PRINCETON, N.J. – Princeton introduced Mitch Henderson as its coach Thursday, handing the reins of its basketball program to a former Tigers point guard who played in three NCAA tournaments under Pete Carril and Bill Carmody.
The 1998 Princeton graduate replaces former teammate Sydney Johnson, who left for Fairfield. Henderson inherits a team that was co-Ivy League champion and nearly stunned Kentucky in the first round of this year's tournament.
Henderson believes he is prepared for his first head coaching job after spending the past 11 years as Carmody's assistant at Northwestern, noting this is a different situation than he entered with the Wildcats.
"When you inherit a program that's down you fight the culture of losing and that is just so difficult," Henderson said before a packed house in the football pressbox. "With inheriting a group (at Princeton) that really knows what they're doing, you must highlight the strengths of that team. That will be done. We're going to play the way that gives us the best chance to be successful."
Henderson, the fourth straight alumnus to be named coach, plans on doing that by combining Carril's highly regarded system with his own ideas.
Since Carril left in 1996, Carmody and former players John Thompson III, Joe Scott and Johnson have tweaked, but never completely abandoned the offense predicated on sharp passing, backdoor cuts and 3-point shooting.
"We've got a great group of guys that know how to win, and first and foremost I want them to feel comfortable playing a style," Henderson said. "But the style is less important to me than the way we're going to go about our business.
"I'd like to play up and down a little bit, but I'd like to continue what we've been doing defensively. I think you'll see a hard-nosed approach, the guys going about their business the way that's a hallmark of Princeton basketball."
Henderson epitomized that approach as the Tigers point guard. He was termed the "heart and soul" of those mid-90s teams team by Carmody. The photo of his leap in the air after the NCAA tournament upset of UCLA is one of the most famous in the history of Princeton athletics.
"Mitch played with passion, toughness, intelligence and exuded leadership ability," athletic director Gary Walters said. "Those qualities will serve him well."
Henderson, who's getting married this summer, would not call his new post a dream job, but rather "a special opportunity."
After meeting with the team Wednesday night, he ran his first workout Thursday and hopes to establish long-term relationships with his players.
"The fastest way to a good player's heart is to let those guys know you care about them getting better," said Henderson, who still has to assemble a staff. "I want to build up some trust with these guys. They need to know I'm here to help them continue doing what they did.
"I shared with them my strengths and shared with them that this is a clean slate for some of them, but also an opportunity to get to know a guy that wants them to be successful. I'm going to show them not just with my words but my actions on the court."
Henderson has followed his alma mater closely since graduating. He also applied when Johnson was hired four years ago.
"I got an interview then," he said. "I did a little better this time."