Ahead of this weekend’s Ivy Tournament, PAW caught up with Princeton’s head basketball coaches

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From left, men’s basketball coach Mitch Henderson ’98 and women’s basketball coach Carla Berube
From left, men’s basketball coach Mitch Henderson ’98 and women’s basketball coach Carla Berube
Princeton Athletics

The 2024 Ivy League Basketball Tournament tips off March 15 at Columbia’s Levien Gymnasium, and Princeton is seeded No. 1 on the men’s and women’s sides after both Tiger teams won regular-season championships. In advance of the big weekend in New York, PAW spoke with head coaches Carla Berube and Mitch Henderson ’98 about their paths in coaching, their goals for a player’s four-year experience, and some of the challenges and perks of the job.


Brett Tomlinson: I’m Brett Tomlinson, from the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and this is the PAWcast, a monthly series in which we interview alumni, faculty, staff, and students about issues that matter to the Princeton community.

In college athletics, March is prime time for basketball. And this month, we’re speaking with two of the central figures in Princeton basketball’s recent success, Carla Berube, head coach of the Princeton women, and Mitch Henderson, class of ’98, head coach of the Princeton men.

Carla and Mitch, thank you for joining me.

Carla Berube: Yeah, great to be here.

Mitch Henderson: Great to be here, Brett.

BT: It’s been almost a year since a very memorable March in 2023. I don’t think I have to give too much of a recap for our listeners, but Princeton, of course, hosted the Ivy Basketball Tournaments for the first time, won the men’s and women’s titles, earned spots in the NCAA Tournament. The women won in the first round, for the second year in a row. The men had two wins, reaching the Sweet 16. And remarkably, both of your teams have kept the foot on the gas, you’re both at the top of the league again this year.

I’ll start with Mitch. How do you think last year — from both the on-court experience and the excitement on campus and from alumni — how do you think that’s carried over into this season?

MH: I see a direct throughline for us. First, the women’s success, we build on that all the time. Our memory of last March, here in a couple weeks, is just awesome. It was so fun to be competing together at the same venue, and then also to both be at the selection show about the same time. Then, following them in their path. We have drawn on that throughout the whole season, like OK, that’s our goal. That’s where we want to be.

You said foot on the gas. I did not think, for us, that we would be where we are. But right from the very beginning, the group has been very focused on our end. Again, we draw very much from what we learned a year ago, and we’re hopeful to keep it going, along with Carla’s team.

BT: Carla, you’ve got an amazing group of seniors. They’ve had careers here that you can only dream of. What is it like to see them having their last run?

CB: Yeah. I think the success of a team really has to do with your leadership, and a lot of times it’s seniors that just know how to get it done. How to come in every day really focused, get the younger players playing at a really high level. I was lucky, with Chet [Nweke], and Kaitlyn [Chen], and Ellie [Mitchell], all seniors, they had a lot of experience from last year and they’ve taken the younger players under their wing. It gave us a really, I think, successful nonconference season. It carried over into the Ivy League season as well. Yeah, it’s a special group of seniors. Ellie Mitchell, this is really her fifth year. She took a gap year during that COVID year, so I’ve been with her every step of the way since I’ve been here. Then, Kaitlyn has had a phenomenal career. Chet has really come on strong this senior year. It’s a fun group to coach. At this point, you just want to keep it going as long as you can.

BT: The quality of basketball in the Ivy League, women’s and men’s, it just seems to be continually going up and up. But it’s still a one-bid conference for now, with one exception in 2016 when the Princeton women had an at-large bid. Why do you think it’s still a one-bid league? Or do you think that’s about to change sometime in the near future?

CB: Oh, well I hope it’s a one-bid league this year. I think Columbia’s in the conversation too, about getting a bid, an at-large bid. And we certainly are, too. It could end up being that. We just want to take care of ourselves and our business and win that automatic qualifying tournament.

But I think, yeah it’s grown so much just in the last couple years, the Ivy League. There are three teams in the top 100 NET, so it’s competitive. It’s great basketball. A lot of great players, really skilled, talented players.

BT: You know the league for a long time, Mitch. How does it compare to what you’ve seen in the past?

MH: The league’s as good as it’s ever been. I don’t think it’s a two-bid league, as much as people ... There are some possibilities. We’re in the same spot we were in when I was in school, you have to take care of business and get it done. Now we have just one more step further. Not just winning the league, but now you need to perform very well in the Ivy League Tournament.

I think we understand what we’ve all signed up for, and the process of getting there and winning does prepare you very well for the NCAAs.

