When Courtney Banghart took over as Princeton University women’s head basketball coach the team was losing four out of every five games. After less than two years under Banghart, in the 2008-’09 season, the team had improved to .500. Then, in the 2009-’10 season, the Princeton women went undefeated in their conference and compiled a 26-3 record overall, capturing the first of three consecutive Ivy League crowns.
Banghart talks about the role of leadership in this amazing turnaround when she speaks at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon on Thursday, September 6, at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott Hotel & Conference Center. Cost: $45. Call 609-924-1776.
Banghart, in an airport phone interview as she waited to board a plane from Maui to Kauai during a rare vacation, quickly revealed the dedication and drive that have so quickly taken her to the top of her profession.
She answered a question on the importance of recruiting by first quoting Geno Auriemma, coach of the University of Connecticut’s seven-time NCAA champion women’s team and of the U.S. Olympic women’s gold medal basketball team.
“He says there are two kinds of coaches,” says Banghart. “Those who recruit well and those who are fired.”
So, how important is recruiting to Banghart? “I recruit every day, 365 days a year, every year,” she says. “There hasn’t been a day since I came to Princeton that I haven’t recruited. I took recruiting calls this morning from a hammock on the beach.”
Recruiting is all about building relationships, she says. The better she knows the coaches who are working with top players, the more likely they are to let her know about a rising talent. But how does she screen out marginal callers — parents and coaches she doesn’t know — whose players might not be close to making the cut at Princeton?
“I don’t,” says Banghart. “I take every call. I give everyone time.” It might be just a little time, she says. But she is always willing to try to see a promising young athlete, perhaps during an after school practice or when she plays at a summer league in a location where Banghart is going to visit. And that can cover a lot of territory. “I spent 22 nights in Marriotts in the month of July,” she says.
Callers do tend to self-screen, though. Most coaches and parents are well aware of Princeton’s high admission standards and of the demands it puts on its student athletes. A discussion of a prospect’s academic achievements comes up “very early in the process,” she says.
But Banghart says she doesn’t worry about outstanding athletes who try for Princeton early in their high school careers, only to find that by junior year their academic achievement is just not high enough for serious consideration. “If they think for just one year, for just one day, that Princeton is a possibility, that is something that can change them,” she says.
Banghart herself was a high school athlete. She grew up in New Hampshire, one of three children. Her mother, Anne Banghart, a nurse practitioner, and her father, Jim Banghart, an electrical engineer, retired recently, all the better to travel to see her games. Both enjoy sports — tennis for Anne and hockey for Jim — and they encouraged her to enjoy and excel at sports.
Choosing basketball, where she played at Dartmouth (Class of 2000), was something of a toss-up for Banghart, who was a U.S. tennis champion out of high school, where she also played soccer, and enjoyed it so much that she thought for a time that it would be her college sport.
Banghart studied neuroscience at Dartmouth and thought for a time that she would go into the hard sciences. She also flirted with the idea of going pro in basketball after graduation, but she says, “the WNBA season starts in April and graduation wasn’t until May. My mom said ‘I paid so much for this education, couldn’t you please graduate?” So, she did, and stayed on at Dartmouth to coach basketball and to earn a master’s degree in psychology with a concentration in leadership studies.
“For my thesis I interviewed 25 coaches,” she says. Out of the experience of speaking with successful coaches, along with her studies,and her own experience, has come Banghart’s perspective on just what makes a successful leader.
Genuinely care about the people you lead. “There is just no way to fake this,” says Banghart. Accolades from her student athletes, compiled in her profile on GoPrincetonTigers.com, indicates that she lives by this rule. Lauren Edwards, Class of 2012, for example, is quoted as saying of Banghart, “her influence reaches far beyond the court at Jadwin. She has made players better, stronger, and more motivated people. She never settles when it comes to us. She demands and enables us to constantly exude excellence, a positive attitude, promptness, gratefulness, and politeness.”
Banghart says she appreciates all that her student athletes do. She knows from experience, she says, that their days, jammed with academics and internships as well as athletics, are often nothing short of “brutal.” She says she expects them to be “all in” at practices, but she also understands that those practices sometimes have to be shortened to allow time for study, especially during exam time.
Communicate constantly and with clarity. A good leader is always clear about what needs to be accomplished and how it is to be accomplished.
Make the harder right over the easier wrong. Coaches have to make difficult decisions all the time. Players sometimes have to be cut. One promising recruit has to be chosen over another. A star player may have to sit down for the good of the team. Discipline has to be enforced. None of this is easy, but a good leader will invariably be tripped up by choosing the easy path.
While Banghart has seen and worked with many great leaders, she has also seen poor leaders. “I have witnessed people who are not consistent,” she says of one huge leadership flaw. “They are not consistent with their message or they don’t live it.”
Another big leadership trap in the world of sports, where so much emphasis is on winning, she says, is “treating the star differently.” Doing so is bound to undermine the coach’s credibility with the rest of the team.
When Banghart thinks of great leaders two people jump into her mind right away. “I know it’s a cliche,” she says, “but I learned about leadership from my parents. They’re off the charts in leadership. They taught us and practiced what they preached. They were absolutely consistent.”
Aiming to emulate their values, she says that her proudest accomplishment to date is producing the first Ivy League women’s basketball team to be nationally ranked in the top 25. Says Banghart: “We proved that true student athletes can do as much as anyone else.”