Chris Sailer Ready to Step Away from Princeton: 'It's Been All I Could Ask For'

After Chris Sailer announced to her team, to Princeton University and to the lacrosse world that this spring would be her final as the head women’s lacrosse coach of the Tigers, she asked for some time over the Thanksgiving weekend before discussing her emotional decision.

“It didn’t take Thanksgiving to make me feel grateful for all the incredible years I’ve had as the head coach of Princeton lacrosse,” Sailer said. “I’m thankful for that every day. I loved every minute of it, and I’m really looking forward to spending this last year with my team and my staff.”

This spring will be Sailer’s 36th year as head coach of Princeton. The 1981 Harvard graduate has spent more than 40 years in the Ivy League between playing and coaching, though she never anticipated a legacy-building run lasting more than three decades when she started at Princeton in 1987 as an unproven 26-year-old who had served one season as assistant at Penn and one season as an assistant at UMass after teaching high school out of college.

“I was just happy I had a job,” Sailer said. “I had a job particularly close to home in the Ivy League, which I knew, and I knew how successful Harvard had become because I was a part of that change in the program up in Cambridge. I felt like if it could be done at Harvard, it could be done at Princeton.”

Sailer was 3-9 in her first year at Princeton. She was 7-7 in her second season. In her third season, she guided the Tigers to the national semifinals. They have made 10 more national semifinal runs since. Sailer’s Princeton teams have won three national titles — Princeton’s first ever in 1994 and then back-to-back crowns in 2003 and 2004.

“Chris Sailer is an icon in women’s intercollegiate athletics,” new Princeton athletic director John Mack said. “She is an unrivaled educator, mentor and competitor whose impact reaches far beyond the student-athletes she has coached. Chris has changed countless lives for the better, and Princeton Athletics would not be what it is without her.”

“Chris Sailer is an icon in women’s intercollegiate athletics.” 

— John Mack, Princeton AD

Princeton lacrosse without Chris Sailer is just what the Tigers are now forced to consider. Sailer, only the third head coach in program history, also has been thinking about her life beyond the sideline.

“I’m sure it will feel strange the first time I’m back at [Class of] ’52 watching the team play with a different head coach on the field,” Sailer said. “And there’s no way I won’t miss game day on the field with my team. But wherever I may be, I will always be watching and cheering for the Tigers, and I’ll be the biggest fan of the team and the new staff. Hopefully the fourth head coach of the Tigers will be even more successful than the third and add to this great Princeton lacrosse legacy that so many had a hand in building.”

Sailer enters the spring as the sixth-winningest coach all-time across all divisions with 418 career wins, No. 2 among active Division I head coaches behind only Cindy Timchal of Navy. Only Missy Foote, who won 422 games at Middlebury, has won more games at one institution, and Sailer could supplant her at the top of the list this spring. She had past inquiries about leaving, but she remained loyal to Princeton.

“Princeton has been the right fit for me,” Sailer said. “It’s a school that values what I value, and an athletic department that values what I value. And the quality of student-athletes that we get to work with here, and my familiarity with the Ivy League and finding a place where you can be successful and still do things the right way, where I’ve built a program that’s been my baby, it’s been a family to me. If I have thought of leaving, it’s come back to, ‘Why?’ My own family is in the area, which is awesome. I love the people here. I love the players I get to work with, the support of the administration. It’s been all I could ask for.”

Sailer instead saw the challenge of how to sustain Princeton’s success in an ever-evolving game and landscape. She has won 15 Ivy League titles, including the last six, while keeping the Tigers among the best teams in the country. Her teams have made 26 NCAA tournament appearances, and she has coached 57 NCAA tournament games, more than any other coach.

“You to try to still be competitive and hold true to your values and show that Ivy League student-athletes can excel on the field next to anybody,” Sailer said. “That’s the challenge that I’ve really embraced and enjoyed, and the opportunity to work with tremendous student-athletes has really been what’s kept me here.”

Active in leadership in the IWLCA through her years, Sailer was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2008, and the Chris Sailer Trail at USA Lacrosse headquarters in Sparks, Md., was dedicated in October 2017. She is also in the Pennsylvania Lacrosse Hall of Fame, Haverford High School Sports Hall of Fame, the Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame and New England Lacrosse Hall of Fame. She is three-time national coach of the year and won the Diane Geppi-Aikens Memorial Award in 2008. She has had 27 Ivy League Players of the Year and five Tewaaraton Award finalists, including 2003 winner Rachael Becker DeCecco.

“Chris created a legacy that goes far beyond the X’s and O’s,” said DeCecco, the only defender to ever win the Tewaaraton Award. “She has built generations of young women who are infinitely better for knowing her, and simply by being in her presence.”

