Credit: Nick Buchta

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One word describes Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin’s program.

In seven years at the helm for the Quakers, McLaughlin has forged a familial bond amongst his team and coaches. It’s fitting for a man with so many roots in Philadelphia.

But a coach who has defined women’s basketball in his hometown for 20 years had a career that almost never got off the bench.

Starting Slow

In 1984, after four years as a reserve on the basketball team at Father Judge High School in northeast Philadelphia, McLaughlin finally earned his way into a starting role. But just a few games into the season, he broke his leg.

With few options for a small, relatively inexperienced three-point specialist to play college ball, McLaughlin ended up staying local, attending Holy Family just three miles away from Father Judge. At Holy Family, the former backup guard didn’t join the basketball team — he didn’t have a choice. At the time, the school didn’t have a team at all.

McLaughlin had other worries then anyway. He started at Holy Family as a part-time student because of what he characterizes now as immaturity. Repeating some classes early on and working his way through school as a bartender helped kickstart the evolution McLaughlin experienced through college and into his time with the Washington Generals.

“These are life experiences for me that I can share with them and those apply with higher-driven, academic kids,” McLaughlin said of some of his early obstacles. “They still have potholes, they still have struggles, they still try to skip a step. So I think it’s all relatable. It’s relating things that are common to all of us. We’ve all missed steps.”

So he joined the club team, and when the University decided to start a men’s basketball program in 1986, McLaughlin was first in line. It was a rough start for the newly christened Tigers.

“We got crushed by like 40 points most of the time,” McLaughlin said in an interview his senior year.

It wasn’t for a lack of effort on McLaughlin’s part. Over the course of three seasons — the Philadelphia native stuck around as a fifth-year senior in 1988-89 — he led the team in scoring, shooting a still program-record .602 from beyond the arc.

As one of the few players there for the start of the program, McLaughlin stepped into an early role as head of the family.

“You see it now from a different set of eyes,” he reflected. “I’m seeing it as a player, not knowing what’s going on with the coaching staff, now I see the opposite. But I think a lot of the common themes are that you do it step by step. You don’t skip a step, don’t rush a step. And just continue to every day be better than we were the day before. That’s what [Holy Family] coach [Dan] Williams talked about all the time, that we were building something,” he said.

“And you’re not always going to see the rewards of it any time soon. But you’ll eventually get there, that’s the theme, you’ll eventually get there.”

McLaughlin took to heart Williams’ message, becoming a team leader on and off the court. By the time the 1988-89 season rolled around, the Father Judge alumnus was the Tigers’ sole senior. But that didn’t mean his teammates took their leading scorer all that seriously.

“This kid takes his shirt off in the locker room, and you think, ‘He’s a 1,500-point scorer?’” McLaughlin’s co-captain Mark Morrow said in a 1989 profile in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “But he has a lot of athletic ability. He can do 360s and behind-the-back passes. You should see him in the summer leagues.”

It was a sign of what would come next in McLaughlin’s career. Following his time with the Tigers, McLaughlin embarked upon a three-year career in pro basketball. But not with any conventional team.

From 1989 to 1992, 5-foot-9 guard traveled the world with the Washington Generals — rival to the Harlem Globetrotters.

“I think that the ability to travel and see things that I would have never seen and to experience things that I would have never experienced, it was part of my plan when I got into coaching,” he noted. “It was my chance to take the teams that I had to areas that they would not otherwise be in.”

A man who preaches family has to return home eventually, however. And he did just that in 1993 after being asked on as an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team at his alma mater.

All in the Holy Family

Taking over the women’s team at his alma mater in 1995 was never part of McLaughlin’s plan. He was just 27 years old and a head coaching job had just fallen into his lap with the departure of the team’s previous leader.

In his first year, the Tigers went 25-8. It was the worst season he would have in 14 years there.

It took just 459 games for McLaughlin to record his 400th career win — making him the fastest to the milestone in NCAA history — and he went 167-3 in Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference play after the Tigers joined the conference in 1999.

His first recruiting class went 122-22, but more important than any record was the first addition to what would become his Penn family.

One member of that class, Bernadette Laukaitis, became an assistant for McLaughlin that same year — and hasn’t left his side save for a one-year stint as the head coach at Cabrini. And fitting in with the family atmosphere McLaughlin worked to build with the Tigers, Laukaitis’ older sister also played under McLaughlin, coming in while he was still an assistant.

“He always leaves a lasting impact on a player when they play for him, because they truly felt love in that he was like their father, you know, through the process,” she said of her former coach and current peer. “So the life lessons he teaches the student-athletes that come through here. It’s like you come in with one family but you’re always leaving with two.”

Before long, people were paying attention to the former General. Even as far back as 2004, McLaughlin was reportedly all but set to take the helm at a different Big 5 school — city rival La Salle. It was a decision he weighed carefully. “What you’ve read, and I’ve read some of that, and they are very accurate. I was very, very close...”

But he wasn’t ready to leave yet. His family was still growing. In 2007, he successfully recruited Christine McCollum, yet another future member of his Penn family.

“Even comparing going to other schools at that time, to look at these games, I just felt like Holy Family could beat some of these teams,” McCollum recalled of the recruiting process. “It was fun to watch. And ultimately it was just the right fit for me for a lot of reasons.”

He wouldn’t be around to see McCollum graduate, however. Before the 2009 season, he was finally wooed away from the school he had called home for 25 years.

Growing Pains

His first year at Penn, McLaughlin experienced something he never had before as a head coach: a losing season. The Quakers won just two games in 2009-10, the worst performance since the program was started in 1970.

“That group, that year, was one of the most important years in his career, because I think it taught all of us a lot,” Laukaitis said. “But also made him a better coach because of it.”

