Mike Brennan sits quietly on the bench watching American dissect Saint Francis University inside a calm gym. The visiting Eagles are going to win this game by 32 points. It doesn’t really matter; Brennan doesn’t sub much anyways. The first-year head coach just calmly watches his new charges patiently work through the offense in their sixth game of the season.
The Princeton Offense – and articles about it – was in vogue just a few seasons ago. What those pieces though seemed to miss is how the Princeton coaching tree has permeated Division I college basketball. Once Brennan joined the ranks this season seven Division I head coaches played for the Tigers. And all of them graduated within the same 15-year span. In fact, the Princeton tree is the second largest group of head coaches, behind only North Carolina.
All seven of those players learned how to coach from one of the best in the business, Pete Carril. The Hall of Fame head coach won 514 games at Princeton and helped raise a new generation of head coaches. From Oregon State head man Craig Robinson (Class of 1983) to current Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson (Class of 1998) the Tigers are entrenched throughout Division I.
“We learned a lot from [Carril],” Brennan said. “We’re all trying to pass along what we learned from him. We all believe in the simple values and principles that he taught. It’s a great way to play – a great way as a player and a point guard, Syndey [Johnson] was a forward, so every position, everyone loved playing that way and it’s fun to coach. I think our guys like it.”
You can find also Princeton graduates coaching in the Big East (John Thompson III at Georgetown), Atlantic 10 (Chris Mooney at Richmond), Summit League (Joe Scott at Denver) and MAAC (Johnson at Fairfield). The six head coaches that entered the season with experience had combined for a career record of 882-670 (57% winning percentage).
That success comes from Carril’s legacy. He’s now 83 years old, but has left behind a new generation of head coaches.
“He’s a great teacher,” Brennan said. “He showed up everyday and you learned something new everyday. He was a high school teacher by trade. That was the biggest impact that he had on us, just getting guys out of their comfort zone and getting them better.”
As Princeton coaches have had success the university itself has become a feeder school of sorts for the rest of Division I. When Bill Carmody left in 2000 to take over Northwestern, the Tigers hired JT III, who beget Scott, who beget Johnson, who beget Henderson. Henderson, a former point guard for the Tigers, has Princeton at 9-2 overall this season and could become a hot name once again. Princeton though has other former players waiting in the wings as assistants, including Henderson’s assistant Brian Earl and Fairfield assistant Kyle Koncz.
North Carolina may have produced more Division I coaches, nine former Tar Heels are leading a team this season, but it was split over two different generations. There’s the “old guard” of Larry Brown (SMU), Roy Williams (UNC) and Tony Shaver (William & Mary) and then the “new guard” ranging from UNC Wilmington’s Buzz Peterson (Class of 1985) to UNC Greensboro’s Wes Miller (Class of 2007). The Princeton head coaches are a single cohesive unit from the time of Carril and then his close assistant Bill Carmody.
The bonds of an Alma Mater can help even alumni of smaller universities break into the coaching profession. Twenty-two different schools have at least three alumni coaching a Division I school this season (table below), including two smaller schools: The Catholic University of America and Merrimack College.
Merrimack is a particularly interesting case as the Herrion brothers make up two-thirds of the legacy. Bill Herrion is at New Hampshire and his brother Tom Herrion is at Marshall. (The third is new Fairleigh Dickinson head coach Greg Herenda.)
CUA’s legacy is slightly different. George Washington’s Mike Lonergan won a Division III national championship with the Cardinals before taking over Vermont. After compiling a 126-68 record with the Catamounts, Lonergan left for GW and his top assistant, John Becker also a CUA graduate, was asked to continue the tradition. He’s done so; winning 61% of his games and almost upsetting Duke this season.
The third member of the triumvirate is Jimmy Patsos. The outspoken, newly hired Siena head coach played with both Lonergan and Becker at CUA before becoming an assistant at Maryland and eventually moving into the first seat at Loyola (MD). The trio played under another head coaching great, Jack Bruen, while at CUA. Bruen tragically passed away at 48 in 1997 from pancreatic cancer. In seven seasons with the Cardinals, including the ones with Patsos, Lonergan and Becker, Bruen never finished under .500.
“We were friends back in school,” Becker said. “We’ve known each other a long time. Jimmy actually got me my first job at Gallaudet University when he was an assistant at Maryland.”
Becker said that he likes to follow the progress of his fellow CUA graduates as well, considering the unique situation of having three head coaches from a Division III school with an undergraduate population of just around 3,700 students.
“It’s just a weird anomaly. It’s just the way it worked out,” Becker said.
Like Carril, Bruen has passed along his legacy to a new generation of coaches. Three promising graduates who are making a name for themselves in Division I basketball and helping to grow the school’s legacy.
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