March 4, 2022
Which Ivy League head coach was the best player?
Ahead of the conference tournament, Ivy head coaches vote on a different kind of bragging rights
In less than one week, the Ivy League’s best teams will flock to Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion for the conference tournament, which will determine which team will get the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
That “Ivy Madness” championship and NCAA Tournament berth come with bragging rights, of course, as does the regular-season title won by the Princeton Tigers. But one coach will walk into Lavietes with more enduring bragging rights—ones that don’t get relitigated every season.
Those bragging rights stem from the answer to this question: Which current Ivy League head coach was the best player in their prime?
Debates over top players often come down to a combination of data and “the eye test,” so that is how I approached this question. First, I collected all available data from the record books of the coaches’ college teams or requested it from those athletic departments via email. (A few additional statistics came from Penn Athletics and the NCAA record book.)
The table below displays statistical totals for each of the coaches. The best result in each category is highlighted in yellow, and the second-best result is in gray.
But numbers don’t tell the whole story—especially when some coaches’ playing records are incomplete. So, without the film necessary for the eye test, I polled every current Ivy League head coach (in person or via email) about who was the best player. They were allowed to vote for themselves, and if they didn’t, they were also asked where they would rank themselves. Seven of the eight coaches responded, and I also polled a “guest judge,” Courtney Banghart. Banghart is currently the head coach at North Carolina but spent almost 20 years as a player, assistant coach and head coach in the Ivy League.
Their answers combined with the available statistics resulted in the following power rankings, which are ordered from worst to first. Spoiler alert: You’ll see a national champion, several multi-year captains and even a former college golfer in the rankings. Ivy League coaches can do it all.
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8. Kathy Delaney-Smith (Harvard)
Played at: Sacred Heart High School (Massachusetts)
Key stats: Did not play in college; was a 1,000-point scorer in six-on-six basketball in high school
First-place votes: 0
“Me, 100% me!” Delaney-Smith joked when she was asked which coach was the best player. “Because we couldn’t dribble and I scored 1,000 points.”
“No. Okay, I’m kidding,” she added. “… I’m absolutely not even putting myself on the list … because I really didn’t play. Six players is not basketball. It’s bowling or something. I don’t know what it is.”
Delaney-Smith is last on this list by default, but rather than being a bad player, she may have simply been ahead of her time. She played six-on-six basketball for her mother, Peg Delaney, at Sacred Heart High School in Massachusetts in the 1960s. She was the first girls’ player to score over 1,000 points, and some undated newspaper articles from that era claim that she scored as many as 1,200.
Delaney-Smith had wanted to play basketball in college, but she chose synchronized swimming when she enrolled at Bridgewater State because basketball was only offered at the club level. After graduation, she had a dominating run as a basketball coach, swim coach and physical education teacher at Westwood High School before being hired at Harvard in 1982.
7. Allison Guth (Yale)
Played at: Illinois
Key stats: 0.6 points, 0.3 rebounds, 0.2 steals in 15 career games in three seasons
First-place votes: 0.5
Like Delaney-Smith, Guth put herself at the bottom of the list. She won a state championship in basketball as a senior in high school, but when she arrived at Illinois, she walked on to the golf team instead. As a sophomore, she reversed course and tried out for the basketball team, for which she would play in 15 games over the next three seasons.
“I think I got to watch more basketball than anything else,” Guth told The Next. “I would tell you this: I was so fortunate Coach [Theresa] Grentz gave me an opportunity at Illinois. I think that’s [when] I fell in love with coaching because I was sidelined for a lot of my career.”
Yet her peers around the conference gave her more credit—Brown head coach Monique LeBlanc called Guth “a good little player,” and Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin even gave her a half-vote for first place.
“I only saw a video of Allison,” McLaughlin told The Next. “I know Megan [Griffith] was really a tough kid. I didn’t see Carla [Berube] as much. So I’m going to punt a little bit. … I’m going to have to either go Carla or Allison, but … the video won’t lie. So I’ll have to go back.”
Guth joked as a college senior in 2004 that she was ready to end her competitive playing career and “join an old women’s league,” and she entered coaching soon after graduation. But she still shows off her shot on occasion, even winning a knockout-style 3-point shooting contest after at least one Yale shootaround this season.