McLaughlin had to get the players to buy into his system. He had recruited none of them. Not even the seniors had ever played on a winning team. Sure, the new head coach came in with a stellar pedigree, but it’s near impossible to build a program from the ground up in a single year. Nonetheless, the team started to buy in.

“He kind of created more of a family culture so when Coach came in,” explained Kate Jordan — then with the last name Slover — who was a senior when McLaughlin took over and returned in 2014 as a volunteer assistant coach.

“Myself, one of the other seniors, one of the juniors — who were essentially going to be the captains our senior year — we were actually in the interview process, and one of the things that he talked about was his own family, and he just brings his love for his family into the program. So he just really established a culture where it was very family-oriented, everyone was very friendly, and it kind of made us really want to be there.”

And so, the process continued. And the next year, they got better, winning 11 games. Then 13 in 2011-12. Then 18 in 2012-13.

And then the breakthrough happened.

Success Again

As the season began in 2013, the first group of players McLaughlin recruited to Penn entered their senior years. They would walk away from it with just the third Ivy League title in program history.

Led by senior point guard Alyssa Baron, the squad started 6-2. And on New Years’ Day 2014, a new program emerged.

Down in Coral Gables, Fla., to take on Miami, a last-second layup from then-junior Katy Allen sealed a 67-66 upset for a Red and Blue squad that had never defeated an ACC opponent. They kept rolling from there.

After losing the conference opener at home to Princeton, 84-53, the Quakers seemed consigned to have to battle it out for second place with Harvard. The loss to the Tigers was followed by two more to Villanova and Saint Joseph’s.

“And at the end of the day, I think that’s what’s most important for me,” he said of being a strong mentor to his players. “When these kids are done, that they know this was not just about winning or losing basketball games.”

As that year showed, it’s apparently possible to balance on- and off-the-court success.

The team that existed when Mike McLaughlin entered the Palestra would have written off the season. The one that took the court in 2013-14 didn’t. After winning 13 of the next 14 games, Penn headed to Jadwin Gym for a season-ending showdown with Princeton and the Ivy title in the balance.

The game was a blowout again. This time, the Quakers were delivering the beatdown. With an 80-64 win, McLaughlin clinched his first Ivy title and what would become an NCAA Tournament berth against Texas.

“I think just from the very beginning, just from listening to him, how he interacts with us, he always instills in us that we can compete with anyone,” junior forward Sydney Stipanovich said — and it showed when the Red and Blue took on the Longhorns that March.

Although they took a 38-31 lead into the half, foul trouble and Allen being unable to play due to injury took a toll, and the 12th-seeded Quakers ended up on the wrong end of an 18-point decision.

Less than a year later, the Penn-Princeton game again featured the Ancient Eight champion. It wasn’t Penn. The Tigers rolled to a 30-0 regular season as McLaughlin’s squad settled for second place and a 21-9 record.

This season, it was 2014 all over again. After a program-record 24 wins, the Red and Blue punched a ticket to the tournament with an Ivy-clinching win over Princeton at Jadwin. For his own part, McLaughlin won his second Ivy League Coach of the Year award in the three years it has been given.

This weekend will determine if McLaughlin’s next milestone is the program’s first NCAA Tournament win.

Establishing a Legacy

As McLaughlin has built the program, he’s done so on the same foundation he did at his alma mater. He built a family before he built a team.

“That’s part of what makes Mike so good at what he does. He cultivates that family atmosphere,” said William & Mary assistant coach Kelly Killion, a former player for McLaughlin at Holy Family who joined the staff at Penn in 2010 before departing for Sacred Heart after the 2011-12 season. “Whether it’s talking about my next step career-wise or my next step personal life-wise, he’s been there every step of the way.”

Laukaitis is still with him as an assistant coach. Jordan rejoined her old coach as a volunteer assistant in 2014. McCollum took over as the team’s director of operations beginning this season.

He still makes his way over to Holy Family games whenever he gets the chance. Players from his alma mater still make their way over to his summer camps. Former players like Jordan and Killion attest to the coach’s commitment to keeping tabs on them — in Jordan’s case even when they weren’t his recruits.

“Mike was very protective of where I ended up next after leaving him,” Killion explained. “He wanted to make sure it was the right fit for me and the right fit for the program I was going to — making sure I had another mentor to follow under.”

While coaches appreciate what McLaughlin offers them, it might be easy to think his players may not yet have the perspective to understand the kind of coach they have teaching them. But the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“I think it’s who you want to play for, and I’ve learned I truly — I step out onto the court that first minute when the buzzer first goes off, with Michelle tipping the ball, I play for my teammates and for my coaches,” sophomore guard Lauren Whitlatch said. “It’s more than myself and I want to play for Coach McLaughlin.”

For McLaughlin, being a coach is about more than on-the-court performance. That means making sure his players are set up to succeed however they want in life — through internships, jobs, anything beyond just the court.

“He definitely just gives us enough resources to not be overwhelmed with everything that’s being thrown at us,” freshman guard Ashley Russell noted. “Like basketball, school, tests, midterms. He gives us everything that we could possibly ask for. So if we have a test or something, he’ll be like, ‘Oh, you can leave early, make sure you’re ready.’”

Without a doubt, rumors will flare up about McLaughlin leaving Penn just as they did for years before he finally left Holy Family. The day may come where he moves on, it may not. One day, though, a different coach will troll the sidelines for the Red and Blue.

“I want [people to say] when I’m done coaching, many, many years from now — hopefully — that I did it right,” McLaughlin said. “That the program is successful on and off the court. And hopefully the wins and losses are closer to the end of the story, that it’s not the beginning of it.”

Keiera Ray, a senior whose career ended early due to injury, thinks his legacy has been cemented.

“To be honest, I feel like he took me in as one of his children.”

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