December 4, 2009

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Bill Tierney, Then and Now: Behind the Decision

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 four, Tierney addresses rumors about why he left Princeton and explains just how Denver was able to lure him from his lofty perch.

Don't get the mag? Join USL and its 300,000-plus members today to start your subscription.

Any decision you make, people are going to put their take on it. Your name carries that value in the lacrosse world. We were canvassing some people, including some of your peers. Many were on board by saying this was a good thing for lacrosse, but you do have naysayers. I’m going to read you verbatim one of the responses we got, because I’d love to hear your response… “He is not going to Denver to help expand the game. He is racing out of the Ivy League because he no longer has every advantage in admissions and recruiting, and he cannot guarantee winning any longer…”

You never know who those people are, because they’re so weak, they never put their name on it. That’s my only problem with those forums. If that was a man saying that, he would call me and say that to me. That’s what bothers me. I laugh at that. Because the real truth of that goes back to my statement about fear of success versus fear of failure. I’m not afraid to compete in the Ivy League or of Jeff Tambroni, who’s probably one of the only coaches in the country that has a winning record against me. Jeff’s a friend; he’s a wonderful coach. I’m not afraid of those great, great games between Cornell and Princeton.

People think that I went to Princeton and fell into open arms, like admissions opened the doors for us. What I learned a long time ago is, wherever we go, you take advantage of what’s special about that school. Princeton University is no doubt the finest undergraduate educational institution in the world. The only thing I did there is, I found people who understood that. They also were pretty good lacrosse players, wanting to follow me and my vision for what they could be.

If people think that after 22 years I’m running away from young coaches, that’s absurd. Do they think that they just opened the doors for us there? Do they think if they did that I would have graduated every person that ever came to me in 22 years in Princeton -- on time? Think those guys would have completed a thesis -- an 80- to 100-page book that every student there has to do? Ever think about the sacrifices that some of those guys and their families gave up to turn down full scholarships and pay up to $200,000 over four years? You don’t make that back in your career very quickly. They could have gone to nicer weather, nicer facility, the hype of ACC schools -- whatever it might be. Every one of those guys made me stronger.

If there’s anybody out there thinking I was running away, if they know Bill Tierney, they’ll know that the tougher the situation, the more he’d look forward to it, as opposed to running away from it.

If I was running away from tough situations, I would have never gone to RIT in January with a wife and three kids. I would have never gone to be the head soccer coach at a place where they seldom had a winning season in 50 years. I would never have come to Princeton, which was clearly abysmal in lacrosse. They’re talking about a different guy.

The reasons I’ve come to Denver are all positive reasons. I’m not running away from anything. How can you run away from one of the greatest places on earth to live, one of the greatest schools on earth, being a part of probably 250 young men’s lives and some of the finest people on earth and with them so vehemently through the ups and downs? It’s absurd, and it shows the absurdity of someone who won’t put his name on something.

What was the lynchpin moment for you to make this decision, when you went into “yes” mode?

I came in here in “no” mode. Peg (DU athletic director Peg Bradley-Doppes) said to me, “Just come out. Spend two days with us. And if you walk away and say, ‘No thanks, I’m happy where I’m at and it’s not right for me,’ we’ll just thank you for being here for two days. It’ll give us some insight on who we should hire, some insight on what it’s going to take to get to the next level, and we’ll be kind of thankful for that."

And that was kind of my first thought. “Whoa. They’re not saying, ‘This is the greatest. You’ve got to come here.’ So I said, yeah, I’ll come for two days. It’s a beautiful place, and I could come and see my son Trevor for a couple of days. That’s kind of the way I did it.

Then, everything I went through on my interview here -- the people that I met or the situation -- every time I walked away from it, it said “yes” to me. Rob Grahame, our associate AD, took me out to meet Pat Bowlen, who owns the Denver Broncos. Pat Bowlen didn’t sit there flaunting his money at me or telling me how great he was. Pat Bowlen sat there and said, “Coach, I love lacrosse. And you tell me what you want to have me do to help your program get better.” And I’m like, “Whoa.” That’s unbelievable.

Then coming back here and meeting Todd Rinehart our admissions guy, who said, “Coach, we’re trying to make this a better school. We don’t want you to look at it as a place where you can get anyone you want in. We want you to bring in the type of students you brought to Princeton, and work together on this thing.”

Going out with Peg on her balcony overlooking Barton Stadium, and she’s saying, “Isn’t it a beautiful lacrosse stadium?” By then, I’m starting to think “maybe” on this thing. And I said, “Well, if I come, we’re going to make that stadium obsolete. It’s going to have to be bigger.”

Everything kept coming up. It was the second morning. I was supposed to be here at 9 o’clock, and I get a call at Trevor’s place at about 6:30 saying, “You better hurry up, we’re going someplace at a quarter to 7.” So we get going, and where do they bring me? To the board of trustees. I’m meeting the 40 most powerful people, the chancellor, and they all say to me – this is board of trustees, the people that are deciding on the future of the place, not just some athletic director – that they really want this thing to go. And that’s what got me excited.

On the way home Friday night I said I have to clear this with some very important people. Trevor’s last words he said to me when I got on the plane were, “Do this for yourself. Don’t do this for me.” I got home and it was late. I got in bed, and my wife just said, “Well, whaddya think?” At that moment I said, “Well, I think I’m gonna do this.”

The next morning I called my associate AD Mike Cross, who’s my buddy. I said, “Mike, I need to see ya.” He said, “On a Saturday morning at 8?” “Yeah.” “What’s this all about?” “I need to see ya.” Later on he told me he thought one of my players got in trouble. We met at a coffee shop and it kind of went from there. I talked to my AD that afternoon. I talked to the president the next day.

