Coach’s Chair: Mike McLaughlin, University of Pennsylvania

Mike McLaughlin was the fastest coach to reach 400 wins before becoming head coach at Penn in 2009. Photo courtesy of Penn Athletics.
Mike McLaughlin was the fastest coach to reach 400 wins before becoming head coach at Penn in 2009. Photo courtesy of Penn Athletics.

Mike McLaughlin, in his tenth year at Penn’s helm, began his coaching career in 1995 at Holy Family University. There, he guided the Tigers to 25-plus wins each of his 14 years and reached 400 wins in 2008-2009 – in his 459th game – faster than any coach at any Division level.

At Penn, McLaughlin’s teams have won three Ivy League championships and made three NCAA Tournament appearances. Every one of his players have graduated, at both schools.

A Holy Family standout guard, McLaughlin still holds the three-point shooting percentage record there and is also ninth on the all-time scoring list and third in assists. He played three seasons for the Harlem Globetrotters before beginning his coaching career. McLaughlin and his wife are the parents of three children.

You had historic success at Holy Family University. How were you able to facilitate that? When and how did you know you were ready to move on?

We found a niche pretty quickly, and we focused our recruiting on a 30-40-mile radius. We got kids who could have gone elsewhere but wanted to stay home. Our players tended to be those who could play Division I, and I got fortunate in that respect, because I didn’t have much coaching experience at that time. But I knew what our niche was.

As far as moving on, a lot of things have been predicated on my family. I’ve never been one to pack up and leave, and my wife and I had to make tough decisions because we wanted to make sure our kids had stability. As much as I wanted for my own career, I thought it was best for the stability of their lives if we stayed in the area. The Penn job became open, and I was fortunate that they took a chance on me. It’s been great for me professionally, and it’s been great for my family. I get to grow (as a coach) with some unbelievable kids, so it’s the best of both worlds. The athletes at Penn are very competitive, and are very high achievers.

What foundation and structure did you put in place when you arrived at Penn?

We won two games my first year, so I inherited a program that was looking to make a change and embrace a different direction – which isn’t a knock on what was here before I came. I had a group, culturally, that was easy to adjust with. As poorly as we did on the floor, it was culturally tremendous because we were able to grow. I inherited three special seniors who wanted to be part of what we have today. They wanted to be able to look back in the future and know that they were a part of what had been built. The foundation and culture we have now is directly related to that group. We are where we are today because there were five or six kids who wanted you and I to have this conversation a long time ago.

What are your keys to running a successful program?

I think you have to have players who are totally committed. I’m an all-in kind of person, and I’ve brought in coaches who have that same philosophy. I want to see talent that’s all in. I’ve made good decisions on good people. I have misjudged talent, but I haven’t made any mistakes on character. My staff spends a lot of time during the recruiting process asking if this kid is a fit for Penn. Will they adapt, are we putting her in a position to be successful?

What is the difference between coaching at an Ivy League school and a non-Ivy League school?

We have kids who want to be great at everything. They’re extremely competitive in the classroom. If you come to one of our practices, you might see flaws, but you’re going to see a group of hard-nosed kids that want to compete. When whistle blows, they want to be the best in the classroom. They’re diligent, a group of humble of kids, and they tend to be over-thinkers. I have to tell them to enjoy this. There’s only 40 kids who can play Ivy League basketball in this entire world. I think a lot of it is breaking things down for them, putting things in perspective.

You had a lot of success as an athlete. What kind of player were you?

Growing up in Philadelphia, I played with some tremendous players. I was one who played, played again, went home  and had dinner and then went to play again. I was driven to get to a destination in this sport, and i don’t know why. I just wanted to lead the sport at the highest level that I could. We all dream about things playing, like making that last shot in the NBA finals, and I was one of those kids. But eventually I reached the peak of my skill set, and I realized I couldn’t get to the next level.

Growing up, did you know of Dawn Staley, who is close to you in age?

I was aware of Dawn growing up – she’s a legend in Phillie. There’s a street named after her now.

How did your experience as a player form your approach to coaching?

I played for two legendary Phillie coaches. My high school coach was there for 35 years, and he had a very disciplined, fundamental, hard-working style. My college coach had a similar background, and had a hard-nosed, fundamental, “respect the game” approach. We were about doing things right every day. You hear that a lot from me and from Phillie people. I brought a lot of that approach with me, into my coaching. I brought my love of the game with me.

How did you come to play for the Harlem Globetrotters? What was that experience like?

I’ve been really fortunate, in that I’ve been in the right spot at the right time on many occasions. I had a lot of success in college, and I happened to play in an area where the Washington Generals were run out of Atlantic City, which was 60 miles away, so there were a lot of regional scouts in the area. It happened that one of those scouts was at one of my college games, and took a liking to me. So I got a call when my college career was over, and they asked if I would be interested. So I to went to Atlantic City and met them. We agreed to a one tour contract, and I graduated from college and went on my first tour with them, to Russia. I had success and they signed me on for a year, which was expanded further to a couple of years.

How do you facilitate balance in the lives of your student-athletes?

I like the idea of putting them in a box. When we walk on the court, I use the 90 minutes. I keep it at 90, but I tell them to put themselves in this box in 90. I’m very transparent with them. I will tell them what the day looks like, what practice should look like, and what we want out of them. Coaching should be transparent and direct, and expectations should be laid out. I coached the same way at Holy Family.

What do you want players to take from their time in your program by the time they leave?

I want them to have a great experience. I want them to find that they could do more with themselves, and leave with a sense of pride in what they created. To know that they left it a better place than when they came. I tell them they all have a legacy in some way. They may not be the highest scorer or the assists leader, but they have created a positive impact on people. Right now I have four seniors, and two are in rotation. How do I empower the other two? How do I get them to have worth? In trying to be creative, especially with strong women, how do I empower them? When this ball stops, can they sit in front of a group they manage years from now, and say “my coaches told me to be resilient?” That’s what I tell them.

What’s the best thing about coaching?

I just enjoy the challenge. I have not moved my family, they’ve always been invested, the’ve traveled with us, they’ve been around. I have two daughters, and they have seen me coach college-aged kids their whole life. They have a sense of what it takes, that they can have fun and enjoy themselves, too. I tie my family into this. That’s the most enjoyable for me is that they can see success, failure – they can see raw emotions. Our players see it, that their coaches are around and their families are around. I like doing something small for them so that one day they think, “I get what coach said.” I had that experience: the light goes on (for me) and I know what it is about now. I hope to have a similar impact on our kids.

If you weren’t a basketball coach, what would you be doing?

I was a criminal justice major, so I would probably be something in that field. Maybe something in investigation, like the FBI.