BT: I wanted to talk with the two of you about your paths to coaching, because you have very similar backgrounds. You both played for Hall of Fame coaches in college. Carla, with Geno Auriemma. Mitch, with Pete Carril, and also two years with Bill Carmody. You both got started in coaching pretty much right after you were done playing. You’ve been around it for some time now, but still have a lot of good years ahead, I think. I like to say that because it’s a little self-serving, I’m about the same age.

But what was it that got you into coaching in the first place? And what got you hooked?

CB: Yeah, I think a lot of it had to do with the experience that I had as an undergrad. I just had a tremendous time at the University of Connecticut. I had great coaches, I had great mentors and role models. I played for a very short time right after college. I just did some volunteering when I was living out in California, at Cal Poly, and I caught the bug. I could see just what kind of impact you can have on student athletes. And I had mentors that were such a big impact on me that I felt like I wanted to do the same. I’ve loved every bit of it. It’s certainly a challenging profession, but it’s so rewarding, just being around the student-athletes every day. It keeps you young.

The game of basketball is so much fun to teach, to coach, and just watching your players develop as people, as leaders, and help them develop as basketball players. It’s a really rewarding profession and I’m so glad I’m able to do it, and at a place that I truly believe in. I came to Princeton because of the values that we have here, and I had them at Tufts during my 17 years there, a place that I really believed in. So I feel very fortunate to be coaching, and coaching here, and with the student athletes that I have. And alongside Mitch, too, which is great.

MH: Very similar. I didn’t actually put it all together, but when you brought it up, Brett, it is. I never saw in myself what others saw in me. But similarly, loved my time as a player and had a terrific playing experience. But then, did not want to coach. Moved to California as well, and was onto the next spot after I had played for a little bit, and was ready to do that. Then, kept getting phone calls.

Then, I was lucky, very much like Carla, to have Bill Carmody, he got the Northwestern position and took me on as a young assistant. I didn’t know a thing. I thought I knew a lot, I didn’t know anything. I was able to develop there. Also, if I could speak to my younger self, I would have a million things to say. But the main one would be, “Hey, just learn, you don’t know as much as you think you know.” I’m still learning a ton, also from watching Carla, and her staff, and her team. I learn stuff from the players every day, all the time. That’s the great gift of working here.

BT: How has the job changed in 25 years?

MH: The iPhone. The iPhone’s a big one.

CB: Yeah. I guess, recruiting has changed a bit.

MH: Yeah.

CB: Especially more recently, and with NIL, and just the landscape of college athletics.

But I think I try to stay true to what it’s all about, and it’s about the experience that your student athletes are having. I want to make sure that they’re coming down to Jadwin every day and enjoying the process, and enjoying the tough times, and the tough practices, and just playing together, and competing, and just seeing the fruits of that and their labor. 

Of course, you have to change as a coach. You have to pivot with — kids are different than they were 20 years ago, than they are today. I think you have to keep growing, you have to have that growth mindset that you can’t be stuck. When I started, it was the year 2000 when I became an assistant. Twenty-four years later, things are a little different. But you stay true to who you are, and you educate, and you teach, and you coach. That’s what it’s all about.

BT: You said the iPhone. That’s obviously a big part of modern life, you’re on your phone all the time. But how do you get through to students when, every time you’re on a bus trip, they’re buried in their phone?

MH: Most of the kids we’re recruiting are born in ’05, ’06. As much as I enjoy watching a movie on the bus with the guys, now they have something right in their hands and that’s a little bit different. Most of the students-athletes Carla and I recruited were born in the ’80s. We both got started at the year 2000 in coaching.

While that’s different, and yes that’s something you have to navigate, the charge is the same: To grow and see someone grow over time, be there with them. Then, I would say I’ve learned so much, and I feel that I have changed so much, because of the players. You make so many mistakes as a young coach, a head coach in particular, but I’m so appreciative of the lessons that I’ve learned from the student athletes. I can’t imagine another profession where you’re getting that same kind of lesson fed to you daily, intravenously from them.

BT: What is the coaching lifestyle like? I imagine it can be all-consuming if you want it to be. Do you manage to get breaks, do you manage to have balance and have time outside of basketball?

CB: Yeah. Absolutely, you have to. Mitch and I lead some parallels to our lives, that we both have three young kids. You want to be present in their lives. We want our student-athletes to have a good balance as well. Yeah, I think we’re pretty efficient on the court and efficient with my staff in the office. Let’s get the work we need to get done, and watch the film we need to, but also let’s work out. Let’s get outside and get some fresh air. Let’s do other things.

