The oft-repeated story was that when Lute Olson was in the mix for the Kentucky job for the second time in 1989, he was ready to take it until his grandchildren’s tears changed his mind. He stayed in Tucson for the rest of his life because of family.
The same desire Olson had to do right by his family has been evident in his granddaughter, Julie Hairgrove, the longest-tenured assistant coach in the WNBA. Taking over the head coach’s chair for any team would mean giving up things she didn’t want to give up.
“I think part of the reason I have been an assistant for such a long time is just because I do have three kids,” she said. “And raising three kids, I like my offseason being very hands-on and being able to go to school events. And all three of my kids are playing sports—soccer, softball—so super busy with the kids.”
That commitment to family made it all the more difficult to be away in the WNBA bubble when Olson died last August. Hairgrove’s brother Matt Brase was in the NBA bubble at the same time, so the family had to postpone the service until October.
“I grew up in McKale Center watching his teams play,” Hairgrove said. “He’s a role model. I just learned everything about basketball from him. I always went to his camps. He just taught me everything. I always looked up to him, and I just thought he was the best coach ever. And it’s hard not having him here with us anymore.”
It wasn’t just the on-court things she learned from Olson. She also showed the same commitment to family that he had when it came time to make career choices.
It made it even more special to watch fellow alumna Adia Barnes take the Wildcats women’s program to new heights by advancing to the national championship game. Hairgrove knew what kind of work and sacrifice went into combining coaching at a high level and motherhood. She also had the passion of having worn the Arizona jersey for five years.
“I had my three when it was like okay, two months in, we’re already traveling,” Hairgrove said. “You’ve got to multitask, that’s for sure. So, I totally understand what she’s going through. But it’s great to have your kids so close and to be around at the same time so that’s what makes it worth it, where she has her kids with her traveling. It’s just something you get used to it and it’s just the way of life. That’s what we do as moms.”
As her kids get older, Hairgrove is starting to consider life beyond assistant coaching.
“I definitely think if a head coaching job were to open that makes sense for my family, I think that’s something I would definitely consider,” she said. “But it’s got to be right for the family. It’s something that I would like to try at some point in my career because being the assistant it’s great, but I think I’m ready to make that next step in the next couple of years.”
While she isn’t picky about whether such a job would be in the WNBA or in college, she does see the advantages of sticking to the professional level. Before she took the job with the Mercury, Hairgrove spent two seasons in the college ranks at Loyola-Marymount after completing her college playing career with the Wildcats.
“It’s got to be the right opportunity for the family and it’s gotta make sense when you’re talking about moving three kids and my husband with me,” Hairgrove said. “But I think that I love the pro game just because it’s all coaching... At the college level you’ve got the recruiting and you got to make sure they’re going to classes. I think coaching is just such a small part of that. So, I mean, I wouldn’t say I would never do college because if the opportunity came about, obviously I would do college.”
For now, Hairgrove will continue trying to help the Mercury win their fourth WNBA title. Phoenix has had a different head coach in each of their championship seasons, but she has been on the sideline for all of them.
In fact, Hairgrove has been on the sideline next to five different Mercury head coaches. One of those tied her career to that of her grandfather. In 2013, she worked for Mercury interim head coach Russ Pennell, who took over for her grandfather and led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 in his only year coaching for Arizona.
As she heads into her 16th year as an assistant, Hairgrove is finally preparing for a future when she isn’t someone else’s right-hand woman.