NCAA tournament — Mitch Henderson is Princeton — A coach, a university and the one million connections to march madness

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  • Pete ThamelESPN

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Princeton coach Mitch Henderson has invited noted author John McPhee to be a book club guest and occasionally joins him for bike rides. Henderson frequently meets noted economist Gene Grossman at Small World Coffee in town.

When Henderson had a chance encounter with Golden State coach Steve Kerr at the US Open in Queens, New York, a few years back, he found out Kerr’s father graduated from Princeton. He tracked down Malcolm Kerr’s senior thesis from 1953 — “Islamic Reform in Egypt in the Early 20th Century” — and delivered Kerr a bounded copy.

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“I will never forget that,” Kerr told ESPN. “It was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.”

As Princeton sits two games from the school’s first Final Four since the 1965 team led by Bill Bradley, the school’s run to the round of 16 as a No. 15 seed illuminates the depths of the bond between Henderson and Princeton. He represents both connective tissue between the school’s rich basketball history and someone so tied to every aspect of the school he jokes he’d drop his office and Jadwin Gymnasium in the heart of campus.

“Mitch is Princeton,” former Princeton assistant Malcolm Jenkins said. “He embodies everything that is Princeton and Princeton basketball.”

Henderson started in the program’s memorable NCAA tournament win over UCLA in 1996, a scrappy guard indelibly memorialized for leaping in the air to celebrate Princeton’s iconic upset. The next two years, he emerged as the heartbeat of teams in 1996-97 and 1997-98 that went undefeated in the Ivy League and rose as high as No. 8 in the country.

Henderson has downplayed the nostalgia tied to those teams, as he wants his current stars like precocious point forward Tosan Evbuomwan (14.8 ppg) and relentless guard Ryan Langborg (12.3 ppg) to enjoy their own stage.

Henderson has molded a team that honors legendary coach Pete Carril’s tenets of a bygone Princeton era while showing a distinct on-court evolution. He points out with a smile that not one basket in victories over No. 2 Arizona and No. 7 Missouri last weekend came via a backdoor cut.

“Something that Mitch has done masterfully is that he’s instilled confidence in them,” said Richmond coach Chris Mooney, a 1994 Princeton graduate. “They have really, really good players. He’s not restricted them. Our confidence was in our system. These guys, to me, are confident players who play together and share the ball.”

In Henderson’s 12th season as head coach, he has led the program to back-to-back regular season Ivy League championships and the school’s first NCAA win since a 1998 victory over UNLV in his senior year.

“I feel it deeply,” Henderson said of the pride from all eras. “All I ever wanted as a player was to be as good as the guys before me and to get better. When you get the job, Coach Carril looms large. I’m really happy we’ve done something. … I can feel how happy everyone is. It feels very good. It’s hard to put into words.”

Henderson said the first book he received upon arriving at Princeton was McPhee’s “A Sense of Where You Are,” which chronicled Bill Bradley’s time at Princeton. It gave Henderson a glimpse of exactly where he wanted to be.

Mitch Henderson on the floor as Princeton upset UCLA in 1996. AP Photo/Tom Russo

‘Midwest Mitch’

Growing up in Vincennes, Ind., Mitch Henderson’s affinity for basketball came from seeing a goal hung on every garage, barn and lamppost in town. He grew up obsessed with the Lincoln High School Alices — “state champs in 1981 and ’84” — and appreciating the town’s location on the edge of the eastern time zone. It allowed him to shoot hoops until about 10 p.m. in the summer because of late sunsets. That served as the backdrop for growing up as wholesome “Midwest Mitch,” as some of his Princeton teammates later called him.

Henderson’s dad was an electrical contractor, and the family ended up moving to Lexington, Kentucky, right around the time Rick Pitino arrived at Kentucky in 1989. That meant playing junior high ball with future Division I coaches Kevin Willard (Maryland) and G.G. Smith (recently at High Point) on the same team, as they were the sons of Pitino staffers Ralph Willard and Tubby Smith.

Henderson profiled as a natural athlete, good enough that family members wondered if he should break from a long family lineage and attend a different high school than Culver Academy. Culver is a military-style school in Indiana that one of his brothers, Kevin Henderson, stresses crafts more leadership development than military training. (George Steinbrenner is a famous graduate.)

