December 7, 2009

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Bill Tierney, Then and Now: His Legacy

by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

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

Part One: His Roots
Part Two: Method to His Madness
Part Three: The Princeton Years
Part Four: Behind the Decision
Part Five: His Legacy

© 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 mailed to US Lacrosse members last week.

In part five, Tierney talks about turning the tide at Denver and his vision for lacrosse in the West.

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How has this experience changed you?

Everybody talks about, why did I come here? But for [Denver] to take a chance on a 58-year-old guy, what do they know? I might just be on the downswing. I might just be looking for a place to retire, as my friends on LaxPower have said. I’m not, but what do they know? They’ve taken much more of a chance than I am. I’m at a place that’s only 11 years into Division I. The whole place is new. You’ve got the support of people like Laura Barton, building this kind of stadium. It’s been really amazing and really overwhelming now that I’m here. The happiness I experience every day to come into this office and work with these three guys (assistants Matt Brown, Trevor Tierney and Kevin Unterstein) is amazing. I’ve been very blessed over the years to work with very loyal guys. David Metzbower commuted over an hour each way every day, that’s crazy!

That’s been the main thing for me here so far. Usually when you hire a new head coach, it’s someone younger. Here I come in, and I’ve got all these ways I do things. I’m hoping that I’m not upsetting any apple carts or doing too many things the wrong way, because I just want to fit in. I want to mold our team to be like our hockey team, which has won two national championships the last five years. I want us to fit right in. One of the reasons I moved our offices back [into the Ritchie Center, from Barton Stadium] is because I want our promotions people, our sports information people to feel like they’re totally engulfed in the whole athletic program. I’ve learned over the years that isolating yourself in one sport is not good. You don’t benefit from it. It’s like they always say when we do community service things. You think you’re going to help underprivileged kids, but you get more out of it than they do. That’s how I feel here. I just hope they feel it was worth the investment to have me come in and help get this thing on track.

What about here at Denver, your to-do list here? You inherited discipline problems, with three players that were dismissed from the team last year and others who fell out of favor. Did you address those individually?

We’ve addressed each one differently, and we’ve adjudicated them all in different ways. Interestingly enough, some took care of themselves. Jamie Lincoln is playing for my nephew at Hofstra now. Couple other guys graduated; a couple left on their own. There are a few right now that are on a contract here. They’re not playing in the fall. Their behavior, their academics, basically every breath they take is up to my judgment on whether they’re still on this team. They’ve got to raise their cumulative averages by a half a point. They’ve got to stay out of any kind of trouble. They basically are lacrosse monks. They’ve got to be academic, behaved lacrosse guys. And so far so good, on all three of them.

We have eight kids that quit the team at the end of the year, and after investigating that, we called each and every one of them back and invited them back onto the team. Because honestly, as I said to them, I’m not proud of this fact, but I might have quit too, with all the stuff that was going down.

Dillon Roy, who’s now our only captain, quit. He was investigating going somewhere else. He had one year left, and the thing had just fallen apart. It wasn’t Jamie Munro’s fault. He did everything he could to keep it together. He was such a great guy, did such a great job here. But sometimes, new management is needed.

The thing that’s helped me here is the kids were looking for the two things I said that I would come with -- communication and consistency. They would know what I wanted. It would be written out to them, stated to them; they would be treated fairly. And if there’s something wrong, I would take care of it right away.

I think they’ve been flushed of controversy. It’s a baptism, a cleansing of, “OK, we can be lacrosse players again.” For 18- to 22-year-olds, that’s all they want to be. They want to be kids. They should be kids. They want to get their degree, they want to go to a great school, but they just want to have fun a little bit. They want to play lacrosse.

And I think their fear when I was named was that this tyrant was coming in. This perception of me is so amazingly tough. I think some of them were fearful of that. What’s going to come in? Are we just going to run? Is this guy going to beat us down? Be cruel to us?

But it’s been the opposite. I’ve always said to my teams: you can create who I am. I’m just a part of this. You’re a team. You’re 44 guys. You create who we are as coaches. If you want to work hard -- if you want to be taught, driven and shown how to reach the highest levels -- we can do all that. If you want to be treated like babies and punished and treated badly, you can create that too. But if you want to be treated like men, then behave like men, and that’s what these guys have done so far. I’m so proud of them.

Who knows what happens if we don’t have a great year? Maybe some will say this wasn’t a good idea. But so far, so good.

The last part of this equation is the growth of the sport, specifically in the West. What was your perception of lacrosse in the West? Can you elaborate on what your vision is?

