Head Coach Matt Langel has turned Colgate Men’s Basketball into a competitive program that’s gained national attention. Meanwhile, he’s raising his family in Hamilton, where he’s made his home.
Illustrations by Nigel Buchanan
I walked into the Reid Athletic Center and approached an intimidatingly big maroon door with the Colgate basketball logo in the middle and a sign that read, “Matt Langel.” This door is different from the other coaches’ doors. You can’t see through it, and what’s beyond seems more daunting than the others. I paced around outside, watching my phone impatiently for it to be 11 a.m. — nervous, because Matt Langel is a big deal.
With three Patriot League Coach of the Year awards and three NCAA tournament appearances, Langel has elevated Colgate Men’s Basketball in his 12 seasons as head coach. He has led the Raiders to five straight Patriot League championship game appearances, three regular season championships, and coached two Patriot League players of the year. He has also been recognized by college basketball’s top analysts as one of America’s most underrated coaches as well as a top rising coach in the nation. “It’s not easy to sustain success at a mid-major program in upstate New York, but Langel has made it look easy,” college basketball insider Jon Rothstein wrote in an article on College Hoops Today.
When I walked into Langel’s office, he stuck out his hand, and I greeted him with a casual handshake. A former basketball player himself, he stands tall at 6 feet, 5 inches, with a commanding frame. His black hair with streaks of gray matched the black vest he wore with black pants. He smiled with half of his mouth and spoke with ease. Langel’s office is covered with basketball memorabilia. There are basketballs with all of his accolades, including his most recent — the ball commemorating his 166th career win, which made him the winningest coach in Colgate program history. On the wall to his right, there are black and white photos of his three kids — Luke, Jackson, and Logan — all playing basketball. Next to those are posters that display the words: Think, Care, and Believe. On Langel’s right are colorful pictures of him and his team; photos of him hugging coaches, players, and family during and after games.
Langel grew up in Moorestown, N.J., where he played soccer, baseball, and golf, in addition to basketball. It wasn’t until middle school that he really started to love basketball and think about playing in college. “There was so much competition being so close to Philadelphia,” he says. One of those competitors was right across the bridge, a young kid from Lower Merion, Pa., by the name of Kobe Bryant.
Langel’s father was an attorney at a large firm in Philadelphia, and he happened to represent some of the athletes in the area, including Ron Jaworski, Doug Collins, and Bob Froese. Langel often had playdates with their kids: “We grew up with the perspective of sports not just being fans, but it being someone’s life.”
He studied at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School with a concentration in management. On the basketball court, he played under legendary coach Fran Dunphy. The team went from 12–14 his first year to a combined 42–14 in regular season play and 17–1 in Ivy League competition his junior and senior years, when they made the NCAA Tournament. “We embraced the expectations and culture of how Penn needs to be at the top,” Langel says. “I was lucky to be with other guys who were doing that, and, eventually, you look up and you’re the oldest in the Ivy League, considered one of the best players, and having an undefeated season. It was a pretty cool process.”
Langel was a sharpshooter with good length, and he had a great understanding and joy for the game, according to Dunphy. “He wasn’t the most outgoing guy, but his basketball spoke volumes,” Dunphy says. Langel ended his UPenn career as a member of the program’s 1,000-point club and fourth in three pointers.
He met his wife, Tara, at UPenn when she was a first-year member of the women’s basketball team and he was a senior. It wasn’t until the spring of Tara’s junior year that they started dating when he was playing overseas. After Tara’s graduation, she traveled with him as he competed in Switzerland, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
When Langel started playing in Europe, he was excited to experience parts of the world he’d never seen before. At the same time, he found himself in a professional environment that was strictly basketball driven, and most players were more focused on themselves. “It’s a job,” he says. “Like any industry, they’re trying to advance their careers.”
He also tried out for a few NBA squads, including the Seattle SuperSonics and his hometown 76ers, which didn’t last very long, he admits. “It gives me a lot of perspective on life and basketball.” In thinking about his subsequent move, he says, “I knew basketball was hard work, but I enjoyed it the whole time. So whatever I was going to do next, I didn’t want that to change.”
UPenn’s Dunphy gave Langel his first opportunity to coach, and in those two years, the Quakers made two NCAA Tournament appearances. In 2006 Dunphy decided to leave the Ivy League and coach the Temple Owls. “It was a daunting test,” Dunphy says. “To go to a totally different league, environment, mission of the institution. I needed people I trusted.” So he brought Langel and his staff along with him.
Dunphy’s impact on Langel’s career left the younger coach in a good position: “Because of all the successes the program had, probably very little of which had to do with me, I got a chance to come to Colgate and coach,” Langel says. On April 28, 2011, he was introduced as the head coach of the Colgate Men’s Basketball team. He was chosen from more than 100 candidates. Before Langel, Colgate Basketball had only three winning seasons in the previous 16 years. For his first six years, things remained the same. But Langel started to get his bearings, and the University started to establish a winning culture.
“We had leadership from the presidential level and the athletics directors who said they really believe in what the men’s basketball team is doing.”Matt Langel
In listening to Langel speak, you can tell how hard he works. “You need to be constantly working to do better, to improve, and if I model that and our staff is modeling that, we’re able to bring in guys with that mindset.”
