After Building PU Women’s Hoops Into Ivy Power, Banghart Named to Guide North Carolina Program
KICKING UP HER HEELS: Courtney Banghart instructs her players on the Princeton University women’s basketball team during a game last winter. Last week, Banghart decided to leave Princeton to become the new head coach of the University of North Carolina women’s hoops program. After building Princeton into a dominate force in the Ivy League, Banghart will be looking to help the Tar Heels produce a reversal of fortune as they are coming off an 18-15 season with former head coach Sylvia Hatchell retiring under fire. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
In 2007, Courtney Banghart took the helm of a struggling Princeton University women’s basketball program that was at a crossroad after a mediocre 13-15 campaign.
The former Dartmouth star and assistant coach Banghart, then 29, brought energy, smarts, and toughness to the Tigers eventually turning Princeton into an Ivy League powerhouse.
After going 21-37 in her first two seasons, Banghart led the Tigers to an unprecedented success as they made the NCAA tournament in eight of the last 10 years, with seven automatic bids and the league’s only at-large bid by a men’s or women’s team, for a run that has never been matched in Ivy League women’s history and has been done just once on the men’s side (Penn won nine of 11 from 1970-80).
Banghart put together a 254-103 (.711) overall record and won better than 80 percent of her Ivy games with a 137-31 record (.816) while winning 89 more games than any other coach in program history. She leaves fourth all-time in Ivy history in overall victories and Ivy wins.
Now, Banghart, 40, is heading south, getting named as the head coach of the University of North Carolina women’s hoops program, aiming to help the Tar Heels produce a reversal of fortune as they are coming off an 18-15 season.
As Banghart looks forward to taking over in Chapel Hill, she believes her experience in rebuilding Princeton will come in handy.
“When I took the Princeton job, I remember a week later I had camp and I was staying at a friend’s house in her living room on an air mattress,” said Banghart.
“I had fatigue. I was so run down I was throwing up. That is what happens when you take over a program, you have to balance the excitement of getting started with patience that it takes to build relationships. That has helped me to realize that you can’t build it overnight. There are some things are going to take me some time to build.”
While Banghart was primed to continue building at Princeton, the opportunity to guide traditional power North Carolina got her attention.
“There were a lot of jobs that had sought our interest, it was never about that for me,” said Banghart, noting the UNC officials reached out to her on the morning of April 18 when former head coach Sylvia Hatchell resigned after an outside program review reported she had made “racially insensitive” comments and pressured players to compete through medical issues.
“This is one of the very few jobs I would even listen to. You still have the academic pedigree, you still have a footprint of a national athletic brand that you can recruit. You have some regional talent. It is quite similar to Princeton.”
Banghart rejects the notion that she has a hit a ceiling at Princeton. “That is not why I left; it is not because I didn’t think I could do more,” said Banghart, who guided the Tigers to a 22-10 record and the Ivy title this winter and noted that next year’s Princeton squad has the potential to make the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. “A lot of people said we get it, you have kind of reached the pinnacle. I don’t agree. I thought I was going to continue to build Princeton.”
Having spent the last 20 years in the Ivies, Banghart decided it is time to build new life experiences.
“What was different was it really comes down to a little bit of a different life experience; it forces you to grow and take some risks and to experience new thing,” said Banghart, who was named the 2015 Naismith National Coach of the Year after guiding the Tigers to a 30-0 regular season and was named as one of Fortune Magazine’s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.
“For the last 20 years, I have been in that Yale locker room and it has been the same Yale locker room for 20 years.”
Still, it was hard to say goodbye to Princeton. “It is a really tough decision because I never thought I would leave; I never thought there would be a better job and I am not sure there is a better job,” said Banghart. “It was awful. It was the hardest decision of my life, My heart is still broken.”
It was heartbreaking when she broke the news of the move to her Princeton players.
“It was very hard, there were a lot of tears,” said Banghart. “You choose Princeton for the right reasons. but I am your gateway to that. I am a very relational coach so those people mean a lot to me and their families mean a lot to me. It was hard to have to look at these players that you built up and believe in and to tell them that you are leaving.”
On the flip side, Banghart is excited to build up her new players. “All you want to do is wrap your arms around them and let them know they have gone through a disruption and you are here to be their new leader,” said Banghart.
“It was en masse. It was a collective thing so I could learn a little more about them. Obviously developing relationships takes time. It is just the beginning.”
With more recruiting latitude and the ability to give scholarships, Banghart believes she can develop a formidable talent base.
“The newness of the experience, in some ways, is going to be reenergizing and totally new,” said Banghart.
“I finally get to offer scholarships. I am not going to change who I am. I have been successful doing things with authenticity.”
With the UNC roster in flux, Banghart isn’t ready to define what amounts to success for the Tar Heels next winter.
“I told the players one thing you are going to learn about me is that it is not about me,” said Banghart.
“Once we get through this day and I get the chance to get on the court with you and learn more about you, we are going to determine together what are our reasonable expectations in the year ahead. In my first year at Princeton we were 7-23, I hope for a little better that.”
In reflecting on her Princeton experience, Banghart is confident that she left the program in a better place than when she found it.
“There are a couple of things I am most proud of and one is I was able to build and cohese the alumni who played before I was there who really felt disconnected from the program,” said Banghart.
“We have a really strong following now of people; it is about a lot more than me now, which is my goal. Secondly, is the fact that we were able really do things that were not even in the discussion of the Ivy League, that wasn’t even in the realm of possibility for anyone else. We were able to build a high major program in a non-scholarship and academic school. I am so grateful to the people that care about our journey. I will be Tiger forever.”
True to character, Banghart is hitting the ground running as she begins her new journey.
“North Carolina needs a leader. Part of what attracted me to the job is they need all parts of the program to be be better,” said Banghart.
“I think I can help them with that in terms of how to engage with the campus, how to be in the classroom, and building from the ground up like I did at Princeton. It is going to be a lot of work but as I told our players, you don’t shy away from work. So this is a lot of work and that is OK. I will do it and I will find a way to do it the right way.”