The Henderson family’s roots at the school stretch back to 1919. Jim Henderson’s, Mitch’s great uncle and father figure, said that 28 different family members have graduated from the school.

Despite the school’s relative lack of athletic reputation, Mitch Henderson enrolled and found the first of two institutions that shaped him. Culver’s day started with a cannon blast for a wake-up call at 6:30 a.m. followed by making beds, marching to breakfast and then ending the day with closed quarters studying at desks from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. “There’s a lot of discipline, a lot of grit,” said Kevin Henderson, who also graduated from Culver. “Your parents aren’t there. You learn to get tough quick.”

In Mitch Henderson’s first football game as a freshman, Culver’s starting quarterback got thrown out after a personal foul. Henderson came in and started every game for the next four years. He earned 12 varsity letters, got drafted by the New York Yankees in the 29th round of the 1994 MLB draft and played four years of varsity basketball. (One of his coaches and mentors there, Tom Poetter, recalled Henderson getting called up from the junior varsity after scoring 33 of that team’s 35 points in a game.)

“When I got to Princeton, I felt comfortable in my leadership abilities.”

Mitch Henderson

“I got to be a leader at a young age,” Henderson said. “When you lead your peers when you are young, it can rip your heart out at times. But you learn humility. I’m still learning humility. When I got to Princeton, I felt comfortable in my leadership abilities.”

Henderson played summer basketball with Poetter, making enough of an impression on he and assistant coach Dave Amstutz that both have a son named Mitch after Henderson. Mitch Henderson starred at some summer ball events, accumulating mid-major scholarship offers.

But he was drawn to Princeton in part because Jim Henderson, his great uncle, had graduated from there in 1956 and served as the chair of the school’s board during the 1980s. (Jim Henderson served as either the chairman of the board or CEO of Cummins — the engine manufacturer — for 22 years.)

Carril needed some nudging to recruit Mitch Henderson, as former Princeton assistant Bill Carmody recalled that Carril didn’t like being pushed by administrators to recruit players with ties to the school.

“He wanted guys from schools that sounded like PS 106,” Carmody recalled with a laugh. “He didn’t want anyone from a place with academy or school in the name.”

That changed after Carmody saw Henderson play at the old five-star camp in Pennsylvania, recalling an outdoor shirts and skins game.

“He was flying up and down the court and doing crazy stuff,” Carmody said. “He’s wild, but he’s fast and he’s a competitor. I came back and told Pete, ‘We have to get this guy.'”

Jim Henderson recalls not long after getting a call from Carril: “So, are we getting the nephew?”

Princeton coach Pete Carril’s last two years coaching were Mitch Henderson’s freshman and sophomore years. AP Photo/Tom Russo

‘Mitch didn’t back down’

The nephew arrived at Princeton in 1994 and announced himself with alacrity. Henderson had a back injury soon after arriving, and former teammate and close friend Darren Hite recalls him milling around after a scrimmage early on and Henderson hobbling over to join them.

“We’re all trying to dunk, and we all suck,” he recalled with a chuckle. “I hadn’t seen him play yet. He hobbles over with a hand on his back and does a drop step, 360, two-handed dunk.

“It was a jaw-drop moment. Like, ‘What do we have here?'”

Henderson’s first two seasons were the final two for Carril. And just as Culver shaped him as a leader, he credits Princeton for molding him as a player. Henderson channeled the same skills that allowed him to win those 12 varsity letters and the passion for basketball he learned rooting for The Alices to become a complete player.

“I didn’t know I could pass until I played for Coach Carril.”

Mitch Henderson

“I was athletic and fast,” he said. “But I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know I could pass until I played for Coach Carril.”

He breaks into a bellowing impression of Carril imploring him: “WHAT DO YOU SEE?”

Eventually, he saw greatness, Henderson ended up as the on-court maestro of one of the best eras in school history. A turning point came at the end of the 1996 regular season, which required Princeton to play Penn in a one-game playoff for an NCAA bid. Penn had won eight straight in the series, and Carril inserted both Henderson and forward Gabe Lewullis in the starting lineup for that game after getting blown out at Penn to close the regular season.