Everybody was saying the Princeton people must have been in shock. Certainly they were, but so were the Denver people and, most importantly, so was I -- because I wasn’t looking for it, because I wasn’t searching, because I was happy, thrilled to be at Princeton. We had just come off a 13-3 season, a couple goals short of a final four, kids were phenomenal, great team coming back. There was no reason to leave there. When all that came together and I said yes, I knew I meant yes.

What about the money element?

The naysayers should know, and this is the first I’m going to make this public, is I took a cut to come here. All that word out there about me making $2 million and all that stuff is false. I had a very established camp situation at Princeton. I was probably the top-paid lacrosse coach in the country at Princeton. If I wasn’t, I was certainly close. And I probably still am. [Denver] had to dig deep to get me to come to a spot where I was taking a pay cut. Princeton had a situation with its housing. When I got the job at Princeton, they invested in one-third of my house and loaned me another third. I only had to pay for one-third of my house at Princeton. There’s no program like that here.

And so if people think this is for money, they’re out of their minds. Now I am still in business with Tony Seaman and Dave Cottle with Top 205 camps; we’re going to build our camps out here. I’m in business with three young guys who need money. After 30 years of being married, I was finally able to invest in a beach house on the Jersey shore. I’ve still got that to pay for.

Anybody who thinks I did this for money, again, they don’t know me.

This is not about money. In fact, it’s significantly different right now. Hopefully as we build this thing and we’ve started a little company here doing camps and clinics, hopefully we’ll get some of that back. But believe me, it’s not about money. For ease of economics, if I’d have stayed at Princeton, it would have been a lot easier.

Comfortable sharing the details of how much you make here?

Not really, only because of the effect it would have on people here. Certainly I’m paid well, but I’m nowhere near the highest paid coach at this place, not even close. We’ve got big-time hockey; we’ve got big-time basketball. Rightfully so. I’ll prove my worth to them.

One of the nice things that is here that wasn’t at Princeton is a nice, written-in bonus structure. So if I do my job like I hope to do, then I’ll be compensated fairly. That’s the way it should be.

The term?

Five years. I told them the same exact thing I told Bob Myslik back in 1987: Give me a one-year contract. That’s all I want. At Princeton, they laughed at me and gave me three. Here, they laughed at me and gave me five. I think a coach should be judged at the end of every year. Not that a great coach can’t have a bad year. I think if you look at the recent history of lacrosse, you’ll see that Dave Pietramala had a five-loss season last year, God forbid, for a guy who probably will go down as the greatest coach in the history of the game. Dom Starsia had a losing season some years back; John Desko had a losing season some years back. These are the finest coaches in the game. That can happen.

But if there’s a consistency in losing, then the coach should be fired.

How were you able to keep this so well under wraps?

One of the things that happened was, like a lot of jobs, people here called me to help them with their search. There’s a lot of young coaches that put me as a reference on their applications. What I always tell them is, look, I’d be glad to be a reference on your application, but you should also know that Tom, Dick and Harry -- I’m on their resumes as well.

The school usually calls me and says, “Look Bill, we’ve got five guys here we think are great candidates, and they all have your name on this. Can we talk to you about it?”

That’s how it all started. And then eventually Pam Wettig, our associate AD here who was running the search said, “What would it take to get you here?” I started laughing. I said, “Pam, you can’t afford me. It’s just too good for me at Princeton.” Then she said, “Well, what would make you consider it?” I probably gave her the crack she was looking for. It was, “Well, if I ever took another job, it would be out west, because that’s where I want to retire.”

In the next hour Peg called. The boss called. She said, “What’s it gonna take?” The way they ran the normal search the week or so before was they brought three coaches out here, put them all in a hotel, interviewed for two hours, saw each other on campus. I said, “Peg, I cannot do that. I just can’t afford to have people at Princeton think that I’m searching something out, because I’m not.” So she said, “How about we bring you out on your own next week? Come Thursday, Friday, just come visit us.” That’s what we did, and then that weekend was the time. I knew I had to make a decision quickly. And it was hard to do that because I had not much time to think. When you’re leaving something that’s so good, you’re fearful that you’re making a mistake. But I made it. It was under wraps. People here did a good job keeping it under wraps. And to be honest, even my dear friends that knew I was coming out here -- Dave Cottle, Tony Seaman, those guys -- didn't know.

I turned down the Hopkins job three times. I turned down the Virginia job. I turned down the Army job. Those are three pretty prestigious places. I think of the people that know me the best thought, “OK, he’s going to go out there and talk to them a bit, but even if they offer him the job, he’s going to turn it down anyway. He’s turned down these other jobs. Why would he go to Denver, for God’s sake?"

That’s what made it so exciting. That’s what made it good. I knew I didn’t need the job. I think that’s what convinced me so much that it was the right decision.

What were the first things on your to-do list?

Talk to the Princeton kids and the  Princeton community. I had to help Dave Metzbower get that job -- and he turned it down, which is a whole other story.

What happened? [Cornell assistant] Ben Deluca reportedly turned down that job too.

It was different reasons. David was a loyal assistant for 20 years to me. He’s got two young children, commuting over an hour a day, probably put a thousand miles on his car a week and time spent away from them. I think he just felt like, “If you’re gonna leave, I’m gonna leave too. It’s time for me to go and enjoy my family.”

An amazing coach. A loyal guy.

He could have bolted at various points too, right?

Anytime. He’s another guy – got offered the Penn job three times, the Brown job, the Harvard job. All these places could have hired him. That’s why I’ll always cherish David’s friendship and loyalty to me. I knew he would never do it, but I always said to him, if I get going here, you could come with me. When I got the job here, first thing I said to him was, “Look, I wanted you to be the head coach at Princeton. But if you want to come with me, the door’s open.” All that went down very quickly.


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