The Jadwin Gym basketball court is gleaming, buffed to a nearly blinding high gloss. “See that guy over there?” Princeton Men’s Basketball Coach Mitch Henderson says, gesturing to an older gentleman in a team jersey wiping down chairs set up along the sideline. “That’s George. He’s been here for 80 years. He’s the one who keeps these floors looking so nice. He’s an institution in this place.” Named the 2016 Ivy League coach of the year and one of 20 finalists for the coveted Jim Phelan Coach of the Year Award, Henderson, it seems, is poised to become something of an institution at Princeton too. But don’t let him hear you say that.
After a stellar run—undefeated in the Ivy League regular season, inaugural Ivy League Tournament champs, and losing a nail-biter of a game against Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament—Henderson is back to rotating on his axis of campus life: from Jadwin Gym to Frist Campus Center to the quad outside Firestone Library (a favorite spot) and back again. The past year has been a long, rewarding, and exhausting journey for him and the team, and he acknowledges the accolades he’s received by giving the credit where he sees it’s due.
“It’s a nice honor, of course, but I think good players make good coaches,” he says. “They always thought they would win. Even when we took that last shot against Notre Dame, we all thought it was going in. So right now I’m just appreciating and enjoying what they did so much. I am very proud of them.”
Mitch Henderson’s Princeton story began long before he became part of the university coaching staff. As these things sometimes happen in this town, it all started with a trip to Conte’s. Recruited out of high school by the legendary Princeton basketball coach Pete Carril, the Indiana-born Henderson had played varsity baseball, too, and was being drafted by the New York Yankees. When the Yankees scout found out he had been accepted to Princeton, he told Henderson in no uncertain terms to go to school and then promptly hung up on him.
“On recruiting trips, almost everybody who came and played for Coach Carril would go to Conte’s,” Henderson says with a laugh. “He’d hold up a slice of pizza—his order was, I believe, onions, peppers, and a little bit of sausage—and if it stayed flat he’d say, ‘Now, that’s a good pizza.’ I remember it well, being there with him. I go there with him now too. To me, he’s the culture of Princeton basketball and he’s influenced me more than anybody else.”
After graduating in 1998, Henderson headed west, to San Francisco, and found himself a research associate sitting behind a desk and not exactly thrilled with his gig or with the thought of maybe heading off to business or law school. Then came the call from his former Princeton basketball coach, Bill Carmody, who’d coached Henderson as a junior and senior, and since then had taken the post of head coach at Northwestern University. Carmody offered him a position as assistant coach. The idea of doing something familiar with someone he admired was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“Right away, I realized coaching was extremely challenging, but I loved it,” he says. “You wear so many different hats: recruiting, mentoring, coaching the strategy, and relationships with the media and with families. Each day was different. I liked being in the work and trying to do my best. That really appealed to me.”
Then, more than a decade later, he was approached by his cherished alma mater to be head coach of the team he had played on for four years and saw through three NCAA Tournaments—and to return to the town that had been a mystery during his undergrad years but had nevertheless left an impression.
“When you’re a student here, you don’t leave campus that often. We played rock–paper–scissors to see who would go up to Halo Pub for chocolate shakes. We went to Wawa. Professors would invite us to their houses. But other than that, I didn’t know the town,” he says. “When you play here, though, the place never really leaves you. It really is part of who you are.”
Days later, when a photographer arrived at Henderson’s Littlebrook-neighborhood home, the door was thrown open by a small, curly headed mini-Mitch. The child grinned mischievously and took off, careening around the kitchen island to disappear through a doorway.
“This was a big year for Theo,” Henderson says, referring to his four-year-old son, who can now be heard bounding along the upstairs hallway with his younger sister, Pippa. “You tell him a number and he can tell you the name of the player. When he sees a 25 mph speed limit sign in Princeton, he goes, ‘There’s [forward] Steven Cook.’ I love that the players have embraced our kids. I think that’s a big part of coaching—integrating them into your own life.”
When Henderson and his wife, Ashley, an executive producer at the advertising agency BBDO New York, first arrived in Princeton, they were planning a wedding and looking for a home—and they didn’t know a soul. They settled on a 1920s-era, neoclassical-style home, two miles from campus with a picturesque view of Lake Carnegie. Finding their niche in the community also didn’t take long as they soon realized being part of the university and having a young family exposed them to all manner of interests, activities, and people in ways they’d not expected—or experienced before.
“As a student, I had no idea—the town is better than I ever thought it could be. And now I get to double dip as a university staff member,” he says with a smile. “In my professional career, I’ve seen town-gown relations and I think Princeton does it best. I love its diversity. And it all starts on Nassau Street: There’s growth but things stay the same; that’s the beauty of it.”
With the births of his children, Henderson has also come to understand the unique parallels between coaching and parenting.
“It’s not static; there’s no straight line. You’re constantly working at it, constantly bettering yourself, but I love the challenge,” he says. “With the players, there are conversations, just like parents have, about, ‘Did we do this right? How should we handle this?’ And I find that the more open-minded I am about being a good parent or being a good coach, the better it is.”
At the end of the day, whether he’s off on recruiting trips, showing incoming players the university he loves, running drills with his team, or enjoying runs along the university’s cross-country trail off of Washington Road and hikes with his kids in the Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve trails, he cherishes his time with the people he comes across living in town. For Henderson, being a part of the Princeton community is all about the people.
“Welcome to your opportunity to live out Cheers, where everyone knows your name,” he says with a chuckle. “That’s my favorite thing about Princeton: In community events, in local politics, in storms—it just feels like everybody is together and I love that. Having lived and worked in other spots, it’s all about your village, and Princeton has everything you’d want in a place to raise a family. I have friends who have kids in college now, and they say that they want to come back to Princeton, and I think that tells you everything.
You learn here, you grow here, but it’s still about the people. I really enjoy being part of a community and hopefully making an impact. There’s still so much to be done.” —Jennifer P. Henderson (photographs by Jess Blackwell)