Karen Stack Umlauf shares unusual path to becoming Bulls’ first female assistant coach
“It’s not lost on me,” said Stack Umlauf, one of nine female assistant coaches in the NBA this season. “Some of the male season ticket holders, they’ll come up and say, ‘I’m with my daughter and she wanted to say hello to you,’ and it just means a lot to them to see, ‘Hey, you can do this, too. This is very real.’”
Two years ago, longtime Bulls senior director of basketball operations Karen Stack Umlauf was one of a few selected to speak in a private memorial service for the late Jerry Krause. As she was sitting there listening to what others had to say about her former boss and mentor, Stack Umlauf couldn’t help but wonder: “What would my legacy be?”
It’s not every day someone from the marketing department gets tabbed for a front-office position and more than three decades later an assistant coaching job in the NBA. But that’s exactly what happened to Stack Umlauf, who, at 56, became the Bulls’ first female assistant coach last season.
Stack Umlauf, a former Northwestern basketball standout, joined the Bulls in 1984 after playing one season of professional basketball overseas. At the time, her main role was selling tickets.
But that all changed when Krause became general manager in 1985.
Stack Umlauf quickly became Krause’s trusted right-hand woman.
“I was there for him with whatever he needed,” said Stack Umlauf, who was Krause’s executive assistant. “He would call me any hour of the day and I would try to help. I was a real problem solver, whatever project he would give me, anything he needed me to do, I would just do it for him.”
Though Stack Umlauf was indispensable to Krause, he was willing to let her go when she had an opportunity to be the general manager of the Bulls’ WNBA team in 1996.
“[Krause] was very excited for me to maybe have that opportunity to put a team together like had done because he felt like I saw firsthand how you build teams, I was sitting in every draft with him and I kind of tried to absorb as much as I could,” Stack Umlauf said.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. The plan was nixed because the Bulls didn’t view it as a smart business decision at the time.
Stack Umlauf stayed loyal to the Bulls. And she’s forever grateful for the opportunity to be one of nine female assistant coaches in the NBA this season.
“It’s not lost on me,” Stack Umlauf said. “Some of the male season ticket holders, they’ll come up and say, ‘I’m with my daughter and she wanted to say hello to you,’ and it just means a lot to them to see, ‘Hey, you can do this, too. This is very real.’”
Last season, Stack Umlauf had one hand in the coaching world and another in operations. This season, it’s all hands on deck as she floats around as the utility player of the Bulls’ coaching staff.
“She brings a stability, she brings an intelligence, she brings a huge basketball acumen, IQ,” coach Jim Boylen said. “She has great energy. She helps me with a lot of things. During the game she does the subs, the sub patterns, and she also does our in-the-game stuff, the opponent’s in-the-game stuff. She’s a valuable piece of our staff.’’
This season marks Stack Umlauf’s 35th with the franchise. Looking back, she was some fond memories.
One of the highlights of her career came on the night of June 12, 1991.
Stack Umlauf was sitting in the stands with every expectation that the Lakers were going to send the series back to Chicago. Instead, the Bulls broke through and won their first of six NBA titles.
By the time Stack Umlauf got to the locker room, the place was already filled with a thick cloud of cigar smoke, and champagne drenched the floor. It was a scene of pure joy, with parents patting their son’s backs and Michael Jordan shedding a few tears while embracing the gold championship trophy. Krause came over and gave Stack Umlauf a tight bear hug.
Looking back at those videos, Stack Umlauf can’t help but smile. Occasionally, she said, she points herself out in the footage, a young, blonde-haired woman standing in the corner taking in the scene
“That was just surreal,” Stack Umlauf said. “And at that time going around those guys was like going around with a rockstar group, they were so popular with Jordan and [Scottie] Pippen and everybody. ... We soaked in the moment for as long as we could and then a spontaneous party after.”
But Stack Umlauf isn’t one to dwell on the past. She’d rather focus on the present.
As for what the future holds?
“All I have to worry about is trying to be the best assistant coach,” she said.
The rest will play itself out.
Contributing: Joe Cowley