“I can shoot the ball a little still,” Guth said. Her players learned that the hard way.
6. Adrienne Shibles (Dartmouth)
Played at: Bates
Key stats: 10.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 1.0 assists in 92 career games; two-time captain
First-place votes: 0
Shibles is the lone former Division III player among the current Ivy head coaches, and she represented the NESCAC well, recording 1,005 points and 771 rebounds at Bates. The latter ranks first among Ivy head coaches and her 152 career steals rank second, even though she played in the second-fewest games of the coaches for whom that data is available.
Looking at her per-game numbers, Shibles also leads the Ivy head coaches in points (0.3 more than Cornell’s Dayna Smith) and rebounds (a whopping 3.5 more than Princeton’s Berube).
The two-time team captain went on to coach at several Division III schools, and she spent 13 years as the head coach at Bowdoin before she got the Dartmouth job in 2021. One of her biggest rivals was Berube, who was the Tufts head coach until 2019. When Shibles was hired at Dartmouth, Berube wrote on Twitter that she was “so excited to battle once again.”
These power rankings pit them against each other in a new way, and both seemed to enjoy it. Shibles voted for Berube as the best former player, while Berube returned the love differently.
“I could dunk on Shibles for sure,” Berube said with a laugh.
5. Monique LeBlanc (Brown)
Played at: Bucknell
Key stats: 4.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.9 steals in 23.2 minutes per game; two-time captain
First-place votes: 1
While the three players below her in the power rankings all put themselves at or near the bottom of this comparison, LeBlanc was more confident in her resumé. “I’m going to [put myself in] the top half,” she told The Next. “I’m not sure if it’s two, three or four, but certainly top half … Probably third, but leave some room in case I’m forgetting anybody.”
LeBlanc slipped just out of the top half in the final rankings, but she did earn one first-place vote.
“I’m going to go with Monique,” Berube said. “I feel like she would probably take it to me. … I never got to see Monique play, but I know she was a great player at Bucknell.”
LeBlanc wasn’t quite the scorer that some of the coaches ahead of her were, but she still recorded over 500 points and 500 rebounds at Bucknell and was a two-time captain. She ranks second among the Ivy head coaches in games played (116), field-goal percentage (45.1%) and total blocks (21) and third in minutes per game, rebounds per game, free-throw shooting percentage and blocks per game.
Like many of her peers, LeBlanc became a coach shortly after graduation. She was an assistant at Northern Arizona and Bucknell before taking the head coaching position at Merrimack, where she became the school’s all-time wins leader before moving on to Brown in 2020.
4. Mike McLaughlin (Penn)
Played at: Holy Family
Key stats: 1,710 total points, 755 assists, 161-for-279 shooting from 3-point range (57.7%) in three seasons
First-place votes: 0
McLaughlin might have an argument that he was snubbed, receiving zero first-place votes despite leading the Ivy League head coaches in total points and 3-point percentage by a significant margin. And his statistics cover just three seasons because Holy Family’s first varsity season was in 1986-87, his sophomore year.
In part, the snub might come from a lack of familiarity with McLaughlin’s exploits. “I think I heard McLaughlin was quite the shooter,” LeBlanc said, but few of her peers knew even that much. Even Delaney-Smith, who is in her 40th season at Harvard and is an encyclopedia of basketball knowledge, wasn’t aware of McLaughlin’s accomplishments.
McLaughlin didn’t officially vote for himself as the best player, but he remains confident in his shot. “Different game, different time, different gender, but in my time, I’ll put myself up there with them,” he said of his Ivy League peers. “… I’d have to give myself the nod [in a shooting contest].”
He also might have the most interesting coda to his playing career of any coach in the country, captaining the Washington Generals (the Harlem Globetrotters’ perennial foil) and playing in over 50 countries. Don’t miss this photo of McLaughlin spinning a basketball on his finger before he traded the green and yellow for Penn’s blue and red.
