifelong learner and so he would go to any practice. High school, college, professional, wherever, with a notebook and jot down a couple of ideas. Take a practice plan, take a pen and whether it’s a drill or you know a play that is part of a system, there are ways you can continue to make yourself better.”
The younger Thibault-Dudonis truly got motivated by coaching when she was the Director of Recruiting at Florida State University, her first stop on her coaching journey. One of the reasons why she took the job was because of that postgraduate program in Sports Psychology that Florida State offered, as she considered establishing a career in that field. She then went on to coaching, but she has not stopped ignoring the importance of mental health in athletes.
“It’s funny, I picked Florida State first for that and I actually ended up not getting my masters because I ended up not being a graduate assistant. They didn’t have that role available,” Thibault-DuDonis says. “My background was kind of focused on that by being a Psychology major. I did my senior thesis focused on the sports side of things, and I don’t claim to be an expert in any way. But I am a big believer in training your mind the same way you can train your body. So there’s three things that I’ve learned, but I do know there’s a couple things that I tried to kind of teach and impart on our team is to you know, spend time on your mental drain because everyone will say that at least half the game is mental, so it’s very important that you spend time on it. Whether it’s journaling, reflection, genuine reflection reflection, scoring, performance journaling, meditation, visualization, imagery, things like that.
“There are actual ways to train your mind like you would form shoes or shoot free throws or new work on your ball handling or passing you can do things the same way that allows you to be more stable through adversity. So we really tried to do a lot of those types of things and let you know, we don’t force it on them but we try to give them as many tools as possible, kind of from that background to train those things.”
After leaving the Sunshine state, Thibault-DuDonis found herself in Ypsilanti, Mich., at Eastern Michigan University for her first full-time assistant coaching gig.
I learned a lot from Tory Verdi, who was the coach there at the time. He’s now the head coach at Pitt,” Thibault-DuDonis reflects. “But that was where I really learned how to prepare for an opponent. So that was my first true assistant coaching position. And I always say, he was really one of the most prepared coaches I’ve ever worked for as far as knowing exactly what the other team was going to do. Knowing the ins and outs knowing, you know, their baseline plays and their end of game plays.”
After her stint up north, she meandered her way down south, taking a role on the staff at Mississippi State University. With Mississippi State being a larger school, it meant a larger challenge.
Coach Carly was not moved whatsoever by the challenge.
“I knew for sure it was going to be a challenge. I mean, honestly, it was a step up in conference ranking and competition. You know the recruiting becomes a little bit more cutthroat, and so that was definitely a learning curve there but for me, it was the first time being the recruiting coordinator, which is a title that a lot of times gets attached to an assistant coach. And so it was a lot of work for me to manage recruiting and coaching. We’re communicating with their coaches, their high school coaches, AAU coaches and really trying to keep up with all that.”
After Mississippi State, it was back up north. This time in the state of a thousand lakes by taking on an assistant role at the University of Minnesota under WNBA Hall of Famer Lindsay Whalen. Additionally, she got her first taste of running the bench in an overseas tilt in Italy during her tenure.
“So I’ve known Lindsey now for almost 20 years. She played for my dad in the WNBA and I was just really excited,” Thibault-DuDonis exclaims. “So I’ve been a part of programs where I maybe had gotten there the middle of the program and the coach had been there 34 years, whatever that may have been. But one of the reasons that excited me was that I knew I wanted to work for Lindsay. I knew the type of person she was and how she conducted herself and how much she valued relationships. And you know, for me, there’s a lot of loyalty there to go work for her when she asked me, but I never had been a part of building something from the ground up and I thought that would be a really big step in my learning process. As a coach, to be able to go in with her and start from scratch and build and program ,and so, I got to learn a lot from her and our staff, as well as kind of get outside of my comfort zone and do things I hadn’t done before. She wasn’t able to go on her first foreign tour because she was still playing in the WNBA at the time, so all three of the assistants were called upon to coach the game on the foreign tour. I coached my first ever head coaching game in Italy, as part of the first game of the Whalen era. You know, I had to think outside the box and I hadn’t been in that position before. So I asked myself, you know, what would I do if I was in her shoes? How would I help her? How can I advise her? What suggestions can I make? So I had to think in a slightly different way. And again, I loved recruiting in the Midwest. I got to recruit in a great area of the country and expand those recruiting horizons. So I think it was a great step and again, I learned a ton of things that I probably would have done differently if I did it all over again. But I think that helped me now to be kind of at the head coach’s chair to go through that experience.
After her experience with the Golden Gophers, Thibault-DuDonis found her way to Stag Country. When asked if she was excited about being a head coach, she noted that she was not in a rush and understood that she needed to change her approach when taking the position.
“It’s funny because I really enjoyed being an assistant and I was someone that was not interested in being a head coach. I think everybody else around me wanted me to be a head coach; they would always tell me ‘oh you know you’re gonna go be a coach.’ ‘You’re gonna go and do this.’ I loved working for Lindsay and the staff I was with. I was not ready to leave, I loved those people. And I think those two those two games that I coached as a head coach, it kind of took away the uneasiness of being a head coach and really, you know, it’s a lot of work and there’s a lot that goes into it, but I realized it was a little bit more natural for me than maybe I thought it was I didn’t I didn’t think I was ready. And so that probably gave me a little bit of a push and a little bit of a boost. But I’ve always tried to, and I tell our team this all the time, to be where your feet are. So to be the best assistant coach you can be, and be the best director of recruiting you can be, and then you’ll grow from there and it’ll take care of itself from there. So I really tried to live by that. You know, whether it is an assistant coach or a head coach, just be where your feet are and invest as much as you can in those moments.”
When asked who her biggest role model was in the game of basketball, Thibault-DuDonis had an easy answer. It was her own mentor, Whalen.
“I probably have to say Lindsay Whalen. She was the first female I can really remember studying her game. As a young basketball player. She was ahead of her time as far as how she played. She was a physical basketball player. She was a point guard. She was a great facilitator, but knew a great balance of when she needed her team to score, as well as knowing when they needed her to facilitate. And so I remember watching her when I was young, you know, almost as a high schooler and learning a lot from her that way and how she worked and how she connected with her teammates. And then because of that, when I coached with her, I was inspired a lot because she is a connector. She’s very genuine in her relationships. And so I always joke that I think I would have been a really bad head coach. If I hadn’t worked under her and learned from her because she made her staff and the people around them feel valued. And she had a way of doing that. So I learned a lot from her not only as somebody who aspired to be a college basketball player, but also someone who’s you know, being able to be a head coach of how to care and treat the people around her.”
Coach Thibault-DuDonis and the women’s basketball team have just tipped off their ongoing campaign. They are currently 2-1 after resounding victories over Lehman College and Lipscomb University, as well as a very well-fought game against an SEC opponent in Vanderbilt University. The Stags’ next contest will take place on Monday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. in Piscataway, N.J. against Rutgers University. Their next home game at Leo D. Mahoney Arena will be on Thursday, Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. against St. John’s University. For more information about the Fairfield University women’s basketball team, please visit www.fairfieldstags.com