It took Mike McLaughlin only 459 games to win 400 as a head coach, the fastest in NCAA women’s basketball history, Division I, II, or III.
During 14 years as coach at his alma mater, Division II Holy Family University in Northeast Philadelphia, McLaughlin averaged 25 wins per season—with six 30-win seasons and two 32-win seasons—and was named Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference Coach of the Year 13 times. He was hired at Holy Family when he was only 27 years old.
When McLaughlin was named Penn’s head women’s basketball coach in April 2009, he had the highest winning percentage, .870, of any NCAA coach, man or woman.
This past season saw the women’s basketball team return to prominence, finishing with the second-most wins in program history (18) and reaching the semifinals of the Women’s Basketball Invitational.
A Philadelphia native and graduate of Father Judge High School, McLaughlin says he grew up a fan of Big Five basketball and Penn.
“Everyone says this but I’m really fortunate to be here,” he says. “I grew up hoping one day, and wishing one day, and praying one day that I would get an opportunity to be here, and it actually happened. I’ve been here four years and I feel more excited today than when I walked in four years ago.”
The Current sat down with McLaughlin, who was recently inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, to discuss coaching bugs, green lights, last season’s success, and next season’s goals.
Q: Obviously the women’s basketball team made tremendous progress over the past year, but as someone who is used to winning 25-30 games a year, do you consider the season a success?
A: Yes, absolutely, a great success. Winning is a process. It takes attention to detail at every level, starting with the coaching staff in terms of how we tried to get to this point from where we started four years ago and make every little thing really important and try to do it the best we can. We’ve come a long way and it’s been a process. Sometimes it’s a tedious process, sometimes trials and tribulations come through and there are good days and bad days, but I would really mark this year as a success because of what I’ve seen the process be like for [the players], believing that they can have success and win games. To validate that like they did is a remarkable achievement for them.
Q: As a player at Holy Family, you shot almost 58 percent from the three-point line, including 58.5 percent in 1988 and 59.3 percent in 1989. Did you have the green light to shoot whenever you wanted?
A: I think I did. I played for a coach, Dan Williams, who was a practice coach. Whatever we did in practice, we did in the game. He held us to a high standard in how we practiced and he let us play during the games. We earned the right to go play. I enjoyed playing for him. I use a lot of the things that he did and the experiences that he gave us in my coaching career. He allowed us to play and I’m thankful for that because it’s a good style of play.
Q: Have you given any of your players that same green light?
A: I think all my players have a green light. My philosophy is if you practice the shot a lot and you know you can make it in a practice setting and it’s a high percentage shot for the team on that possession, shoot it. I don’t want them to
be hesitant. As long as they practice what they’re doing, I don’t have a problem with that at all.
Q: When did you first catch the coaching bug? Did you know you wanted to be a coach when you were a player?
A: It was a pretty simple process. When I was done playing with [Holy Family], I toured with the Globetrotters for three years [as a player on the Washington Generals]. When I came back off one of the tours, I was considering going to Ireland to play. The women’s coach at Holy Family at the time, when I was still working out there, said, ‘How’d you like to help me out?’ And it was as simple as that. I coached with her for the better part of the year. I enjoyed it. I didn’t know what I was doing, why I was doing it, never set out to coach women. And then she decided that she was going to go in another direction with her career and the job became open. I had very little experience, but a lot of experience
with the university because I was there and had good relationships with the people there. They said, ‘Do you want to be the coach?’ That’s how it all started.
Q: Is there any difference between coaching women and men or is basketball just basketball?
A: I never coached men, but playing on the men’s side for so long, it’s a different style of play, but I think it’s basketball. It means the same for both sides. Our ladies want to compete and win just like the men do. They practice hard, if not harder than the men do. It means just as much to them as it does to the men. There are so many similarities. What’s different is the men play above the rim, but the women are just as competitive, if not more competitive.
Q: Was it difficult going from winning 87 percent of your games at Holy Family to finishing below .500 your first few years here, or was that part of the challenge?
A: I’m asked this question a lot. We won 28 or 29 games my last year [at Holy Family] and two games my first year [at Penn]. Was it a challenge? There’s no question. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. But I knew this was going to take time and I knew it was going to be a process and the little things would eventually add up to hopefully better days ahead, and that’s where I stayed focused. I didn’t get caught up in anything outside of those small tasks, and that’s all I asked the players to do. It really wasn’t that difficult because I understood that I was fortunate enough to be here. This is where I wanted to be. People look at me funny when I say that, but I really wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the ultimate competitor, but I also am a process guy and I knew that if we did it right, eventually we would have a better chance for success.
Q: Can you talk about the growth you have seen in your players over the years?
A: The two seniors that are going to be graduating this year were here when I got here, Brianna Bradford and Katie Davis. Seeing them when they walked in at 18 and they’re going to be leaving as mature 22-year-olds is unbelievable. As basketball players, Katie Davis played very little, but gave a lot of leadership and maturity and Brianna Bradford just continued to get better. To watch them win two games their first year and walk off the court in Detroit having played in the semifinals of a postseason tournament was pretty special. We have kids here that really want to be at Penn, that want to make the program better, that listened to us when we recruited them, that if we do this this way, we can have success. We were selling something that wasn’t here yet in terms of our vision for basketball, and I’m really grateful that they accepted what we laid out to them. Overall, the reward for this year was pretty special for that reason, building, and building, and building, and then validating. It was a really exceptional year for them.
Q: Can you take me back to the WBI quarterfinal game when Alyssa Baron hit the game-winning shot?
A: Here’s the thing. We won 18 basketball games, but this game is so close. There were probably five games that could have went either way. [Fairfield] scored with seven or eight seconds left to go ahead, and we handled the timeout really well. I had told Alyssa, ‘Be aggressive, be aggressive.’ The player stepped back off her and she felt the best aggressive play was to shoot a three to win it at the buzzer [laughs]. But I tell you what, that was pretty special for them. To win a game at the buzzer at your place to advance, that’s really good.
Q: Did you design a three-point play or did she just pull it?
A: We set a high-ball screen and she just had to make a play. We had shooters on the wings in case they doubled her. She had options to pass the ball, but I just wanted her to be aggressive, get to the basket, and make an aggressive play. She made a read, the kid stepped off her, and that was the play she was going to make. The ball was in her hands. She’s a junior, she’s achieved a lot, she’s the best player on the team, and she made a play. She made us all look pretty smart at the end.
Q: There has been some chatter about lowering the rim in women’s basketball.
A: I think all that is, is chatter. I think it’s a moot issue. I think that the men’s game and the women’s game are perfectly fine the way they are. Leave it be. The men are playing above the rim. That’s great. It doesn’t mean the women’s game has to be the same as the men’s.
Q: What are your goals for next season?
A: The goals, the process, the way we do it everyday is to give ourselves chances to be better. I know that sounds cliché but that’s the fact. I don’t try to complicate how it’s done. You have to do it right, you have to do it well if you’re going to be rewarded in this sport. We have five young kids coming in next year. Trying to get them acclimated from now to then is important because we’re going to need some of them to contribute. The goals are to continue to raise the bar, to continue to go forward in a good direction. We have a challenging schedule. We have Notre Dame coming in here. They made the Final Four this year. We have the University of Miami. We’re playing the best, we just have to be ready to compete against the best.