For Penn women’s basketball, the expectation every year is to win the Ivy League title — anything short of that is a disappointment. But the bar hasn’t always been that high.
Ten years ago, in coach Mike McLaughlin’s first season at Penn, the Quakers were struggling to win a single game, as they finished the 2009-10 season with a 2-26 record. Fast forward a decade, and Penn is coming off six straight 20-win seasons.
As the architect of this turnaround, McLaughlin has created a blueprint for how to rebuild a program, and it all comes down to one word.
“It’s [all about] the culture he has created, and it started with that team that was 2-26,” said assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Kelly Killion, who joined McLaughlin’s staff the following year. “The culture started with the senior class that year and that group. And he always preached to them [that] it’s not about the wins and losses, but it’s about how you react and how you continue to go and get after it every day.
“I think it just carried on. I think he put a few things in place, and the players were really the ones that carried the culture for us.”
For some programs, a successful culture change can take several years or even over a decade, but McLaughlin did it rather seamlessly. Penn steadily improved during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, but the group had a breakthrough in the 2012-13 season, going 18-13 and competing in the postseason for the first time since 2004.
McLaughlin and the Quakers achieved yet another milestone the following season, winning the Ivy League title and advancing to the NCAA Tournament. Since then, the team has remained a perennial powerhouse in the Ivy League and a welcoming destination for athletes.
“The one thing I’m really proud of [is that] we don’t have attrition in the program,” McLaughlin said. “We have kids that are here [who] want to be at Penn. They want to play basketball at Penn. They want to represent everyone else here. They really do. I think we’ve done a good job with the culture and understanding that everyone has great value.”
“When I came here, I could really tell the culture and the team was really cohesive,” senior guard Phoebe Sterba said. “Even as an example, on Sunday we all went up to brunch in New York City, and there were five generations of women’s basketball players from there. So I think that just speaks to the culture that he creates in the team.”
McLaughlin’s tenure at Penn alone has earned him the reputation as one of the premier coaches in college basketball. However, when he came to Penn, he was already a well-known figure, just in a different NCAA division.
Three years after his playing career at Division II Holy Family University in Philadelphia — in which he set the school record for three-point percentage — McLaughlin accepted an assistant coaching position with his alma mater’s women’s basketball program.
After just two seasons in this role with the Tigers, McLaughlin was hired as Holy Family’s head coach at the age of 27.
“I look back on that, and I can’t even remember what that was like because I know I didn’t know what I was doing,” McLaughlin laughed. “But it worked out well. I put some good people around me and some people that could really help me get started. I had success, and we built off success.”
Saying that he had success would be an understatement. In his 14 seasons at the helm for Holy Family, McLaughlin compiled a 407-61 record, and his .870 winning percentage was the highest at any level of NCAA basketball. He also notched his first 400 wins in just 459 games, a pace that has still never been matched by any other NCAA women’s basketball coach.
Despite building a dynasty at his alma mater, McLaughlin couldn’t turn down the head coaching job at Penn when the opportunity came.
“It was just the right thing for my family to be able to transition. I never moved my family — I live in the same home as I did when I coached [at Holy Family]. I never had to uproot my kids,” McLaughlin said. “And then to come to a school like Penn — it’s pretty hard to say no to, right? As hard as it was to leave [Holy Family], it was an easy decision to come here, and I’ve never once looked back and said, ‘I should’ve done this [differently].’”
McLaughlin has certainly made the most of the unique opportunity to coach basketball in his native city. And according to Killion — who also played for McLaughlin at Holy Family — his success in creating this culture at Penn has had more to do with who he is as a person than anything else.
“He has never wavered from who he is as a man, or as a father, or as a coach, and I think that’s important,” Killion said. “We’ve had many different styles of kids that have come through here, and he has changed with them, which is awesome.”
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