Former EHS teacher and coach Courtney Banghart takes over the powerhouse UNC women’s basketball program.
Only 15 teams have won an NCAA Division I national championship in women’s basketball since its tournament began in 1982. Now, former EHS faculty member Courtney Banghart holds the reins of one of those teams: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
She was hired at UNC in April, the latest milestone in a nearly 20-year coaching career that includes a dominating tenure at Princeton (seven Ivy League titles, conference records for wins as a coach). Had she remained at Princeton, she was a virtual lock for the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Banghart saw none of this in her future when she gingerly stepped onto the Episcopal High School campus as a newly minted graduate from Dartmouth in 2000. Despite breaking school records for three-pointers in a game, season, and career, she saw no future with hoops. “Coaching basketball wasn’t a real career,” she thought at the time.
Then-EHS Athletic Director Tim Jaeger, who knew of Courtney through his father, the AD at Dartmouth, invited her to join the School as the girls’ basketball coach. He sweetened the deal by offering to let her teach and work as an assistant AD. “I wanted to have my hands in lots of things because I didn’t want to close any doors at the start of my career,” she says.
With Jaeger as a mentor, Banghart learned invaluable lessons. “He was so good about so many little things in coaching — encouraging me to come up with a typed practice plan, for example. I don’t know if he was just trying to develop me as a coach or because I was so young and he wanted to make sure I put some thought into it. But I valued how he got me to think about the importance of preparedness.”
At UNC, Banghart replaced Sylvia Hatchell, who resigned after 33 years following a string of issues around her player relationships. Banghart knew her first goal had to be working to establish trust with a group of women she didn’t recruit.
“My superpower, everyone tells me, is my authenticity, and I just have to authentically make sure they know I care,” she said. “Sometimes people resist that because they suspect ulterior motives, but the bottom line is everyone wants to be cared about. And if they come to trust me, then we can work on other things that are hard together.”
She’ll know she has hit that mark when her team plays with a sense of freedom on offense and defends with toughness. Offense is much more difficult to teach, she said. Defense, on the other hand, “is all about effort and angles.”
Banghart’s decision to leave Princeton had little to do with UNC’s championship pedigree. She had already turned down jobs with other perennial championship contenders. Rather, she felt she risked putting down such deep roots at Princeton that her future growth would be limited, and Chapel Hill offered a positive change across several dimensions.
In the end, family was a major factor. UNC practices in the early afternoon, which means she’s more available for her three small kids. Princeton practices in the late afternoon. “I knew I would never be able to go to a JV soccer game or whatever they’re doing as they got older, because I would always be at practice,” she said. “I didn’t want to lie in bed at 65 and say, ‘I’m in the Hall of Fame, isn’t that cool,’ but my kids would be like, ‘Mommy missed everything.’
“The other day, my five-year-old son was in the bath, and he said, ‘I love North Carolina,’ and I said, ‘Me too. Why?’ And he said, ‘I see you more. I spend more time with you.’ And it’s true. I don’t miss family dinner unless I’m recruiting.’”
When Banghart thinks back to beginning her career at EHS as a 21-year-old New Hampshire native who had never lived outside her home state, she’s especially grateful for the lasting connections and foundational lessons. She still fondly remembers the community of adults working on The Holy Hill. She specifically mentioned her then-student manager Millie Tanner Rayburn ’02, “always a diehard UNC fan,” who was one of the people she contacted early after accepting the Tar Heel coaching job.
“I’m grateful Episcopal put me in situations where I was leading lots of different people in different ways, in classes, in sports, in administration, etc.,” she said. “I’ve learned more because I started my career with this wide range of experiences with a lot of different people.”