I think successful coaches have that balance of life, and this, basketball and the game — you just want to be the best you can be. It could be all-consuming, but I don’t think those are the healthiest of coaches.

MH: Well, we both have sons that are older. My son comes to practice sometimes and he’s teasing with the guys. I’m like, “Do you know how lucky you are, to be able to do this?” I think that I’ve tried to bring the family around as much as possible. I think that that helps me become a little more ... The guys on the team appreciate it, to get to know your family a bit. Because we are, at the end, if you’re just constantly barking orders as the coach, or you’re just constantly thinking about basketball, you’re just uninteresting to them. Carla’s right, we want us to know that we’re interested who they are.

This is also the most fun part of the season. We’re both in great spots, and we want to keep winning. It’s getting a little more light out, when we get done with practice, it’s a little bit longer of a day. The longer you can keep playing in March, the better it is.

BT: Particularly the winter sports, you have a lot of time together as a team where there aren’t a lot of other students here. Do you find that that is important, to have that family atmosphere within your team, to keep everybody together when they don’t necessarily have 4,000 other students roaming the campus?

CB: Yeah, it’s a time to just relax a little bit and be together. We have that January break where really, there’s not a lot going on at campus. My team comes over to our house and we have a bake-off. My kids are the ones that are judging the food that they’re cooking in our kitchen. Yeah, it is — it’s a fun time when they can relax a little bit and just play basketball. This week, they’re in midterms, but next week, it’s just spring break and they can just have fun playing the game. And be really locked in, because there’s not a lot of other things going on outside the court. Looking forward to that.

BT: I wanted to ask about the student-athlete experience today. A lot of our listeners, a sizeable chunk of alumni, played a sport, some recently and some longer ago. I’m curious what you see as what’s different about the student athlete experience today versus when you were in school? And also, what is going on in their lives that people don’t necessarily appreciate?

MH: I would think that alums would be very happy to know that there’s still a great deal of rigor in their lives daily. We both have student athletes that are pre-med, engineering. They’re sprinting to practice to be there at 4:45. This would resonate with a lot of alums. That is the challenge that you sign up for when you come to school here, which is you’re not going to be just an athlete or just a student. You’re signing up to be great at all parts of your lives.

Then also, I think that the area in which they would see and say that there could be some improvement is that I think it’s a much more user-friendly campus. That’s because we’ve grown significantly, as a student population, just in the last 15 years. But also, there’s more eating options. I think we’re all, as coaches, just a bit more aware of the rigor of the day and the challenges that lies therein. I don’t know, I feel like I want to see smiles on their faces daily. You mentioned the winter months, not always the case. But that’s our effort and our goal. I think when you look back on your time as a student athlete, you wear that with pride.

BT: The Ivy League is something of a throwback, in that it’s a conference that has not changed. It is the same eight teams as it was at its founding. The away games are all bus rides, familiar bus rides to you by now, I’m sure. The league has seen a few players leave through transfer portal, but not nearly what you see in some of the other conferences. These things all seem like these would be good things for coaches. Do the student-athletes see it the same way, that stability?

CB: Yeah, I think so. I think our players love this place and they love playing for Princeton, so they’re not looking to go elsewhere. I think they truly care that they’re developing during their four years here, in all sorts of ways — as basketball players, and as people, and as students, and leaders.

In the recruiting process, when we’re talking to families and to student-athletes, I think it’s enticing to know that this is a place where you can spend your four years here, and these will be your teammates, and that it’s a community. I think that’s always been what Princeton is about, is this amazing community that you have during your time here, and then for the rest of your life, this place to always come back to, that you hold so close to your heart.

Yeah, the landscape is so different all over the rest of the country, but there’s just those grassroots about the Ivy League that remain true, and I think I’m really appreciative of.

BT: How about you? When you recruit, is that something that comes up? You know you’re not going to be getting on a plane every weekend.

MH: It’s the strength that you sell. It’s the, “This is who we are, and this is what you’re going to be when you’re a student here,” a student-athlete. I think the value of your relationships with your peers on the team, and then our relationship with the women’s team, and the other student-athletes. It’s not just us that’s not changing, it’s no sports are changing. You get this great comradery with all the other student-athletes, and there’s thousands of student athletes. It’s just in a really special, unique situation.

One thing that’s different is the tournament. When I got to be here, I was told that there would never be a tournament, ever. I don’t know, maybe there’s some change coming. But I think for the most part, we’re going to do that within the values of the league, which I agree with.

BT: The transfer question comes up all the time. It seems like Princeton Athletics has really not looked to recruit transfers. I don’t know if that’s a philosophical thing, or if it’s just the reality of a school that doesn’t really accept a lot of transfers. Is that something that you’ve talked about with peers in the department?

