December 2, 2009

Bill Tierney, Then and Now: Method to His Madness

by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

Bill Tierney, Then and Now: A Q&A Series

Part One: His Roots (Tuesday)
Part Two: Method to His Madness (Wednesday)
Part Three: The Princeton Years (Thursday)
Part Four: Behind the Decision (Friday)
Part Five: His Legacy (Monday)

© Trevor Brown

Bill Tierney, a Hall of Fame head coach whose decision to leave Princeton and reengage the sport's westward evolution at Denver stunned the lacrosse world, has been named Lacrosse Magazine's 2009 Person of the Year.

LM sent Matt DaSilva to Denver for an in-depth interview with Tierney, portions of which will be revealed here on laxmagazine.com in a five-part Q&A series. A full-length cover feature appears in the December issue of LM, which mails to US Lacrosse members this week.

In part two, Tierney talks the madman we see on Saturdays and perhaps a deeper meaning to his sport-altering move west.

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You came up coaching in the high school ranks. John Danowski, when he was named LM Person of the Year in 2007, lamented that a lot of young coaches today don’t follow that same path as many pioneers of the profession did. What do you make of that?

John and I talk every couple of weeks. We’re good friends. I was talking to him late last night. I think there’s a lot of truth to it. I think it comes from the teaching aspect. What happens now, guys that were great players become great coaches. I think that’s hard. That’s why I admire so much what Dave Pietramala has done at Hopkins. He never had that kind of educational background. It’s very hard for a great player to become a great coach, because he hasn’t been on the bench. It was easy for those guys to play. So to then step back and teach kids that aren’t as talented is difficult.

I agree with John. When you go through the education courses, you learn a lot about part-to-whole methods, whole-to-part methods, repeating a question when somebody asks it as opposed to turning and looking at that person, visual learning versus active learning, the art of review, repetition of skill -- all these kinds of things that had nothing to do with lacrosse, but had to do with teaching. Once you combine a good teacher with a good coach -- a guy like John Wooden, who could have coached anything -- you’ve got a good mix there.

A lot of these guys try to be head coaches, but it’s a tough way to the top. Dave Cottle, Tony Seaman, John Danowski, Dave Urick -- they’re all teachers first. Although you do see guys like Dom Starsia and Dave Pietramala -- they’ve found the right spot conducive to their style of coaching. But it is hard for some of these young guys. It’s a tough profession out there. That’s why I hope to be a mentor to all the guys I’ve coached over the years.

Speaking of style, what is your style? We see the guy yelling at refs. There’s got to be more to you than that.

You hope so. If you talk to the people who know me best -- Dave Metzbower, my son Trevor, Kevin Lowe, guys who played for me -- they would tell you that that’s the anomaly, what the public sees.

I go back to my childhood. My dad was a yeller and a screamer. He’d be the one to tell you you’re in your room for a month. And then my mom within two hours would come up and tell you, “OK, you’re punishment’s over.” That’s how I am. I can see a direct relationship to that. I see the hardness, sometimes cruelty to players. Some of the things my ex-players tell me I said to them, I’ll tell them I never said that, and they’ll say, “Oh yeah, you did.” And yet, I think each one would tell you I always talked about loving them. I was always personal with them. I was always there for them. That’s what you see. Not sure they would say softness, but certainly kindness and love is an integral part of that.

David Morrow, I remember in a story in Lacrosse Magazine, started out by saying “I hated Bill Tierney when I got to Princeton.” It was bold. But if you read on, it was all true. Everything he said was exactly true.

What you see isn’t what you get. I’m a stickler. I’m Type A. I can’t go to bed on a Friday night if I don’t think my team is prepared. What happens on Saturday, the reason there’s that madness, so to speak, is that I feel like if we’re prepared, there’s almost nothing else to do. You don’t have to coach them on Saturday if you prepare them.

This quote I’ve had for a couple of years now from an article on Coach [Bill] Parcells in Sports Illustrated a couple years ago, it tells it all about guys like me with coaching. I’ve sent this to some young coaches.

[Reading the quote] “You wake up each morning knowing the next game is all that matters. If you fail in it, nothing you’ve done with your life counts. By your very nature, you always have to start over again fresh. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but nonetheless addictive. Even if everyone around you tells you you’re a success, you seek out that uncomfortable place and if you don’t, you’re automatically on the wrong side of the thin curve that separates winners from losers.”

That really tells what a lot of successful coaches are about. It certainly tells my story. Stuff like this, honors and accolades, Hall of Fames, makes me somewhat uncomfortable. And I think you should be that. The other quote I have up here I’ve used in my speech when I got inducted in 2002 to the US Lacrosse Hall of Fame. My associate AD at Princeton had this quote: “Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.” I twisted that a little bit around. “Judge your success by what others had to give up in order for you to get it.” I was thanking my wife, my kids, my family, my brothers and sisters, my parents. I’ve always had this crazy passion about sports. I know bringing up four kids could not have been easy, because I wasn’t there very much. And for the kids to have me helping raise other people’s kids -- while I was ignoring them, so to speak -- it’s kind of weird. Those are the kinds of things that have driven me in this whole coaching thing.

It’s rare you can find the exact words, but those are the ones that put it together the best for me.

It’s funny, the Parcells article quote about others calling you a success, and that you’re not comfortable unless you’re uncomfortable -- Did you think you were getting too comfortable at Princeton? Is this your uncomfortable place, Denver?

It might be. I hadn’t thought about it that way. Now that you ask, it might be. Funny, before I went to Princeton, I had never been anywhere more than three years. Not one job for more than three years. I was at RIT for three years and at Hopkins for three years. I kind of thought I was going to Princeton for three years. Uncomfortable at Princeton? That could never be true. I could go back there this second, live my life there –-- the people, the experience, the place, it was incredible.

But as you mention it, maybe I am seeking out that uncomfortable-ness of a new team. I’ve never been afraid of high expectations at all. One of my personal things over the years was to transform fear of failure to fear of success. In athletics, it’s OK to fear failure, because a lot of people fail in athletics. It’s when you’re successful that you then set the bar higher, and then your expectations are higher, and then you have to work a lot harder. I think a lot of kids that play the game, deep down they might not want to be that successful, because it means the next day, they’re called to a higher level.

I don’t look at the six championships other than with a great deal of pride and thanks to all those people that made them possible.

Maybe that’s a part of this thing. There were two things I always said if I was ever to leave Princeton: I would leave it better than I found it -- I think that’s true. And I would leave the cupboard full -- I think that’s true. I have no regrets about that, and I feel good about that. But maybe part of this thing -- other than what you’ve read out there with me and Trevor and the Colorado thing and the idea of giving it one more time around with a different program, all of which is true -- but maybe deep down, that’s a little deeper. Maybe I have that need to do this. Twenty-two years is a long time to be with one program. Fifty-eight years is a long time to be healthy and happy and thankful. So why not give it a final shot?


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