Head women’s basketball coach Carla Berube wants to keep on learning.
The University’s answer to former head coach Courtney Banghart’s shock departure to UNC, Berube — a bronze medalist at the 1994 Olympic Festival — arrived on campus in early June. She’d spent her last 17 years at Tufts University, where she boasted a 356–93 overall record, guided the Division III Jumbos into the NCAA Final Four in four consecutive seasons, earned titles as the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) National Coach of the Year and USA Basketball Developmental Coach of the Year, and coached USA Basketball Women’s U16 National Team to a 2017 World Championship.
In the last eight months, she has turned Princeton’s defense into the country’s top-ranked force and the Tigers have jumped to No. 1 on the Ivy League leaderboard and No. 25 on the NCAA’s. Last weekend, she recorded her 400th career coaching win.
It’s a considerable — if clunky — list of accolades, but Berube isn’t happy yet.
“I think,” she said, “that I’m a work in progress.”
Adjusting to life in Princeton has been one as well for Berube, a self-proclaimed “Boston girl,” and her family — her wife Meghan and three children, Parker, Brogan, and Caden. The new backyard and the Jadwin Gymnasium Jumbotron have proved to be hits with the kids, who have become avid fans of both the Tigers and Tacoria.
But though she may love her new job — “I’m so lucky to be at Princeton,” Berube repeated time and again — adjusting to a new suburban life, a new NCAA Division, and 16 new players is a daunting task. In her players’ minds, at least, she’s done a phenomenal job.
“She’s the kind of person who cares about everybody on our team,” said senior co-captain Bella Alarie. “She wants to check in and see how we’re doing as people.”
From the start of her tenure, Berube has placed an emphasis on strengthening her team’s interpersonal relationships. She assigned each of her staff members a group of four players with whom they regularly check in for meals or coffee. Berube has frequent individual meetings with her players, as well as weekly leadership meetings with Alarie and senior co-captain Taylor Baur. Berube has hosted the team at her house for dinner, as well for gatherings like a recent holiday bake-off.
Berube is most proud, she insists, not of her team’s 13-game winning streak or likelihood to win March’s Ivy League Championship, but of its camaraderie.
“I’m proud that they are a really close-knit team. I think that makes coming to work and spending the two hours-plus with each other really enjoyable, because they like being around each other.”
And they like being around her, too.
“She can be super goofy,” Alarie said, “but also super intense and competitive. I think it’s just funny, because she’s sneakily really goofy. But you wouldn’t get that at first glance with her, where she seems kind of more serious and reserved. She’s really awesome and fun to be around.”
From Tufts, she’s brought a handful of lighthearted traditions: hitting a half-court shot before every game, a line of handshakes for her players to “lock in” with each other before matches. But she’s also brought some more serious changes: a new, regimented emphasis on her signature lockdown defense, for one.
“I love the defensive side of the ball,” she said. “I think we were successful at Tufts because we could really just lock down our opponents and make it really hard for them to do what they want to do. I am trying to instill that at Princeton, and so far I think the team has really enjoyed just getting after it on the defensive end and buying into wanting to be a great defensive team.”
To Senior Communications Advisor Jerry Price, this season’s defense is “stifling.” To The Trentonian’s Kyle Franko, it’s “suffocating.” To Alarie – and the rest of women’s basketball – it’s a game-changer.
“I think it gives us more of a sense of security when we know we can shut down teams, and we can also score on offense,” she said. “If you watch our practice, we spend a majority of the time on defense. It’s the thing we’re most excited about, which kind of changes the team’s culture.”
Berube’s proved herself capable of changing the team’s on-court focus, its fellowship, and its superstitions. One thing she doesn’t want to change?
“I think there’s just an incredible winning mentality here and winning tradition,” she said. “And for alums and the current team, what it means to be a Tiger is something they feel really strongly about. They bleed orange and black.”
For her four years as an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut, Berube bled blue; for her 17 years as a head coach at Tufts, she did, too. She’s excited for the transition to orange and black. And Alarie — in the unique position of having been on Princeton’s campus three years longer than her coach — has some advice for making it happen.
“Just really embrace Princeton as a whole,” she said. “Because I think the community is just really incredible here. And if you get just so caught up in Jadwin and basketball I think there’s a lot of amazing people and places you’ll miss out on.”
For Berube, though, exploration will have to wait. Only six weeks of the season remain, and Princeton women’s basketball is focused on one thing.
“We’re just excited to keep chasing the championship,” Alarie said.
Berube has bigger dreams than just this year’s trophy. She wants her team to stay an Ivy League title contender, wants to make the NCAA tournament and be in the nation’s top 25 every year. And some of her ambitions are loftier still.
“I want to have a very respected program, a program that’s going to attract really great people and really great students that Princeton is proud of,” she said. “And also put a brand of basketball on the Pete Carril Court in Jadwin Gymnasium that people in the Princeton community are really proud of, that they love coming to watch us play. I want us to get more and more fans because of the way we play and make it a really incredible atmosphere.”