The pull of the Ivy League brings two Harvard alumnae to Yale

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - MARCH 21: The Yale Bulldogs mascot performs during the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at VyStar Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on March 21, 2019 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - MARCH 21: The Yale Bulldogs mascot performs during the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at VyStar Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on March 21, 2019 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images) /

Emma Golen and Laura Ricciardone have traded Harvard crimson for Yale blue

When Laura Ricciardone accepted the job as an assistant coach for Yale softball last summer, she found herself in rare company. As a former student-athlete at Harvard University, she joined Cornell head coach Julie Farlow and Princeton assistant coach Megan Murray, both Cornell graduates, as the only Ivy League graduates currently coaching in the conference.

However, if Ricciardone needs advice on navigating the unique transition, she can turn to a familiar face just down the hall: Yale women’s basketball assistant coach Emma Golen, who is also a Harvard graduate. Like in softball, there are just three Ivy League graduates coaching women’s basketball in the conference – Columbia head coach Megan Griffith and Dartmouth assistant Lakin Roland are the other two – and Golen is the only one not coaching at her alma mater.

Golen and Ricciardone graduated two years apart, but their Harvard careers followed similar arcs. Both were captains of successful teams: women’s basketball won 66% of its games and 75% of its Ivy League contests in Golen’s four seasons from 2010-13, and softball won 64% of its games and 79% of its Ivy League contests with Ricciardone on the team in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015. Golen was a reliable contributor at forward, knocking down over 40% of her 3-pointers in her final two seasons, while Ricciardone was a two-time First-Team All-Ivy League pitcher. They even majored in the same subject, psychology, which played into their decisions to enter coaching.

Golen and Ricciardone each decided to pursue coaching toward the end of their college careers. Golen explained that, in the classroom, “I really enjoyed learning about people and why they are the way they are. And [Yale head coach Allison Guth] says it all the time: we’re not necessarily in coaching; we’re in the profession of growing young women. … I love the game so much, but I love people, and the people this game has brought me, even more.”

Ricciardone also quickly committed to becoming a coach but found that “there wasn’t really a clear path, honestly … just because it’s uncommon.”

The Harvard Office of Career Services doesn’t publish a specific breakdown of professions its graduates enter, but surveys of seniors in the classes of 2012 through 2019 found that 8% to 13% planned to work in “communications, sports, hospitality, marketing, retail, or the arts.” Although Ricciardone didn’t reach out to Golen upon deciding to enter the profession, the small club of Harvard graduates in coaching “just kind of knew of what each other was doing and kept tabs on it,” Ricciardone said.

Golen broke into the profession about 25 miles from her hometown of Novi, Michigan, as a graduate assistant at the University of Michigan. “It was an opportunity to be home … and work at the school [I] grew up cheering for,” Golen said. “So that was really special to me.” But returning home came with a steep learning curve; Golen says she could “write a book on the differences” between Power 5 schools and the Ivy League. Learning in Michigan’s “very high pressure, very high demands” environment helped Golen feel prepared for what would come next: a two-year stint as an assistant coach at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, followed by a year back in Ann Arbor as Michigan’s video coordinator.

In 2018, Guth, who had been an assistant at Yale during Golen’s playing career and an assistant at Northwestern during Golen’s first stint at Michigan, reached out. Golen recalled, “She said she had an opening and asked if I’d be interested, and I almost was like, ‘Is this a trick question?’ Like, of course.” She admitted that her new job took her former Harvard teammates by surprise—“They were like, ‘Wait, wait, wait—you’re going where?’”—but they recognized that Golen would help give players at Yale similar opportunities to what they themselves had had at Harvard. As for Harvard head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, Golen said, “she’s been so supportive of my career and everything that I’ve done. And she just said that she will love me every single day except for two days of the year,” when Harvard and Yale play each other.

For Ricciardone, her career started almost 1,500 miles away from her hometown of Slidell, Louisiana, but less than two miles from the college campus she called home for four years. Boston University head coach Ashley Waters, a former Harvard assistant coach, tapped Ricciardone to fill an opening on her staff. Ricciardone said that the similarities between the Patriot League and the Ivy League, including geography and high academic standards, helped ease her transition from player to coach.

After one year, Ricciardone moved to the University of South Florida to be a graduate assistant and then an assistant coach under Ken Eriksen, who is also the head coach of Team USA. “I think three of the most impactful years of my career, whatever I do going forward, will be my time at USF because of [Eriksen],” Ricciardone reflected. “… I had the opportunity of a lifetime to have access to that man every day and learned what a lot of people learn in 40 years … in three.” She called her time at USF “night [and] day, totally different” from Boston University; nicer weather, tougher competition, a chance at a national title, and higher pressure to win were among the distinctions she made. “I wanted to see the other side of the [softball] world,” Ricciardone said, “… and see where I wanted to go next with my career. I loved it.”