3. Megan Griffith (Columbia)
Played at: Columbia
Key stats: 10.1 points, 3.6 assists, 2.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals in 29.7 minutes per game; three-time captain
First-place votes: 1
Opposing coaches consistently brought up Griffith as a frontrunner in this discussion, yet she ended up with only one first-place vote. That came from Banghart, Griffith’s former boss at Princeton.
“I’ll go Meg [over Berube] because she’s an Ivy girl,” Banghart said. “… She was a three-time captain on that team. … She was fast; she could shoot it. She was kind of a relentless motor.”
Griffith started 82 out of her 105 games for Columbia and averaged nearly 30 minutes per game—an eye-popping number to sustain for four years. She still ranks in the top ten in Columbia history in numerous statistical categories, including points (eighth), assists (fifth) and steals (fifth), and she ranks first among the Ivy head coaches in free-throw shooting percentage (76.6%). After graduating in 2007, she played professionally in Finland and the Netherlands for three years.
Griffith returned to her alma mater as head coach in 2016, and she brought with her the same motor that she had as a player. She still sometimes laces up her basketball shoes to go one-on-one with players, play on the scout team, or demonstrate something in practice.
“She is very competitive. Her face gets going, her nostrils start flaring,” assistant coach Cy Lippold told The Next. “… She’s fiery, just the same way you see her on the sideline.”
“She’s a beast and you can tell that she’s still got everything,” added freshman guard Kitty Henderson. “… If we keep throwing the wrong pass or something, she’ll just get in and be like, ‘This is how it’s done.’ She knows exactly what she’s doing for everything. Yeah, I would love to model my game off her … Coach G is a GOAT. There’s no other word.”
2. Dayna Smith (Cornell)
Played at: Rhode Island
Key stats: 10.6 points, 7.1 assists and 3.2 steals per game; made 184 career 3-pointers
First-place votes: 1
In 1996, Rhode Island appeared in its first-ever NCAA Tournament, led by Smith at point guard. Smith set school records in career assists and 3-pointers made, and she also scored over 1,100 career points.
Among the Ivy League head coaches, Smith ranks first in total assists, steals and made 3-pointers as well as assists and steals per game. She is also the only current Ivy head coach to appear in the NCAA record book, as her 7.14 assists per game still rank 19th all-time—three spots ahead of former Dartmouth head coach Michele (Belle) Koclanes.
“I’m going to give Carla the win, but I think Dayna’s a really close second,” Delaney-Smith said. “I thought Dayna was a really good player in college, just a tough [Pittsburgh] kid.”
“I didn’t watch Dayna play, but I know her personality and I know how smart she is and how fiery she is,” Griffith said. “And she was a dog, from what I heard. So I would say Dayna [was the best player].”
Smith transitioned into coaching immediately after graduation as an assistant at her alma mater. She then entered the Ivy League as an assistant coach at Penn before becoming the Cornell head coach in 2002.
1. Carla Berube (Princeton)
Played at: UConn
Key stats: 10.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.0 steals in 24.1 minutes per game; 1995 national champion
First-place votes: 4.5
As one of the table setters for UConn’s dominance over the past two-plus decades, Berube has one obvious accolade that sets her apart: an NCAA national championship in 1995. LeBlanc put it simply: “I’m going to have to go with my girl Carla Berube. I mean, tough to top that one.”
“Carla was the early stages of UConn, so Carla gets it,” Delaney-Smith agreed.
Beyond the national title, though, Berube also leads the Ivy League head coaches in games played, minutes played, field goal percentage and total blocks, and she ranks second in total points, 3-point shooting percentage and total rebounds. She wasn’t UConn’s star, but she was a “fierce competitor,” Shibles said via email. Berube set screens, played with toughness and made winning plays.
“She was always very, very quiet, very unassuming,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma told reporters in December, “but was always able to come through in big games and when you really needed her.”
After college, Berube was drafted 21st overall into the American Basketball League (ABL) and played professionally for one and a half years before getting into coaching. She has come closer than anyone could’ve expected to her 94.2% winning percentage as a player, winning 80.0% of her games in 17 seasons at Tufts and 90.1% in two seasons at Princeton.
Berube will have an opportunity to get closer to that UConn winning percentage at Ivy Madness—and now, she can officially walk into that tournament as the best former player among her peers.
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 and Power Plays.
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