Sailer also has a sizeable coaching tree. Among her former assistant coaches and players who have become head coaches are Karin Corbett (Penn), Missy Doherty (Penn State), Laura Field (Fairfield), Anne Murray (Columbia), Keely McDonald (Brown) and former head coaches Julie Shaner Young (Villanova), Theresa Sherry (Cal) and Kim Simons (Georgetown).

Sailer has grown along with her program, changing over the decades. When she started at Princeton, she was also a field hockey assistant and taught one physical education class each semester. Her alumnae jokingly now call her Chris 2.0, a softer version of the pioneering coach who whipped the program into shape in her early years.

“When you’re trying to build a program and make a name for the university and yourself in the profession, I was really driven early,” Sailer said. “I’m still driven, just in a different way now. I think kids change, and times change, and you have to be able to change with them. If you don’t grow and you don’t change, you won’t continue to be effective. I think I have changed over time, and I think it’s led to better coaching by me. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done and to be able to see my players flourish on the field and in the classroom and all areas of their life; that’s really what it’s all about.”

Announcing she would step away from the richness of those experiences at the end of this spring was one of the hardest things Sailer has had to do. She considered the feelings of her current team as she figured out when to announce it to them.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” Sailer said. “Having not been back, I also wanted to make sure that I really still felt like this was what I wanted to do after I was on campus for a few months. It’s not a decision that you make lightly. It’s something you think about and plan for and I just really feel like the time was right for me for a lot of different reasons.

“I’ve loved this job. I’ve given my life to this job and all the student-athletes. I’m ready to do some things outside of just my work, and I’m ready to do some things for me and be there to support my parents, who are getting older and are in need of help.”


Chris Sailer's teams have made 26 NCAA tournament appearances, and she has coached 57 NCAA tournament games, more than any other coach.

Sailer announced her impending retirement to the team before they headed into their Thanksgiving break, a timing that was intentional. She waited first for the team to return to campus and have a productive fall. The Ivy League did not have a 2021 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so she wanted them to focus on getting reps. She did not want to wait until December, when her student-athletes could be distracted by the announcement as they prepared for exams. And she did not want to wait until January, when she wants the program fully gearing up to play its season.

“It was a very tough moment,” Sailer said. “I was emotional for days leading into it, preparing for it. It does seem like it was out of the blue. There was some shock. We’re just having a meeting after the last practice before Thanksgiving, and you’re not expecting to hear those words. There was some shock and emotion, and I felt a lot of love and support, which was great.”

There was never going to be a perfect time to leave or a perfect team to step away from, but this team is unique after enduring two straight years affected by the pandemic. Princeton had 19 players take a leave of absence in 2021.

“I have always admired the prestige and success Coach Sailer has brought to Princeton lacrosse, and it was one of the reasons I came to Princeton,” said one of this year’s top Ivy League players, senior Kyla Sears. “I will always value having had the opportunity to play for her, as she’s developed the way I play and the way I lead. I am emotional that it’s her last year but so excited for her in her next chapter.”
With Princeton fully intact again, the Tigers have lofty expectations for what will be Sailer’s last season. Now there’s a little extra motivation for the group.
“When you’re a coach and love what you do and work with great young women, year in and year out, there’s never a good time to leave,” Sailer said. “You’re always leaving kids that you love, and you love nothing more than to coach through to their graduation. You always feel bad for those kids you recruited fully intending to coach them, but I know they’re going to be great. I know Princeton will hire an awesome coach to lead them forward.”

Princeton has announced that it will conduct a national search for Sailer’s replacement. On her staff now is associate head coach Jenn Cook, who has worked with Sailer for 10 years and focuses on the defense and draws. Cook was the 2019 IWLCA Division I Assistant Coach of the Year.

“So much of our team culture and all our success can be attributed to her influence,” Sailer said. “She reinvigorated me for my last 10 years of coaching. I think she’d be a great choice to lead the program moving forward. I know Princeton will do a national search and I’ll be behind who they ultimately hire, but she’s done an awesome job for me, and I’m excited for her to apply for the job.”

Having gotten through the difficult decision to retire, Sailer is looking forward to making the most of her final spring at Princeton. It’s one more season of memories and moments while chasing championships to add to her lasting legacy before she steps away for good.

“I think it’s going to be hard — the last game, the last day walking out of the office or leaving campus for the last time as the head coach, seeing my kids leave campus for the last time,” Sailer said. “All of that, I’m sure will be very bittersweet and emotional. I know I’ll go feeling really good about what I’ve been able to contribute to Princeton and the whole experience.”