He has brought in players who match his mentality because he pours effort into recruiting them. “You have to work hard to find the right fits,” he says. One of Langel’s biggest Colgate recruits was guard Jordan Burns ’21 in 2017. Langel remembers going to recruit at an Amateur Athletic Union tournament in Las Vegas, where “there [were] so many teams … platinum, gold, silver, and bronze [divisions].” Burns was in the copper division, playing in a gym off-site. “Normally they have NCAA coaches and seating where nobody else can sit, and there’s signage all over the place,” Langel says. “There was none of that. I’m standing there, watching, and he’s dominating. And I’m looking around and thinking, ‘This is like America’s Funniest Home Videos, and somebody’s pranking me. This kid might actually have a chance.’”
Langel brought Burns and his family to Colgate to offer him a scholarship. Four years later, Jordan Burns ended his career with the fifth-most points in Colgate history, most assists, fifth-most three-pointers, and he was named the 2021 Patriot League Player of the Year.
When Coach Langel is on the court, he is locked in. Take the Raiders game against American University in late February, for example: As the buzzer sounded and the game started, Langel had his arms crossed. He simply observed when the Raiders were on offense. He had no reaction to a Tucker Richardson ’23 three pointer or an and-one from Keegan Records ’23. Langel just took a slight glance at the scoreboard and squirted a sip of water in the side of his mouth. The only time he made an outward reaction was when something went wrong. At one point, he fell to the ground in frustration as Nelly Cummings ’22 made a bad turnover, immediately calling down the bench for a substitution. Occasionally, he yelled “HANDS” and “FILL” on defense, clapping his hands afterward. He gave low fives when players substituted out, but Langel didn’t interact much with his players. During timeouts, he went straight to his assistant coaches with the white board and then over to the team for a brief moment.
Off the court, he has a different relationship with his players. “I think, most importantly, they believe that I care about them — not just as a basketball player and how they played,” Langel says.
“Much like my own family, I care about their well-being, their growth, their development, their education, what’s next in their life. Our obligation is always to the team first, but we want to help them succeed.”Matt Langel
He likes teaching young people how to think critically, form opinions, and figure out who they’re going to be. Langel says the hardest part about his job is helping student-athletes achieve their dreams, goals, and potential, while in an industry that is judged on the simple result of wins and losses.
“On the court, coach is someone I trust to put me and the team in the right positions to succeed,” Richardson says. “Off the court, coach is a mentor and someone who gives incredible life advice. The one rule in our program is ‘Do the right thing,’ and I think that sums up his approach to basketball
Dunphy weighs in: “[What] sets him apart is he really gets what makes a young person tick. He understands how to read people, how to get along with them, and the empathy that’s needed to be a part of a team.”
Langel has made a name for himself on the national scale. When Colgate beat Syracuse this past season for the first time in 60 years, the Twitter buzz included: “[This] is a good time to remind people that Matt Langel is the best coach in the country that no one ever talks about. Built a program from the ground up there and does nothing but win,” Sports Illustrated writer Kevin Sweeney tweeted. ESPN’s Dick Vitale wrote: “Wow the Red Raiders r [sic] going to have a solid year as Coach Matt Langel has done an excellent job in his 11 yrs.” When I read these to Langel, he laughed uncomfortably. “It’s nice for the program, the players, and our institution when we’re getting that recognition, because it shines a bit of light on what a special place Colgate is,” he said, not wanting the personal recognition.
Langel has proven that he could be a head coach at a top school in the nation, and there’s scuttlebutt in the college basketball world that he might jump ship to coach at a school in a better conference. “The team, the program, and the individuals within the program are extremely important to me,” he emphasizes. “I don’t look at my career like, ‘What’s the next opportunity?’”
Hamilton is a special place to Matt Langel. It’s where he’s raised his kids, turned a mediocre program into a competitive one, and where he’s made his home. He has his family, fellow coaches, students, and the village community members, who all mean more than any win or accolade. For that reason, Langel is not leaving any time soon. After signing a contract extension through 2027 back in 2019, he recently extended his stay in Hamilton by three more years, committing to the University through 2030. He says, “This is a great place to be.”
— Cam Cobey ’22 graduated with a degree in economics and English. He was a sports editor for the Maroon-News and contributed more than 50 articles during his four years. He is an aspiring sports journalist with works published on NBA.com and multiple FanSided properties.
Stats on Matt
• 20th head coach in the 122-year history of Colgate men’s basketball
• 12 seasons as head coach
• Winningest coach in program history
• 3-time Patriot League Coach of the Year (’18, ’19, ’20) — the only coach in Patriot League history to three-peat
• 2019 ECAC Coach of the Year
• Has led the Raiders to 5 straight Patriot League Championships and 2 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament
• Coached 2 Patriot League players of the year, 2 Patriot League Defensive Players of the Year, 2 Patriot League Rookies of the Year, 23 All-Patriot League picks, 6 Patriot League All-Rookie selections, and 7 All-District honorees
• Coached nearly 20 professional basketball players, including Will Rayman ’20, Francisco Amiel ’19, Jordan Swopshire ’18, Jordan Robertson ’18, and Sean O’Brien ’18
• Contract extended to 2030