Courtney Banghart enters her eleventh season at Princeton as the most winning coach in program history. The Tigers have been to the postseason for the last eight consecutive years, including a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2015-2016. In 2014-2015, Princeton went 30-0 in the regular season, which was an Ivy League record for both women and men. Banghart has guided the Tigers to five Ivy League championships and has been named coach of the year by numerous organizations, including notching the Naismith Coach of the Year Award in 2015.
A New Hampshire native, Banghart was a standout guard at Dartmouth College. After graduation she served as athletic director and girls basketball coach at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia before being named assistant coach at Dartmouth in 2003. She attained her Master’s Degree there before accepting the Princeton job. This past summer, Banghart was an assistant coach for USA Basketball’s U23 team, and helped guide them to a championship win in the Four Nations Tournament.
Your coaching path has been linear, logical and progressive. When did you know you wanted to coach?
I have two degrees, and coaching wasn’t the path in front of me in my own thinking. But if you ask anyone close to me, they’d say of course I would coach. I’ve never taken a paycheck for anything else but athletics.
I turned down the Harvard School of Education to go to Dartmouth and earn my graduate degree while I coached. I did my graduate work, defended my thesis and got a call from (former Princeton athletic director) Gary Walters the same week. He remembered me as a player, and he hired me for my potential, because at that point I had no experience. He thought I was an intriguing candidate.
You’ve also been a bit unorthodox in that you’ve coached at the DI level only in Ivy League schools. Take us into the Ivy League athletics world. How is it different from the non-Ivy League experience? How is it the same?
The Ivy League is the same competitive, DI high-level ball that we all know. I feel like I’m coaching in a high-major program in a mid-major environment. We’re at the highest academic level in the world, in a mid-major environment. We’re non-scholarship with an academic curriculum where you have to show your academic merit in order to be admitted. I get to recruit the whole country instead of a region. You get the best of the best.
Can you elaborate on that?
If your household income is high enough, regardless of your talent level, you will pay Princeton. If you’re making under $150,000, it’s all paid for (via grants and scholarships). The Ivy League feels like they’re not going to value athletes more than other students.
What steps did you take to set up your program when you got to Princeton?
I’ve always seen the light in others, and that’s served me well as a leader. I was so inexperienced when I took the job, but what I did believe was that Gary had chosen me, and wanted me to be my best self. So I came at things honestly, I didn’t want to be outworked, and I wanted to be really good to people. That’s how I live my life. I’ve always seen the opportunities of the Ivy League – not the limitations. I can recruit against the best schools in the country because I believe so wholeheartedly in the mission of Ivy League schools. In my first year out, I got a recruit over Tara (VanDerveer of Stanford) At Princeton I can get the hometown hero from any part of the country.
Young people have changed a lot since you first began coaching. How have you changed to be able to coach them effectively?
I coach them with more empathy because I recognize that they have to manage way more relationships than they used to have to. They are inundated with so much stimuli that they have no chance to take a timeout and debrief. I recognize that they have an incredible number of things they could be doing, and they keep choosing me. With all the information they have, they appreciate clarity. Social media offers so much conflicting data, so I try to really provide a space of clarity. My players say, ‘if you wanna know how coach feels, ask her.’ I am open and honest with my communication, and I approach them with empathy, as if I were walking in their shoes.
How do you motivate players?
I try to get at where do they want to go. If their goal is to win a title and be elite, it’s my job to get them there. I have a different and unique relationship with each one of them because I’m just trying to get them to surpass their limits. Though basketball is the ultimate team sport, I actually focus way more on the individual. It’s 14 different players that happen to play together.
With that in mind, what is your communication style like?
It’s college basketball, which means they’ve chosen me and I’ve chosen them, but that doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park. I approach it both ways, wide open. They deserve my respect and they deserve my honesty. Every kid has different needs, so I meet them where they need to be met.
The 2015 30-win season was momentous. Did you see that coming?
I think I probably didn’t. I’m so focused on the day, which sounds so cliche, but I never want my kids to think they’re better than they are or not as good as they are. I don’t know who we’re playing two games from now. I knew we were pretty good, and then we went to Cancun for a Thanksgiving tournament and played Charlotte, Montana and Wake Forest and won all three. Then we went out and played Michigan on a Tuesday on the road, which is a big deal for us, missing class. We hammered them by 30 and when we finished that game I thought, we’re hard to beat. We have exceptional pieces and we’re hard to guard. As we went, I didn’t think of it like, we’re 22-0. It was like, who’s up next? I would notice that we were climbing in the rankings. I give that team a lot of credit.
The question I got was, what was it like meeting Barack Obama, being the first time a sitting President had been to a game there? He came in right before the game and walked in walked by the opposing coach. I thought I should say hi, but I decided it was a minute before tipoff and didn’t want my players to see me hobnobbing with the President. I didn’t want them to see me not paying attention to the game.
What are your goals for the program? How do you approach goal-setting with student-athletes?
We have on-court and on-campus goals, and everything is geared towards reaching their goals. I hope I lead by example by doing something special with the group every year. My goals for the program are to continue to be relevant nationally, and to go to the Sweet 16 and further.
How did having kids affect your coaching life? What’s the trick to remaining balanced?
Who you are as a coach shouldn’t be much different than how you are in life. Your children show you how finite your time is, and I want to make every moment matter. I don’t want to waste a practice day; it’s time that I’ll never get back. I value every moment because your career is finite, and I owe it to the student-athletes to make sure each year is memorable.
Balance is the synergy of recognizing that I’ve got to be in a place with people that I believe in, and have a connection with on core values. I’m thrilled to get to help players get better, and I’m thrilled to get home.
Talk about your experience coaching the U23 team over the summer, and what you learned.
What an honor to be asked and to work with the very best players in country, and to coach with Michelle (Clark-Heard) and Jeff (Walz). We had to quickly create a culture that let the stars be stars while also having them share the limelight. I learned a lot about the game and how, in a small amount of time, to create a culture.
What has basketball taught you about life?
It shows me on a day-to-day basis that life is a team sport. If I think about any of the players who have gotten in some sort of slump, it’s always the kids, when things don’t go their way, who become internal islands. Basketball has showed me that people who are other-centered always have the most success in life. That daily reminder helps me in the community, and as a human.
The life lessons and the character you develop are invaluable. You learn so much about success and about failure, and you learn to not be afraid of either.
If you had some down time, how would you spend it?
Traveling, I love to travel. I hitchhiked through Alaska for three weeks before I took the Dartmouth job. I would love to be in a different place every year. I like to read, which sounds so nerdy. I’m waiting for Bora Bora to have a basketball team and need a coach.