MH: There are transfers in the league on our side.

CB: Oh, yeah. There are.

MH: Yeah. It’s not been something that we’ve looked to do. I really appreciate the commitment that we’re making to somebody over the four-year process.

CB: But you are seeing it across the league at other schools, that there are. Yeah, there are quite a few transfers in the other Ivy League schools. I agree with Mitch. This is about the first-years that we bring in, and we hope that they want to stay for four years. We’re not recruiting someone across the country to take their spot. To come in for a year or two, it just doesn’t really make sense for us. Yeah, we like to develop for four years.

BT: I suppose there’s an advantage in continuity too, that if you’re trying to build a culture and you’re not ... Well yes, you’re bringing in first-year players every year, but trying to pass that down.

CB: Yeah.

MH: I think too, this is way above us. This is a special place. We’re benefiting from their whole experience here. If we were in a situation where we were having lots of transfers, that’s where everybody else seems to be, but that’s not our model. Maybe your first year, it didn’t go so well. There’s a huge commitment on our end to make sure that we keep improving, not, “Hey, see you later.” That’s not the goal here.

BT: And there are loads of examples. I think you mentioned Chet earlier. It’s a perfect example of someone whose role has increased over time and has really grown into it.

CB: Yeah.

BT: I think of Rich Aririguzoh [’20] a few years ago, and how far he came. I would think, as a coach, that that’s tremendously rewarding to see a player take on new roles over time.

CB: Yeah. Chet, she puts the work in. I’m sure Mitch could say he sees her in the gym, all the time. Watching film, working with one my assistants, Lauren Batista, so often because she just wanted to get better and wanted to make an impact on our team. The fruits of her labor really come to shine, and really proud of her.

The student athletes, we have 17 players on our team and you want those first-years or sophomores, that maybe haven’t gotten as much game time, to see that. That you can put in the time, and you can develop, and you can make an impact during your four years. It’s really fun to watch Chet shine now.

BT: Is that something you are bringing up in recruiting? “Yes, we like you. You’re really great at these things. But we think you can be this much better in three or four years.”

CB: Yeah. I think that’s important. I think the student-athletes that we want are those that want to get better during their four years. Not, “I’m coming in and I’m taking over.” That they see that there’s a high ceiling of their potential, in that they want us to help them, and to coach them, and to make them the best players they possibly can be. We’re recruiting student-athletes that want to play at the next level, that want to play professionally. Clearly, we’ve both now coached players that have played at the next level.

Yeah, we want players that want to be here at Princeton, and want the challenge of this place, that are really driven, and that want to get better during the course of their career.

BT: We haven’t had many coaches on this podcast, but we spoke with Bob Surace [’90] in the fall. I ended with this question, so I’m going to adapt it and end this for you as well. Most people listening will know you and will know Princeton basketball from the games, the game days. But if you set aside those 30 days a year, what are your favorite days to go to work?

MH: We’re both thinking.

CB: Yeah.

MH: So I’ll start. I like practices. The games are fun. I don’t know, maybe I’m a little more stressed out or nervous, so I’m having to work on being calm. I enjoy the days in which I know that everybody on our staffs is going to be bringing their family for some event on campus. Maybe it’s a barbecue or a holiday party. Then, I’m always reminded of how lucky we are to work at an athletic department that’s so collegial and supportive of one another. We all have young kids, a lot of people have young kids, so I really love that it’s such a unique environment, and I feel very fortunate to be part of that.

CB: Yeah, I thought of going to one of Bob Surace’s games, a football game with the family and sitting out there on a nice fall day, relaxed, just enjoying some football. My wife and I got to take our oldest to one of Mitch’s games this year, we went to a Penn game and sat courtside, which was really, really cool to see his guys just right in front of us. I know that my son would love to one day be a college basketball player. Yeah, there’s so many just great days on this campus, so many things that you could be a part of. I think, as we love sports so much, there’s amazing athletics. Our squash team are runners-up for the national championship just last weekend. It’s just an amazing athletic department, and campus, and university. Anything that we can do to have my family on campus and enjoy the fruits of this place is something we really like to do.

BT: Great. Well, thank you both for coming in. And good luck in New York.

CB: Yeah. Thanks so much.

MH: Thanks, Brett. Appreciate it.

PAWcast is a monthly interview program produced by the Princeton Alumni Weekly. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and SoundCloud. You can read transcripts of every episode on our website, paw.princeton.edu. Music for this podcast is licensed from Universal Production Music.