Commentary

Familiar face returns to Princeton

Originally Published: September 14, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PRINCETON, N.J. -- His joyous face, caught in the rapture of a full-on celebratory leap, remains one of the most iconic sports images at Princeton University.

But the man behind the grin that told the story of Princeton's shocking upset of UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament doesn't have much interest in dwelling on his own glory years.

He's too busy trying to create new ones at Princeton.

Hired as the school's new head coach in April, Mitch Henderson believes he is more gatekeeper than game-changer. Still, he was handed the daunting task of keeping the Tigers' place in the basketball hierarchy afloat.

"The guys here know they hired the coach, not the player,'' Henderson said. "But what am I going to do here that hasn't already been done? My job, my challenge, is to keep moving things forward.''

[+] EnlargeMitch Henderson
AP Photo/Tom RussoMitch Henderson, Princeton's new coach, is seen here after the Tigers' shocking upset of UCLA in the 1996 NCAA tournament.

To Princeton fans, the beauty of Henderson is that he will move things along in a very familiar way. He continues the Tigers in-house tradition of hires. In fact, a snapshot of that 1996 UCLA-beating bench reveals a 16-year line of Princeton coaching succession: Pete Carril to Bill Carmody (then the Tigers' associate head coach) to John Thompson III (then an assistant) to Joe Scott (another assistant) to Sydney Johnson (a junior) to Henderson (a sophomore).

It is hard to argue with Princeton's logic. More than a cradle, the university has served as an incubator for coaching, with Princeton producing more alumni serving as current Division I head basketball coaches than any other university in the country: Thompson (Georgetown), Scott (Denver), Johnson (Fairfield), Henderson (Princeton), Craig Robinson (Oregon State) and Chris Mooney (Richmond).

It all stems, Henderson said, from Carril, a crusty curmudgeon who suffers no fools on the basketball court. Survivors of his take-no-prisoners honesty emerge wiser, stronger and well-suited for the rigors of college coaching.

And while Carril lingers both figuratively and literally around campus -- the Jadwin Gym court is named after him and, with an NBA lockout putting his position with the Sacramento Kings on hiatus, Carril is back in town for the foreseeable future -- he does not interfere.

"His advice is always the same: Be yourself,'' Henderson said. "His influence here is so strong and he loves the program so deeply, but he always tells you that you have to be yourself and do things your own way.''

And so Henderson walks the tricky line of doing things his way while keeping the Princeton way intact. Fortunately the two go hand in hand.

Henderson's way is Princeton's way.

A three-sport star in his own right (he was the first athlete at Culver Military Academy to own 12 varsity letters), Henderson first thought he'd be a college baseball player. The Yankees, in fact, drafted him in the late rounds in 1994. Then he toyed with the notion of college football. But when he got on the Princeton campus for the first time, his personal and athletic futures finally melded.

He fell in love with what he calls the culture of Princeton -- a community of alums and locals who support the unique academic and athletic enclave that is the university.

Henderson would participate in three NCAA tournaments before venturing on to a one-year run in the pro ranks (in both Ireland and with the Atlanta Hawks). After a year in the real world as a research associate, Henderson linked up with Carmody at Northwestern.

After 11 years there, he finally got the call to come to Princeton.

Now seated in the boss's chair that once belonged to Carril, Henderson is more comfortable than overwhelmed with his new bird's-eye view. "It's unusual because my last time in the office was as a player,'' he said. "But you adjust pretty quickly.''

And frankly there is little time for reminiscing. Princeton won its 26th Ivy League title last season -- its first since 2004.

[+] EnlargeMitch Henderson
AP Photo/Mel EvansHenderson understands that the success of Princeton comes from player development.

There was a time when the Princeton-Penn game served as the league's main event and everything else was a lousy undercard. But both the Tigers and Quakers slipped to some lean times in recent years, and only the meticulous and methodical work of Johnson returned Princeton to the top.

His four years culminated in March, when Princeton topped league favorite Harvard in a playoff game to earn an automatic bid and finished a Brandon Knight finger roll away from an epic upset of Kentucky in the first round.

Fortunately for Henderson, he inherits a team that is back in its comfortable upper-echelon seats, but he will have to continue to build without Kareem Maddox and Dan Mavraides, the senior leaders from that squad.

The coach isn't worried. The success of Princeton, he knows firsthand, comes from a player's development. Mavraides, he points out, scored only 11 points as a freshman. He scored 407 in his senior season.

Maddox, in the meantime, grew even more remarkably. At the beginning of his senior season, Maddox averaged 5.8 points. By year's end, he had doubled that to 13.8.

"That's the hallmark of Princeton basketball -- guys get better,'' Henderson said. "There are no smoke and mirrors here. That's what we're about, about guys getting better as they get older.''

And that has been Henderson's simple message. The players were stunned and stung -- as were many in the Princeton community -- by Johnson's sudden departure. Just three weeks before he left for Fairfield, the coach was weeping on the dais, overcome with emotion after his team nearly knocked off Kentucky.

Hiring Henderson eased the transition. Reared by Carril and mentored by his assistants (Johnson by Thompson, Henderson by Carmody), the two young coaches speak the same language and want the same things.

"What you experience here as a player, the support by your alumni, the community, it's powerful,'' Henderson said. "And as a coach, you want your players to experience it. You want them to leave here feeling the same way players before them did, experiencing what they experienced.''

Maybe even smiling from the center of an iconic photograph.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

Dana O'Neil | email

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