My perception came from different things. I look at what some of the guys have done out here, the Scott Hochstadts of the world that are taking these club programs in California and doing amazing things, to my experience recruiting a kid like Alex Capretta who came to Princeton last year, a California guy. I’ve had a ton of Colorado kids. My son has been here since 2001 telling me, “I’ll never come back.”

My vision of western lacrosse is it’s growing. Unfortunately right now we’re fighting something that’s bigger than me and anybody else, and that’s the issue of Title IX and finances of the growth of Division I men’s lacrosse. I’m hopeful to help this groundswell of youth lacrosse and high school lacrosse, and helping those parents and high school coaches continue to do what they do. If we can be of aid in that, we will be. We're doing some stuff out here, expanding our programs out here, bringing some of those teams back east to show them that we can be good out here, recruiting eastern kids to come west, all that stuff.

It probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but my real goal is to get those teams and this thing to a big-time Division I level. What we’ve learned in our sport, unfortunately, is every time you take a step towards big time, it creates more problems. A long time ago, not that I’m a prophet or a soothsayer in any way, I started to sense this club thing and I said, you’ve got to be careful. Let’s not let this thing get out of hand with the club programs and people making mega bucks taking advantage of kids playing this wonderful sport. It’s happened. Some for the good, because a lot of these kids come up being better lacrosse players, but some for the bad.

I think some of what we show on TV for lacrosse right now is not good for the sport. Watching some of the guys that people look up to in lacrosse right now that are taking shortcuts, and their antics. The fighting in indoor lacrosse; the trick shot stuff; that kind of stuff, to me, isn’t helping.

But the growth out West started with kind of an X Games mentality. Isn’t this cool? I think we can mold those two things. We can keep it cool; we can keep it current; we can keep it young. I give a lot of credit to the manufacturers -- the David Morrows of the world who have been at the forefront of this thing, who made it a cool thing and who bring the pro games to life. But with all that stuff, the oldtimers don’t like it. Well too bad, it’s moving forward.

Recruiting is a whole other issue of your magazine. It’s not nice. It’s gone from a gentleman’s game to a backstabbing, who-can-beat-whom-to-what-punch and not liking it if they do. We’re all friends. Even in light of losing a game to a coach, no one can look at that coach and say, “Oh, what a jerk.” You lose a recruit, you go, “Whoa, what did you do to me?”

So with the growth comes some problems. My dream out west here is for people to never have to write another article against saying the Person of the Year is the Person of the Year because he came out west.

What about this Person of the Year thing? I relate it to President Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize. What’s he done? I haven’t done anything. I just moved from one wonderful place to another wonderful place. I’m not a big politics guy, but it was interesting to see the Russian president saying to Obama, “OK, you got this award. Now it’s a call to you to make it true in the next few years.” And I feel that call. This thing you guys are doing is such an honor to me. I don’t feel it’s deserved; I’m uncomfortable with it. But it’s a call to me and other people. (New Colorado College coach and former Penn State assistant) Guy van Arsdale, what about him? He’s taking a much bigger sacrifice than I am. He’s coming from a big-time Division I program to a little Division III program.

I don’t put all the weight on my shoulders, but if this thing is going to raise an awareness, I’ll wake up every morning knowing that. My first job is my famil. My second job is my DU job. I’ve got to make this thing better. Then down the road, not much further, is, well, if you’re saying growing the sport in the West is a part of it, then you better get something done with it. And already we’re doing some free clinics for the youth coaches. We’re going to do one for the high school coaches. I’m speaking at the California convention.

Does lacrosse in the West start in Denver?

Western lacrosse starts in Pittsburgh. That’s where it starts. My daughter just became the head women’s lacrosse coach at Lebanon Valley. That’s still considered the East. But you go to Pittsburgh, you’re in the West.

Lacrosse people think you’re surfing in the Pacific when you’re in Denver. One of my best friends from Long Island is Buddy Krumenacker, the head football coach and assistant lacrosse coach at Farmingdale High School. His son John was great player at Hopkins who passed away seven years ago. He introduced me to one of his big football players who just signed with a college. "I got a scholarship to play Division I football," he said. I said, "Where?" He said Iowa State. I said, "Awesome. Where else were you recruited?" Penn State, all the big schools at that time 20 years ago had recruited him. I said, "What made you choose Iowa State?" He said, "I always wanted to go to school on the West Coast."

Buddy brings out a map and says, "John, this is where you’re going." Funny, but I think of that anytime somebody says western lacrosse.

We joined the ECAC. The East Coast Athletic Conference. Talk about an oxymoron. But that’s going to mean two more of those eastern schools each year is going to come out to Denver. We’re going to play Loyola at Invesco Field.

Mac Freeman, Pat Bowlen’s right-hand man at Invesco, played at Hampden-Sydney for Ray Rostan. It all comes full circle.


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