Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 17
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
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STARTING POINT: Mitch Henderson makes a point last Thursday at the press conference where he was introduced as the new head coach of the Princeton University men’s basketball program. Henderson, a 1998 Princeton alum and standout point guard for the Tigers, is replacing former teammate Sydney Johnson, who recently left his alma mater to take over the Fairfield men’s hoops program. Henderson has spent the last 11 years as an assistant coach for the Northwestern University men’s hoops team under former Princeton mentor Bill Carmody.

Former PU Standout Henderson Comes Home To Take Helm of Tiger Men’s Hoops Program

Bill Alden

Four years ago, Mitch Henderson was passed over when Sydney Johnson was chosen as the head coach of the Princeton University men’s basketball team.

Last week, Henderson’s time to lead his alma mater came when he was picked to succeed former teammate Johnson, who recently left Princeton to take over the Fairfield men’s hoops program.

Henderson, a 1998 Princeton alum and standout point guard for the Tigers, didn’t harbor any ill will about being snubbed in his first try for the job.

“I expressed my interest right away being a fan since graduation,” said Henderson, an assistant coach at Northwestern the last 11 years, referring to his reaction when he learned that Johnson was leaving Princeton.

“I feel like I have never left the university and have been back for reunion weekends. I followed Sydney’s team closely, obviously being close to his staff. Having an opportunity to be at Northwestern for so long, I was excited about my chances. I was also eager to prove to Gary and the committee that I was a worthy guy for the job.”

In Henderson’s view, getting four more years of experience made him the right man for the Tiger job.

“I am thankful for the four years that I have had to develop as a coach and I feel like I am even more ready today than I have ever been,” said the curly-headed Henderson, dressed resplendently in a black suit and orange tie for the introductory press conference held last Thursday at the Class of 1956 Lounge at Princeton Stadium.

“The preparation that goes into being a head coach takes time. On the court, you think you are ready but it is the stuff off the court that is most important, particularly with recruiting. Once you find your way off the court, that’s when you are ready to be a head coach and I feel that way for sure.”

One thing Henderson didn’t have to develop over the last few years is a love for the Princeton program and its approach.

“My strengths are that I am tireless and I have a passion for Princeton basketball,” maintained Henderson. “I know the message here and I know what the university means.”

Princeton Director of Athletics Gary Walters, for his part, believes Henderson’s strengths are obvious.

“Everyone knows the central role in the mid-1990s that Mitch played on some of the best teams that have worn the Princeton basketball uniform,” said Walters of Henderson, who is fourth in career assists at Princeton with 304 and eight in steals with 142 and helped the Tigers go 27-2 in his senior year.

“When Bill Carmody was Mitch’s coach at Princeton, he said that Mitch was the heart and soul of the team. Who can forget the UCLA game, that leap of pure joy and that infectious exhilaration and that picture referred to as iconic by the media. Mitch played with a passion, a toughness, an intelligence and he exuded leadership ability reflective of the first class point guard that he was. Those qualities will serve him well as he inherits the foundation of a program established by his coaching predecessor and teammate Sydney Johnson.”

In addition to those qualities, Henderson has paid his dues in the coaching world working under former Princeton mentor Carmody at Northwestern.

“Make no mistake, however, Mitch has earned the right to assume the reins,” asserted Walters.

“In addition to his obvious court awareness, he has labored for 11 years as an assistant coach at Northwestern where he honed his coaching skills and established his recruiting bona fides.”

Henderson’s passion was evident as he took his second crack at the Princeton job.

“His infectious enthusiasm and desire to accept the daunting challenge of coaching at Princeton was palpable in our interviews,” added a smiling Walters.

“So much so that, when I told Mitch that the job was his, feelings of joy literally appeared to levitate him again in much the same way that his defiance of gravity after the UCLA game is etched in all of our minds.”

Henderson felt plenty of excitement as he got to interact with his new players.

“I met with the team last night for the first time and we had workouts this morning,” said Henderson.

“It is a great group and they are excited and I am excited. I am eager to get to know them and anxious to see where we are going to go together. It was so fun to get on the court this morning with the guys. I think they shared my enthusiasm.”

Henderson is enthusiastic about the players returning from a squad that went 25-7 last year in winning the Ivy League title and losing a 59-57 thriller to Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

“They are winners; they want to be good,” said Henderson. “With Doug [Davis], Ian [Hummer], Brandon [Connolly] and Patrick [Saunders], just to name a few of those guys, you have got some guys who have played some significant minutes and that have an opportunity to play in some hugely important Ivy League games, and an NCAA tournament game. So these guys have won. Now it is just a matter of teaching them that there is another step here and how do we take it to the next level.”

In Henderson’s view, getting to that next level is going to require fine-tuning, not drastic change.

“We want to continue what has been built with this team,” said Henderson. “First and foremost, I want them to feel comfortable playing. The style is less important to me than the way we are going to go about our business.”

Henderson plans to apply the lessons he learned at Princeton about taking care of business.

“I walked on to campus here pretty green; I hadn’t been exposed to a lot and certainly not the way that coach [Pete] Carril went about his business as a teacher,” recalled Henderson.

“He taught me the value of how you walk onto the court. When you come down here to Jadwin to work, you go about your business. When you leave, you go to work in the classroom. I tried to carry that as a coach at Northwestern. It is going to be really important with how I deal with our guys. It’s the relationship with coach Carril now that I love and I want that relationship with my players. I want them to feel comfortable with me, on and off the court.”

As he takes the helm at Princeton, Henderson would like to emulate Carril’s longevity with the program.

“I’ll say it this way, if I could be lucky enough to be here as long as coach Carril was here, 29 years, sign me up,” said Henderson, grinning broadly.

After patiently waiting for his chance to come home, Henderson’s desire to stick around for a while is understandable.

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