Mollie Marcoux Samaan makes a bold pick in Carla Berube for Princeton

Following the sudden departure of Liz Feeley to Smith College in the summer of 2000, then-athletic director Gary Walters hired Kevin Morris as the interim coach of the Princeton women’s basketball team.  A 2-25 record ensured that Morris would not stick around Jadwin Gymnasium permanently. The job would eventually go to Richard Barron, who had just built a strong Division III program at Sewanee (The University of the South).

Barron would last six seasons at Princeton, before resigning on May 6, 2007 to become the associate head coach for Kim Mulkey at Baylor.  While he only managed a 74-91 record (37-47 Ivy) in his tenure, the 2005-2006 team went 21-7 and tied for first in the Ivy League with a 12-2 record.  After the 2006-07 team fell to 13-15 and 7-7 in conference play, Walters was tasked with finding a replacement that would get the program to consistently compete for a league title.

On May 30, 2007, Walters announced the hiring of Courtney Banghart, a 29-year old assistant coach and former All-Ivy guard at Dartmouth.  The untested head coach would go on to become the most successful women’s basketball coach in Princeton history, as well as one of the most dominant coaches in league history.  Over a 12-year period, her Tigers went 254-103 overall (.711) and 137-31 (.815) in Ivy contests.

After sixth and third-place finishes in her first two years at Old Nassau, Banghart’s teams would finish no lower than second in the next 10 years.  In that decade, Princeton would capture seven Ivy titles (six outright), two Ivy League Tournament championships and 10 postseason appearances (eight NCAA, two WNIT).  Among those teams, were the 2014-15 squad that went 30-0 in the regular season and made it into the second round of the NCAA Tournament, as well as the 2015-16 group that went 23-6 and secured the first ever NCAA Tournament “at-large” bid for either gender in Ivy hoops.

Banghart was named the National Coach of the Year by the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) for the historic 2014-15 campaign.  In addition, she was selected as an assistant coach for the 2017 USA Basketball Women’s U23 National Team, which won the inaugural U24 Four Nations Tournament in Tokyo.

Throughout this past year, which saw the Tigers win their second straight Ivy regular season and conference tournament titles, Coach Banghart often talked about the goal of being a consistent Sweet 16 team.  With co-captain and two-time Ivy League Player of the Year Bella Alarie, arguably the most dominant player in league history, as well as first team All-Ivy point guard Carlie Littlefield, co-captain Taylor Baur and returning three-guard Abby Meyers, the Tigers seemed poised to make a run at that elite level in 2019-20.

As the off-season was in its early stage, however, Banghart was announced as the new head coach at the University of North Carolina on April 30.

With the loss of Banghart, current athletic director Mollie Marcoux Samaan had a somewhat different decision than Walters faced 12 years ago.  Where he needed to find someone to build an inconsistent program into a yearly winner, she needed to find a coach who could sustain Banghart’s level of excellence and, hopefully, build upon it.  She would need to choose a leader with a strong track record, experience in dealing with non-scholarship athletes, as well as a history of competing and succeeding against the best programs in the country.

When looking at the potential candidates early in the process, there were a number of people with connections to Banghart and the Ancient Eight.  While all had their strengths, none had a proven long-term track record as a head coach and only Milena Flores (Stanford 1996-2000), who had retired from assistant coaching at the end of the 2017-18 season, had experience with a high-major program.

Looking at successful mid-major coaches, Quinnipiac’s Tricia Fabbri appeared to be the prime candidate.  While she has not worked with non-scholarship athletes and has no direct experience with high-major programs, she is a well- respected coach who has dominated multiple conferences and brought her team national attention.

Fabbri has led Quinnipiac for the last 24 years and seen the Bobcats move from Division II (1995-1998) to the Northeast Conference (1998-2013) to the MAAC (2013-present).  Over that time, she has amassed a 433-288 (.601) record.  Since the 2011-12 season, Fabbri’s teams have gone 212-58 (.791) overall and 135-17 (.888) in conference games.  In those eight seasons, she has coached teams to five NCAA and three WNIT appearances, making it into the second round of both tournaments one time and a trip to the NCAA’s Sweet 16 in 2017.  During her time in the NEC and MAAC, she has won six Coach of the Year awards, while coaching 48 all-league players, eight Rookies of the Year and 31 All-Academic honorees.

