April 27, 2024 

How Emily Garner wants to make Cornell the next Ivy League program on the rise

Garner, who spent the past eight years coaching at Trinity College, makes the jump to the Ivy League

About five hours after being introduced as the head coach of Cornell women’s basketball on April 19, Emily Garner headed to Manheim, Pennsylvania, for a weekend of recruiting. Though the weekend was hectic — she was recruiting solo, having not finalized her staff yet — it also provided a rare dose of familiarity while much of the rest of her life changes. 

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She got to catch up with friends in the business and hear their stories of transitioning into new jobs. And she got to do something that’s in her wheelhouse: evaluate players, particularly those looking for elite academic schools.

“It was honestly a great place to be at that point,” Garner told The Next.

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Garner replaced Dayna Smith, who had led the Big Red for 22 years before Cornell director of athletics and physical education Nicki Moore announced a change of direction in March. Under Smith, the Big Red shared the Ivy League regular-season title in 2008 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament, but they also had losing conference records in 18 of her 21 seasons.

Garner comes to Cornell from Division III Trinity College, where she went 124-55 in eight years. Her 0.693 winning percentage is the highest in program history, and she led the Bantams to their first regular-season conference title in 2021-22. 

In 2022-23, Trinity got its first NCAA Tournament win since 1995 and made the Elite Eight for the first time ever. Last season, it returned to the NCAA Tournament and finished with an overall record of 19-8.

Like many NESCAC coaches, Garner coached at and/or recruited from many of the camps Ivy League programs host each summer. Over the years, she went to camps at Brown, Harvard, Princeton and Yale, which also helped her get to know the staffs.

Before Trinity, Garner served on multiple Division I staffs, spending two years as a graduate assistant at LIU Brooklyn and four as an assistant coach at Army. In a statement after Garner’s hire at Cornell, former Army head coach Dave Magarity called Garner “an exceptional recruiter” and one of the best assistant coaches he’d had in his nearly 40-year career.

However, while in college at Lafayette, Garner hadn’t been sure whether coaching would be in her future. She interned in a sports information department to see if that might be her pathway to stay in sports. Then she decided to get her graduate degree, and once she started coaching at LIU Brooklyn, “it was game over for me,” she said. “I was like, This is the age group I want to coach. These are the people I want to coach.”

As a 5’11 forward at Lafayette, Garner appeared in 108 career games and averaged 8.0 points and 6.2 rebounds in 24.1 minutes per game. She shot 43.2% from the field and was named to the Patriot League All-Tournament Team as a senior in 2009. She also split a pair of games against Cornell, losing the one in Ithaca during Cornell’s Ivy championship season.

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Her hiring process at Cornell was quick, Garner said, and she helped it move along by not taking long to deliberate. She felt welcomed and comfortable on her campus visit, and she knew it was an “incredible opportunity,” even though she loved being at Trinity.

“When you talk about the Ivy League, you’re talking about the pinnacle of the academic and athletic world, and I think Cornell is such a unique space,” she said. She also cited the conference’s growth in recent years, including getting two bids to the NCAA Tournament this year for just the second time ever and having a record three players drafted into the WNBA.

The Cornell administration is similarly looking at this moment in women’s basketball and recognizing it needs to seize the opportunity.

“Women’s college basketball is where it’s at right now … and at Cornell, we’re certainly similarly hopeful that we will see this excitement mirrored here on the court right behind me in this next chapter of leadership for the Big Red women,” vice president for student and campus life Ryan Lombardi said at Garner’s introductory press conference.

In a pool of over 50 candidates, Garner stood out for her curiosity, player development skills, leadership, ability to engage alumni and integrity, Moore said at the press conference. Moore and her team also liked Garner’s longevity at Trinity, hoping to get the same kind of long-term commitment to Cornell.

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Garner knows it’ll take time to build Cornell into an Ivy League contender. But it starts with establishing her culture and standards for the program. She believes she can recruit successfully based on what sets Cornell apart from other Ivy League schools. For example, Cornell has over 16,000 undergraduates, making it much larger than the others and bringing an even broader array of academic opportunities. It’s also located in a college town in upstate New York, whereas most other Ivy schools are in more urban settings.

Garner doesn’t have a history of sustained success on her side, but she hopes to get there eventually — and have Cornell’s name be synonymous with that. “A lot of the Ivies are a brand name,” she said, “and we want Cornell to reflect that same way, that when we go out on the recruiting trail, everybody knows that Cornell is going to be a place where they can go and have success in all arenas.”

