As a senior, Megan Griffith ’07 was on the fast track for a career in finance. The three-time captain of the basketball team and one of the best point guards in Columbia school history was checking all the appropriate boxes, majoring in economics and completing two summer internships at Lincoln Financial Group in Philadelphia, near her hometown of King of Prussia, Pa. But a conversation with a workout buddy, Dennis Stanton, who had played collegiately at Ursinus and professionally in Europe, caused Griffith to pivot.
“He told me, ‘You should think about playing pro overseas,’” recalls Griffith, now head coach of the Columbia women’s basketball team, which is coming off two highly successful seasons. “I didn’t even know that was a possibility. At the time there weren’t many women in the Ivy League who were doing it. But I did some research, looked into getting an agent and realized that I could go in that direction.”
So upon graduation, instead of heading to Wall Street in New York or Center City in Philadelphia, Griffith was off to Finland to play basketball. Even though it was the first time she had traveled overseas, it wasn’t long before she knew she had made the right decision.
“I realized the game was really important to me,” she says. “I trusted the voice inside of me that was saying, ‘Go do this.’ It was my gut. That’s how I operate. It’s kind of all or nothing.”
Griffith was team MVP of FoANice Basketball in 2008 and led Espoo Basket Team to the Finnish National Championship in 2009. After one more year of playing, this time in Denmark, Griffith returned to the United States and began six years at Princeton, two as director of basketball operations and four as assistant coach and recruiting coordinator.
In March 2016, Griffith was named the Lions’ women’s basketball coach. “During our initial interview with Megan, it was quite evident that she had a vision for what it would take for the women’s program to succeed and ultimately compete for an Ivy League championship,” says Athletics director Peter Pilling. “She displayed an understanding of the complexities of the task at hand and embraced the challenge.”
And a challenge it was. Following the advent of coeducation, Columbia had begun women’s basketball competition in 1984–85 at the Division III level, then joined the Ivy League and Division I two years later. During the next 30 seasons, under eight coaches, the Lions came away with only one winning record.
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Griffith was unfazed, because she knew Columbia. “That’s 75 percent why I took the job,” she says. “It was a place where I knew I could be successful, and a place I really believed in. Also, I knew where the holes were in the program. I was not caught by surprise by anything.”
Griffith drew on her background overseas and at Princeton in tackling the job at hand. “In Finland I learned how to win,” she says. “I got to win a national championship and saw how to sustain winning and develop a winning culture, a winning mentality. At Princeton, I learned about the importance of work ethic, paying attention to details and being organized.”
After three years laying a foundation and building Columbia’s recruiting efforts, the Lions compiled a 17–10 record in 2020 and earned their first berth in the Ivy League’s postseason tournament, which was canceled due to Covid-19. The following season also was wiped out due to the pandemic, but the Lions roared back in 2022 with the winningest record in program history, 25–7. After losing to Princeton in the championship game of the Ivy tournament, Columbia earned a trip to the postseason Women’s National Invitation Tournament and beat Holy Cross, Old Dominion and Boston College before bowing to Seton Hall 78–75 in the quarterfinals, which were played before a raucous, sellout crowd of 2,072 at Schiller Court in Levien Gym.
“It was a unique feeling, really special,” Griffith says of that atmosphere. “Even before the game, it was so loud you could hardly hear yourself think.”
Griffith and the Lions are hopeful of building on their success in 2022–23, with a veteran team led by Abbey Hsu ’24 and Kaitlyn Davis ’23. They got started before the school year began with a trip to Spain and Morocco, where they competed against local teams in between sightseeing and bonding. “It was an amazing experience,” says Griffith, “being able to start in August with this group, get everybody back together and enjoy something like that together.”
Coaches often talk about changing a losing culture and building a winning program. What does that mean for Griffith?
“The best way to sum it up is not skipping steps in having a vision and bringing the right people with me, the right staff,” she says. “Every success in my life was because I was able to find an edge, and here we have the Columbia EDGE, which stands for Energy, Discipline, Grit and Excellence. It’s everywhere in our program: We wear it on our shirts, it’s on the walls in our locker room. It’s our why — why are we doing this?”
As the Lions go for their third straight winning season, Griffith says the approach remains consistent. “It’s the same mission, the same standard. The goals haven’t changed, but we’re in a much different place from where we were even two years ago. We want to achieve and maintain a championship culture.”
Alex Sachare ’71 has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books about basketball.
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