Build and Maintain: How Mike McLaughlin has made Penn a major player in women's college basketball


Heading into the 2019-2020 women’s basketball season, few things in the Ivy League have been more consistent throughout the league’s rise in the conference RPI rankings than Mike McLaughlin leading the Penn Quakers. As McLaughlin enters his 11th season, Penn is a beacon of consistency in as difficult an environment as any that exists in the sport – recruiting top national student-athletes without athletic scholarships, while also making it clear that academics must play just as important a role as on-court success.

Yet McLaughlin has never seen those demands as negatives. The four-time Philadelphia Big 5 Coach of the Year has found success through consistent messaging and values, along with great players and coaches – something that translates at any program in the country.

“The support here is tremendous,” said McLaughlin.  “In the vetting process, we are looking for kids who want the academic route and work hard with great habits. Many of them come in with that.”

Closing in on 600 career head coaching wins and one of only 75 Division I coaches in the sport’s history to win at least 500 games, it’d be easy to assume that McLaughlin has benefited from coaching strong programs throughout his career. That’d be a mistake. When he left Holy Family to lead Penn prior to the 2009-2010 season, he had a complete rebuild on his hands with only 20% of the program’s scoring returning.

After a Year 1 that included only two wins, McLaughlin saw value in the opportunity to start at the ground level.

“When we’re starting from where we did, it’s not the worst thing in a lot of regards,” said McLaughlin. “We were able to grow it, and went from 2 wins to 11, and then were in the teens and 20s consistently. We went from winning only one league game in the first year to losing only one league game in Year 5.”

And it was Year 5 that saw the program capture an Ivy League Championship, a 12-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and give 5-seed Texas all it could handle in the first round. 

Just looking at where Penn Women’s Basketball is now, compared with where it used to be, obfuscates the process that went into both building and maintaining the current state of affairs. McLaughlin and his staff were tasked with fixing a broken culture, a process with which many coaches can struggle. While the roster was filled with student-athletes who wanted to go to a great school and try to play basketball, Penn began seeking student-athletes who demanded of themselves to be great at both.

“Creating that culture was a positive for us because we were new and different, and we showed that we were invested and energized to change things,” added McLaughlin. “We knew that the culture shift was something we could win right out of the gate.”

The coach had to adjust to understanding the types of kids he could get to Penn and learned quickly that the net was wider than originally anticipated. Today, he feels as though there’s no limit to the school’s ability to recruit. The process involves three prongs: (1) if a student-athlete can play basketball at the level Penn competes at, (2) do they have the requisite academic grades and talent to win in the classroom at an Ivy League institution, and (3) is attending Penn something the student-athlete is capable of.

The third prong can sometimes be the toughest, as the Ivy League maintains the policy that no school may award athletic scholarships. Therefore, sometimes recruiting the family can be the toughest part of all.

Despite challenges, the numbers McLaughlin has amassed speak volumes. Under his watch, Penn has won four Ivy League Championships, been to three NCAA Tournaments, coached three Ivy League Players of the Year, four Ivy League Defensive Players of the Year, and four Ivy League Rookies of the Year.

Through the success, there’s a lot to be thankful for.

“Grace Calhoun has led the charge in athletics here at Penn making sure that the University is getting the best product athletically and academically, and we have high-level [practice and weight room] facilities and playing at the Palestra is great,” said McLaughlin. “It’s so rewarding to do this for 24 years and see players from our first to our most recent classes, and how they’ve grown and have families. It’s all part of the most exciting pieces of what we do.”

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