With Fabbri being a finalist for the recently open Penn State head coaching job and Quinnipiac’s recent financial  commitments to her (2016 and 2017)), it appeared that she would be looking for a more high profile and higher paying position in order to leave the Bobcats.

While there is no such thing as a perfect candidate, could there be one that satisfied most of the program’s needs, who would have interest and be financially affordable?

Marcoux Samaan looked to Tufts to find the answer in Carla Berube.

Berube has spent the last 17 years building the Jumbos into one of the best programs in Division III basketball.  She has led her teams to a 384-96 record (.800) in her career and an even more impressive 197-24 (.891) over the last decade.  In the competitive New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), Berube led Tufts to three conference titles and nine league championship game appearances.

Taking her team to 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, Berube has a 33-13 (.717) record and made six consecutive “Elite Eight” appearances from 2014-19.  From 2014-2017, she took the Jumbos to four straight Final Fours and back-to-back National Championship appearances in 2016 and 2017.  She has been given five NESCAC Coach of the Year awards, as well as the the 2015 Pat Summitt Trophy, which is presented to the Division III National Coach of the Year by the United States Marine Corps and Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA).

While Berube has spent her entire head coaching career with Tufts, she has additional experience as the head coach of USA Basketball Women’s U16 and U17 National Teams. She guided those teams to gold medals at the 2017 FIBA Americas Championship and the 2018 FIBA World Cup, and was twice honored with a USA Basketball Developmental Coach of the Year Award.

In addition, she has more power conference experience than any other candidate due to her playing career at Connecticut (1993-1997) and her two years as an assistant coach at Providence (2000-2002).

Berube played for Hall of Famer Geno Auriemma’s Huskies from 1993 to 1997.  She was a key reserve for the 1994-95 team that went 35-0 season, giving the school its first No. 1 ranking and national championship. During the National Championship game, she hit two free throws with nine seconds left to help clinch the 70-64 victory over Tennessee.  Berube finished her career in Storrs with 1,381 points and was named second team All-Big East in her senior season.

Due to her lengthy tenure in Medford, Berube has a great deal of experience recruiting and coaching non-scholarship athletes that excel on the court, in the classroom and in the community.  With the Ivy League ranked No. 11 in RPI at the end of last season, however, Berube will need to learn to coach against a higher level of Division I competition.

The success of Penn’s Mike McLaughlin shows that a good non-Division I coach can thrive in the Ancient Eight.

In 14 years leading Division II Holy Family, McLaughlin had a record of 407-61 (.870) and received 13 Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC) Coach of the Year awards.  After arriving in West Philadelphia in 2009, McLaughlin’s teams are 179-116 (.607) overall and 93-47 (.664).  His Quakers have four Ivy League regular season championships, seven postseason appearances (three NCAA, four WNIT), two Big 5 titles, and one Ivy Tournament championship, while he has seven Coach of the Year Awards between the Ivy League and Big 5.

Since she learned to be a “defense-first coach” from Auriemma and her Jumbos were first nationally (47.5 ppg) in 2015-2016, second (43.2 ppg) in 2016-2017, fifth (47.9 ppg) in 2018-2019 and sixth (48.3 ppg) in 2017-2018 in points allowed, Berube has shown that she, like McLaughlin, has what it takes to compete in a league that is dominated by some of the country’s best defenses.

Berube’s experience as a teammate of Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo should help her improve Bella Alarie’s game as the Bethesda, Maryland native seeks to be a top 10 WNBA pick next summer.  For all other aspects of coaching Banghart’s Tigers this coming season, she should be able to rely on the leadership of Alarie, Littlefield and Baur.  If she can keep Addie Micir on staff, that will be a huge plus as Berube deals with the unique aspects of coaching in the Ancient Eight and expands her national recruiting presence.

It may have taken Marcoux Samaan a bit longer than expected to find a new coach, but her choice of Carla Berube just may be as successful as Walters’s choice of Courtney Banghart when all is said and done.

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