For now, Garner’s top priority is getting to know her current players, followed closely by recruiting. (She has already checked “find a place to live” off her list.) Her fellow coaches say building relationships is one of her strengths, and it’s something she takes pride in.

“I love to dig in [with] relationships,” she said. “… I love authenticity in that process. I love getting to know each and every individual.”

While Garner has met her returning players and watched some of their strength and conditioning workouts, she won’t get to work with them on the court until the fall. That’s because the semester is winding down and the Ivy League doesn’t hold summer workouts. In the meantime, she plans to watch lots of film and assess how the pieces best fit together on the court.

In Year 1, Garner won’t measure success solely or primarily by the scoreboard. Instead, she’ll look for toughness, unity and progress. She’ll also emphasize defense: At Trinity, her teams ranked in the 74th percentile or better nationally in points allowed per 100 possessions in each of the past five seasons.

“If we can create a really positive framework and culture for us to hold each other accountable … and to celebrate some of our little successes along the way, I think that’s a huge positive step,” she said. “I think success is going to be probably less about the end result and more about the progress. … We’re really going to focus on a day-by-day approach.”

Cornell head coach Emily Garner holds a ceremonial white jersey with her name and No. 24 on it. She smiles for a photo with director of athletics and physical education Nicki Moore and vice president for student and campus life Ryan Lombardi.
Cornell head coach Emily Garner (center) poses for a photo with director of athletics and physical education Nicki Moore (left) and vice president for student and campus life Ryan Lombardi at her introductory press conference in Bartels Hall in Ithaca, N.Y., on April 19, 2024. (Photo credit: Cornell Athletics)

Though this was Cornell’s first head coaching search for women’s basketball in over two decades, Ivy League women’s basketball has seen significant turnover lately. Half of the league’s head coaches have been hired within the past two years, and two more have been in their roles for five years or fewer.

“I think it’s great. … I really enjoyed Dayna a lot and some of the others that have moved on, but it’s new energy,” Princeton head coach Carla Berube, who is now the league’s third-longest tenured coach, told The Next. “… [It] makes it exciting. … I think it’ll help the Ivy League, and we’re trending in a great direction.”

Some of the recent hires have been from Division III, and specifically the NESCAC, the conference of elite liberal arts colleges that Trinity competes in. Most notably, Berube spent 17 years at Tufts University and won 80% of her games over that span. (She also had a 3-0 record against Garner in their three overlapping seasons in the NESCAC.) Since Berube was hired at Princeton in 2019, the Tigers have won 85% of their games, gone 6-0 in Ivy League Tournament games and won two NCAA Tournament games.

Dartmouth also hired from the NESCAC in 2021, plucking Adrienne Shibles from Bowdoin College. She won 81% of her games with the Polar Bears, including a 4-0 record against Garner. But Shibles had no playing or coaching experience at the Division I level and struggled with the Big Green. She won just five games in two seasons before resigning in April 2023.

“It’s the best of the best of Division III,” Berube said of the NESCAC. “… You can recruit from all over the country, the world. … It’s very similar to the Ivy League where you’re coaching just really driven student-athletes that really want to be at these colleges and universities, and … it’s a really competitive league.”

There are several similarities between the NESCAC and the Ivy League, including high academic standards and a lack of athletic scholarships. Moore noted Garner’s ability to recruit without scholarships as a positive in the introductory press conference.

Because of those similarities, “I think there is a really good pathway to be a DIII coach [and] move into the Ivy League world,” Garner said. Berube echoed that, saying that not much was surprising to her when she made the transition in 2019 and that Garner is “a workhorse” who will thrive in the Ivy League.

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Still, there are some things Garner will have to adjust to — and that’s where her tenure as a Division I assistant should help.

“It’s a jump, but I think she’s really going to enjoy that, as I did,” Berube said.

Division I recruiting is more intensive and starts earlier in prospects’ careers, and the recruiting budgets are larger, allowing for more travel. Garner will be able to attract better, more athletic players and spend more time on the court with them to help them develop. 

In the early going, she’s felt like she’s been on the phone for 19 hours a day, reaching out to recruits and alums and so many others.

Some of the alums she’s connected with are from the 2008 championship team, and she wants to foster a relationship between that team and her current group. She learned about the importance of alumni engagement at Trinity, when she became a head coach for the first time.

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Garner hopes that building connections with the past will help shape the future. But she doesn’t only want to restore the program to old heights; she wants to break records and set a new standard, just as she did at Trinity.

She began that process this month with her first recruiting trip. And if she ultimately succeeds, it’ll be another thing that feels familiar, amid all the new experiences in her first Division I head coaching job.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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