Bulls Associate Coach Karen Stack Umlauf might not have become a coach at all. Not if she hadn’t said something.
Stack Umlauf was in the Bulls’ marketing department until then-GM Jerry Krause moved her to basketball operations in 1985. She still holds a position in that department as director of team operations. But in 2018, she was named an assistant coach on the Bulls’ staff.
“I’m just so glad I spoke up and was able to move to the coaching side,” Stack Umlauf said in an exclusive interview with Stadium. “It’s been more than I can imagine.”
But that’s not all. When she was named an assistant coach in 2018, Karen Stack Umlauf became the first female coach in Bulls history.
“The significance isn’t lost on me,” she said. “It’s been a privilege.”
As if becoming an NBA assistant coach wasn’t demanding enough, Stack Umlauf now must balance her new position with her role as director of team operations.
“I’ve been doing that job for so many years, I kind of knew what I could do well and the things I could delegate,” Stack Umlauf said. “Maybe I’m not doing that part as well as I should, but I’m getting a lot of support and people have jumped in and we’ve kind of split up some of the roles, so its working out pretty well.”
On the coaching front, Stack Umlauf has gotten a dramatic crash-course lesson on the sidelines, for better or worse. The Bulls won some thrilling games early in the season, including a double-overtime triumph at Madison Square Garden. Then less than two months into her new role, her boss was fired – Fred Hoiberg was relieved of his duties as head coach. Days later, Chicago suffered its worst defeat in franchise history at the hands of the Celtics.
So you can empathize when she describes her job as a whirlwind.
“The biggest takeaway is just the demands of it, the schedule,” Stack Umlauf said. “When you’re on the inside like that, you don’t realize how much goes into it … sometimes you lose track of what day it is.”
“I pretty much had an idea of how much the coaches put into it, but once you’re in the thick of it, it is something where you finally try to get into a schedule and figure out how to best use your time,” she added.
Stack Umlauf is the latest to join a short list of women hired for coaching and front office positions in the NBA. Becky Hammon has held an assistant coaching position with the Spurs since 2014. Hammon was interviewed for Milwaukee’s general manager position in 2017. Nancy Lieberman was an assistant coach with the Kings for three seasons before joining the Big 3. WNBA legend Sue Bird accepted a front office position with the Nuggets and the Kelly Krauskopf was hired as assistant general manager of the Pacers.
The only question remaining: When will a woman be hired as a head coach or general manager in the NBA?
“We don’t have a crystal ball with that, I think all of those people are super qualified individuals,” Stack Umlauf said. “There’s a ton of great coaches out there. You have no idea when that will come, but I know women are preparing for that opportunity and hopefully if the fit is right, they will get that opportunity.”
“If you’re qualified and people are supporting you, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen.”