Henderson ended up in a dust up with a Penn player where they needed to be separated, sending a shock of energy through the team.

“Mitch didn’t back down,” Mooney said. “It was a sign to the Princeton players, ‘We’re not taking this anymore.'” Princeton won in overtime, setting up a run that included the UCLA upset and consecutive undefeated Ivy League seasons.

Hite recalled after the UCLA game that players lined up to use pay phones in the RCA Dome after the win to call loved ones. The Princeton players had a hotel room party that night, and Hite said all their friends who drove from campus back in 1996 to attend the game and toasted the victory will be in Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday night.

Carril announced he was stepping down after the Penn win, ending his career after 29 seasons and 514 wins at the school. He passed the torch to Carmody, who became a defining mentor for Henderson. On Dec. 19, 1996, Carmody got a call from Henderson’s mother and went over to the dorms to inform Mitch his father, Robert Wilson Henderson II, had died suddenly of a heart attack.

Carmody told Mitch in person at his dormitory and then spoke to his roommates and classmates about needing to be there for him.

“Bill came to my dorm room and took me to the airport,” Henderson said. “He’s like a father to me. He took a chance and gave me my start in coaching.”

Productive Day In Louisville! 🎥

The Tigers practiced and had media availability at the KFC Yum! Center ahead of a Sweet Sixteen matchup with No. 6 seed Creighton!#MakeShots 🐯🏀 | #MarchMadness

— Princeton Men’s Basketball (@PrincetonMBB) March 24, 2023

‘It’s his offense and his team’

Henderson has only held two coaching jobs in his career, an anomaly for a profession filled with vagabonds and instability. He played professionally briefly after college, worked in the private sector in San Francisco, where he met his wife, Ashley, and then called Carmody about joining his Northwestern staff.

He joined in 2000 and former Northwestern player and assistant Tavaras Hardy, now the head coach at Loyola (Maryland) University, recalls that Henderson impressed immediately with his skill: “He was our best player,” he said with a laugh. “It was too bad he couldn’t play in games.”

After Sydney Johnson left Princeton for Fairfield in 2011, Henderson got called home. “I pinch myself every day,” he said. “The opportunity to be representing Princeton. I always felt like the luckiest guy in the world that got admitted.”

Hite has seen Henderson’s return there as coach like his friend getting a second chance at the college experience. “The thing that I think is the coolest is that he’s friends with the professors,” Hite said. “He goes and sits in on lectures. He really takes advantage of the Princeton experience. I wish I had a second shot at it. All we did was eat and breathe hoops.”

While Henderson’s presence on the sideline has provided a link to the past generations, he’s attempted to avoid that storyline and focus on the current crop of Princeton players.

This version of Princeton looks nothing like the plodding and patient team that backdoored UCLA in 1996. Henderson credits assistant coach Brett MacConnell for targeting high-major caliber players in recruiting. Princeton doesn’t need to rely on a deliberate system because they have the athletes to play with high-major players. (Six-foot-six freshman forward Caden Pierce ranks third among players in the NCAA tournament with rebounds, for example.)

Some of the ideals are still there, like the offense running through the 6-foot-8 Evbuomwan and a focus on spacing and 3-point shooting. But there’s also more pace, more freedom and more creativity. Henderson remembers playing Brad Stevens’ Butler teams while at Northwestern and said he wants his teams to be “unguardable” like those teams.

“Mitch would have loved to have played for himself,” Carmody said with a chuckle. “He was a free spirit. He’s coaching to his personality. He sees the way the game is evolving — 25 years is 25 years ago. He sees it. He gets it. He pushes the ball. He’s put his stamp on it. It’s his offense and his team.”

The cosmic element looming over this run is Carril’s passing in August. Hundreds returned for a memorial service earlier this fall, and Henderson wore a bow tie in his old mentor’s honor. The passion of past generations and the current team will collide again on Friday night.

While setting the scene, Henderson captured his own passion for Princeton.

“I think it’s going to be mayhem, beautiful mayhem,” he said. “Our fans are rabid. They care. They are so proud of the school.”

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