Monique LeBlanc was named the new head coach of the women’s basketball team Friday. LeBlanc comes to Brown after spending nine years as the head coach at Merrimack College and before that, stints as assistant coach at Bucknell University and Northern Arizona University. Last season, she led the Warriors to a 20-9 record in their first year at the Division I level and coached Northeast Conference Player of the Year Denia Davis-Stewart.
LeBlanc’s hiring comes fewer than three weeks after the departure of former head coach Sarah Behn.
“I’m really excited to work with every player on the roster,” LeBlanc said. The team is a “really special group at a special institution, so it really can’t get better than that.”
According to Director of Athletics Jack Hayes, LeBlanc’s experience as a player and assistant coach at Bucknell, followed by her head coaching success at Merrimack, made her an ideal candidate for the job.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the athletic department could not meet with potential coaching candidates in person. “We met with candidates by way of Zoom meetings so that they visited with members of our staff,” Hayes said. “(We) went through it just like you would go through an ordinary interview even though we couldn’t have the candidates on campus.”
LeBlanc’s hiring comes on the heels of a season in which the Bears stumbled to an 8-19 record, including a 2-12 Ivy League mark. During the season, The Herald reported on allegations circulating about Behn’s conduct as women’s basketball head coach. Seven former players on the team told The Herald last year that Behn repeatedly made remarks about players’ weight, singled players out for criticism and used language that they described as vulgar. Behn denied all allegations in a statement to The Herald.
LeBlanc stressed her desire to create a positive team atmosphere where all players feel supported.
“Going in as a new coach, the first thing I really want to do with the current team is form a great relationship with each individual,” LeBlanc said. “I want to make sure that we are starting and operating from a foundation of trust.”
LeBlanc comes to Brown with an accomplished basketball resume. During her tenure at Merrimack, she guided the Warriors to five Northeast-10 Conference championship game appearances while the team was competing at the Division II level. The Warriors earned their first 20-win season in 14 years in 2018-2019, before making the jump to Division I the following year. The upstart Merrimack squad finished third in the NEC in 2019-2020 against a conference of experienced Division I teams. During that season, the Warriors defeated Brown 72-57 in a Nov. 26 contest at the Pizzitola Sports Center.
LeBlanc “has done a great job at Merrimack,” Hayes said. “When that was a Division II program, the Northeast-10 might have been the best women’s basketball Division II conference in the country. Their transition to the Northeast Conference went extremely well.”
LeBlanc also had an illustrious playing career at Bucknell. She helped take the Bison to the NCAA Tournament in 2002, and was a two-time team captain. After graduating, LeBlanc served as an assistant coach at Bucknell and at Northern Arizona, before moving to Merrimack.
Bucknell “is a high academic institution, and that helps me relate to our current team,” LeBlanc said. Being a “student-athlete and the different challenges and demands that come along with that — I have empathy there.”
As a coach at an Ivy League school, LeBlanc will have to contend with the unique challenge of not being able to attract recruits using athletic scholarships. But Bucknell also did not offer athletic scholarships while LeBlanc was a player there, so she is familiar with the challenge. To address this issue, LeBlanc hopes to expand Brown’s recruiting reach. “We’re going to have to recruit a lot and cast a wider net than we did at Merrimack,” she said. “It’s important to realize that Brown is an international institution.”
LeBlanc will also look to implement her own basketball scheme as she begins practicing with the Bears. “I’m really looking forward to putting in our unique system on defense and on offense,” she said. “It’s going to be something that’s different than most other teams in the Ivy League, and it’s something that can highlight some of the strengths of the personnel that’s already on the team.”
Guard McKenna Dale ’21 is looking forward to putting LeBlanc’s defensive game plan into action. LeBlanc’s “defense-centered mindset will allow us to improve this aspect of the game tremendously,” she said.
Hayes does not want to lay down a concrete goal for LeBlanc in her first season, but he is optimistic about the team’s potential. “Whenever there’s a coaching change, I would never put a number on what you hope happens in the first couple of years,” he said. “What we just want to see is progress.”
Hayes compared LeBlanc’s hiring to that of women’s soccer head coach Kia McNeill, who joined the Bears in 2015. In 2019, McNeil was named Ivy League Coach of the Year amid a breakout season, with her squad winning the Ivy League title and reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“When Kia McNeill was hired, we didn’t have a specific number of wins in mind,” Hayes said. “It was: Let’s see if we can continue to attract the best and brightest students, let’s see if as athletes they can continue to improve as individuals and if we can continue to improve as a team. And then if you look, four years later, we won an Ivy League Championship.” Hayes hopes that by adopting a similar approach with LeBlanc, the women’s basketball team will achieve similar success.
As she begins her Brown career, LeBlanc will have to overcome the loss of leading scorer Justine Gaziano ’20, who notched the second-most career points in Bruno history. Still, the Bears will form an experienced squad next season as all but Gaziano and center Haley Green ’20 return. “Rebuilding is never an easy task, but I believe (LeBlanc) is capable of leading the change and shift in culture,” said guard Dominique Leonidas ’21.
Dale also believes LeBlanc can get off to a strong start at Brown. “With any new coach, there is always a learning period,” she said. “However, I am confident in Coach LeBlanc’s ability to transition into this program and make an immediate impact.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Bucknell University did not provide athletic scholarships while LeBlanc was a player and coach at the school. In fact, Bucknell did not give out basketball athletic scholarships while LeBlanc was a player, but had begun providing scholarships before she began coaching at Bucknell. The Herald regrets the error.