Ricciardone had no plans to leave USF until a call from Yale head coach Jen Goodwin changed her calculus. “The pull back to the [Ivy] League was just too much allure for me to pass up,” Ricciardone reflected. When Goodwin, a former Harvard assistant coach, announced the hire, “the Harvard Softball alumni base went wild,” Ricciardone said with a laugh. Harvard head coach Jenny Allard was also supportive. “It’s about … surrounding yourself with good people,” Ricciardone said, “and for me it was a chance to do that and come back home to the Ivy League.”

Combined, Golen and Ricciardone have been at Yale for less than three years, but both are thrilled with where they have ended up. “I truly believe that I am working for the best boss in the entire country,” Golen said of Guth. She added, “I’m so passionate about this league and this place …To be able to form the relationships with these kids and understand the stressors and help them through the great days [and] the bad days, it’s really rewarding and something that I don’t take for granted.” Ricciardone explained that the appeal of the Ivy League is how motivated everyone is to pursue success both academically and athletically. “There are other places that value both, but that’s different,” she said. “… The motivation that [players] have here to pursue both, it’s unparalleled. … I always knew I wanted a chance to come back and be a part of that. It was just a matter of when.”

As much as Golen and Ricciardone love their new surroundings, the Harvard-Yale rivalry still resonates with them. Golen says her players give her “a little grief” about going to Harvard, but her allegiance on the court is clearly with Yale. When it comes to other sports, she is more conflicted: about a month before the Harvard-Yale football game last fall, she mused, “Do I wear my Harvard letter sweater, or do I wear Yale [gear]? That’s the unanswered question right now.” Ricciardone cut in, “I’ve been told that I cannot wear my Harvard sweater!” (Both wound up missing the football game due to work commitments, shelving the letter sweater discussion until next year.)

On the hardwood, Golen is 2-2 in her Bulldogs career against Harvard after the teams split their two games this season. Her first rivalry game in February 2019 set the bar particularly high for future matchups: Yale beat Harvard at home, 65-62, on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from guard Roxy Barahman.

Ricciardone will have to wait a little longer to try to beat her former team. Yale and Harvard were scheduled to play in April to end the regular season, but on March 11, the Ivy League cancelled all spring sports for the 2020 season because of the coronavirus outbreak.

In the long term, Ricciardone and Golen would both like to be head coaches—perhaps even in the Ivy League. Ricciardone said that she learned a lot about game strategy at USF, but coaching at Yale gives her valuable insight into recruiting in the Ivy League, beyond her experience with it as a player. She explained, “I’m looking forward to collecting as much information as I can here and learning from Coach Goodwin and … filling my toolbox with tools and information so that I can … eventually be a head coach within the league.” Golen didn’t zero in on the Ivy League specifically but said, “Some of the best advice I’ve ever received is to bloom where you’re planted … This is a place now that I feel fulfilled. I’m learning, I’m growing and I’m doing it with the right people. And I truly believe we have the pieces to be successful here. So I’ll tell you, this is the first place where that has really come to life for me … [and] it would have to be in the right spot, in the right place, to be a head coach.”

Although the need hasn’t come up yet at Yale, both coaches would also be thrilled to advise their players on getting into the profession, especially since it is so uncommon among Ivy League graduates. Part of the reason that Ivy League graduates rarely pursue coaching, though, is something that Golen believes sets the conference apart. “These kids are so much more than who they are as an athlete,” she explained. “Basketball’s a part of them, softball’s a part of them, but it’s not all they are. They have so many dreams and passions outside of what they do on the court, on the field, and a place like this can … make all that happen.”

With the help of Golen and Ricciardone, we may soon see a few Yale student-athletes blossom into coaches, fortifying an Ivy League coaching tree that currently has just six women’s basketball and softball alums on Ivy League staffs. In the seasons to come, keep an eye on the Bulldogs as they aim to go through Harvard—in more ways than one—to find success on the court and on the field.

Note: The data on the number of Ivy League women’s basketball and softball coaches who are Ivy League graduates were calculated by the author based on the information available on schools’ websites as of March 12, 2020. Only coaches who were non-volunteer and had the title of head coach, associate head coach, or assistant coach were included in these calculations.

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