He’s the most dominant coach you’ve never heard of. In four seasons, he’s won two European championships and finished second in the other two. Not bad for a guy who was originally focused on coaching snowboarding. Emmet Ryan chats to Liam Printer, for whom basketball has sent him on some odd journeys
Reasonably speaking, going from Westport in Co. Mayo on Ireland’s west coast to Lausanne, Switzerland, to teach isn’t that odd. French is a common enough language to learn in Ireland and Switzerland isn’t that far away.
Liam Printer’s route there was anything but reasonable. It involves a new year’s party, a snowboarding championship, and basketball getting parked quite a lot.
A Spanish teacher by day, Printer has guided the International School of Lausanne (ISL) girls to four straight European championship finals in his first four seasons coaching the U19s there, winning two of them.
Three months before Printer arrived in the school, it wasn’t even considering adding a girl’s basketball programme. On his first day there, it looked like the school might have had a point.
Two things Printer has learned is to never underestimate luck or the gumption of teenage girls who want to hoop.
His basketball story begins messily. Printer went to secondary school (age 12 to 18) as a boarder in Garbally College. The first year was great and he was playing with the school’s under 16 side. The second year, not so much, because both coaches left and he was stuck without a team.
It was only in his penultimate year that the team was brought back and, at 16, Printer made his first foray into coaching. While playing for the U19s he ended up coaching the younger kids.
Then college came around and, as it is for many of us, lots of things changed. It didn’t hurt that Printer was a hell of a snowboarder. He would eventually win the Irish freestyle championship in 2010 and his dedication to that saw basketball take a back seat.
That was until he needed a job and upon graduating he became a substitute teacher in St Gerald’s Castlebar, just down the road from his hometown of Westport.
They needed a French teacher, that was fine because he had good French. They needed a U19 basketball coach, that was a bit odder as he was only 22, but he wasn’t the type to look for excuses.
“I was originally supposed to just coach the U19s, some of the famous Mayo footballers were on the team or in the school. It was a really strong team. We got to the All Ireland semi-final. Then I just ended up coaching all the other teams in the school. I was 22, just out of college, and willing to do anything,”
“The U16s lost the semi final as well, with the first year’s the goal was just to get to the weekend tournament in Limerick. We ended up qualifying, we were delighted, but we had a brutal group.”
That brutal group included St Malachy’s, the side that had downed both Printer’s U16 and U19 sides, and another powerhouse in Castleblayney.
“We ended up knocking out Malachy’s, I’ll never forget it. We topped the group, beat St Fintan’s by 20 in the quarter finals and were into another All Ireland semi final, we lost but we ended up coming third.”
That was when he started playing again but the coaching was still hanging around until it got parked again.
Trips to Canada and New Zealand came, instructing snowboarding, but Switzerland brought it back. How he got to Switzerland, well that’s sort of like how I’ve got most of my jobs over the years. He was in the right place where people were drinking at the right time.
Printer had just qualified as a teacher in Ireland in 2012 and met someone at a New Year’s Eve party who was raving about the experience they’d had teaching there. Considering his other passions and with nothing else really to lose, this was recession Ireland we’re talking about, he dived right in.
“I loved skiing and snowboarding so I went home and looked into finding jobs in the French speaking part of Switzerland.”
He got a job as a Spanish teacher at a small spot up the mountains called Leysin American School. The head of activities saw his CV, he saw the bit about coaching in St Gerald’s, and needed a coach for the girls.
“It was a boarding school in the mountains full of wealthy kids. I went from coaching normal young lads to being in a mixed school. I had no idea what the level was going to be like,” said Printer.
After a few games he realised they could hold their own with the other international schools but nothing wild.
The main opponent was the International School of Geneva, seen as the local basketball academy. This mixed bag with a barely arrived coach ended up pulling off the upset.
“It was Coach Carter stuff, one of the seniors was going to graduate and had never achieved anything in basketball. We were down 1 with 8 seconds to go, we got the ball to her, she made a buzzer beater 3 to win the championship,” said Printer.
“She had lost her whole family in the tsunami in Japan and she loved basketball. I didn’t know about that until the end of the year but it was an incredible moment.”
The rest of the year was a bunch of solid tournament performances, overachieving for its size. A similar run followed in Printer’s second year there before he moved to Lausanne, pretty much entirely because of hoops.
Don’t get us wrong, he’s got a good rep as a teacher, but Lausanne really wanted to get a girls basketball team going and what he’d done in Leysin had garnered attention.
So, again, it was the absolute deep end. He had no idea if he’d even have enough players to field a team.
“I was just willing to do whatever. The first training session, it was called a tryout but only 7 girls showed up, was in September. One girl was amazing, Cloe. She was really good, one of the best I’ve ever coached, on the Swiss U16 national team. A great point guard, she just wanted to get a team going, she didn’t care how bad it was,” said Printer.
“There was an American girl called Clara whose dad had got the team going a few months prior. They were told that if they got enough players there’d be a team so they just got all their friends to come and sign up.”
That meant most of the players were girls who had never touched a ball in their life alongside one American who knew the rules, and a Swiss who was a baller.
“It was a complete mess for the first month. I was showing some how to dribble while Cloe was on the Swiss national team, the range was just ridiculous,”
“We had some hilarious moments. In one of our first games, I was sending on one of the girls, and she asked was she on offence or defence. Head in my hands, I was wondering what I had got myself into. It was just a mess for the first three to four games. Other teams were looking at us wondering what was going on.”
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Printer managed to get this blend of oddballs to gel, not least because of the determination of the players that got the whole thing going.
“I really enjoy it. They want to get better, it’s a different mentality. You just feel like you are making a really big impact on their lives. They have developed a family unit.” said Printer.
“When we started the team, the principal told me the group of girls I had were ones who had tried lots of sports but it hadn’t worked out. Because we took anyone, they just got together. We had a player they all looked up to, Cloe, but she was so modest. Instead of getting frustrated by their mistakes, she kept encouraging them. That was the magic dust.”
Their first tournament was promising, with a couple of wins. Then another American, Jenna, in the school, who was a volleyball player, converted really well to the sport. This jumbled mess with a touch of talent went to the European championships, taking on international schools from across the continent.
Printer had zero expectations but he was used to things going well when he was happy just to be there.
“We didn’t know if we’d have a chance or if we’d be slaughtered. In the coaches meeting, they were basically saying they’d take it easy on us. The next day we played the school that had won the previous year, at halftime we were up 27-4,”
Yeah, they were up to the standard.
They kept winning and faced a real test in the semi-final against Berlin Brandenburg in the semis, winning that, then took the title over an Italian side. Having started the previous autumn with one star and players who were the definition of beginners, Printer had built a European champion.
“The principal asked how we did when we got back and I had to say ‘Eh, we won.’ He thought I meant we won a game, so I had to explain that we won the whole tournament,”
“Suddenly basketball was a thing all the girls wanted to take up so we added a U14 team the next year.”
That next year, Geneva won most of the local finals against Printer’s Lausanne but back at the Euros, they went in and got the job done again. Two European titles in two years, even Printer finds it hard to take in talking about it over WhatsApp.
After taking those 2016 and 2017 titles, the bulk of his championship side graduated. He got a visit from Basketball Ireland to do a documentary on his work. With a rebuilt side, his crew performed well, winning one regional title and lost four finals including the Euros with Berlin taking the win.
Then last year, they went into overdrive. While they lost the final of the Euros that year, Printer’s side won 91 per cent of their games that year and picked up 4 championships. That brought his total haul to 9 championships in four seasons along with 15 other medal finishes in that span.
There are now four teams in the school, Printer at least has a chance to breathe only working with the seniors alongside his teaching. These are huge schools he is competing with, Geneva has 3,000 students for example. Out of nowhere, there’s now a massive basketball rivalry between the schools.
“We didn’t exist five years ago, now when we show up at a tournament it’s ISL vs Geneva. Everybody knows it’s coming down to us two,” he said.
“It’s bizarre. I went over as a Spanish teacher but I always knew from coaching snowboarding that I loved the aspect of watching kids progress.”
Off the court he’s keeping busy and prone to good fortune. He met his fiancée through the job, inadvertently. He was on a flight between Bristol and Geneva. She’s a doctor from the UK and Printer has managed to coax her over to Lausanne. Granted, it wasn’t the toughest sell.
“It’s a great lifestyle. They value their free time on Sundays and family time. We’re like a 15 minute walk from Lake Geneva.”
Now he’s got quite the year on his hands, the fifth year of his dynasty to manage and a wedding ahead in the summer.