Tambroni Hopes to Change Perception of Penn State Lacrosse
"The one perception I'd really like to change about Penn State is 'underachievers,'" says new Nittany Lions men's lacrosse coach Jeff Tambroni, who left Cornell for Happy Valley.
© Kevin P. Tucker
There may be roughly 40,000 students who attend Penn State's main campus in State College, Pa., but on a late Sunday night in early September, a rare few — maybe three — pass by during a two-and-a-half-hour long Nittany Lions men's lacrosse practice.
It's the perfect opportunity for tunnel vision. Not that Penn State's players need much help focusing, anyway. New coach Jeff Tambroni sets the tone.
"We have a lot to learn!" Tambroni screams in a hoarse voice about two hours into practice from a catcher's stance on the sideline, to a few players flipping reversible white and navy blue Nike pennies after a drill. "Don't waste time changing!"
"They've been extremely receptive," Tambroni would say about the team later.
This is the first fall-ball season and the start of the second week of practice under Tambroni. His decision this summer to leave Cornell — and three final four appearances in the last four seasons — for Happy Valley was arguably the biggest news of the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse offseason.
Penn State's players realize it.
"We didn't choose him. He chose us," sophomore attackman Billy Gribbin would say after practice, which ended around 10:30 p.m. "We have one of the best opportunities in front of us. We feel really special as a team to play under him, take his lead and go with it."
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"Play faster! We gotta be able to play faster!" Tambroni, wearing a white and blue Nittany Lion logo hat, gray sweatshirt and black wind pants, yells during an offense-defense half-field drill.
To a casual observer, it appears as if these Lions are playing quick, scrapping for ground balls and firing crisp passes. But evidently that's not the case.
"Sprint in, sprint out!" are the directions to the rotating groups of players in the pennies.
"Having that voice and our coaching staff out there teaching us..." says attackman Matt Mackrides, the leading scorer last season. "It gets you pumped up and it makes you want to come in every day and play hard."
And don't forget to communicate, too.
"Here's the problem," assistant coach Peter Toner, an assistant at Bryant the last three seasons, says while working on slides with the defense. "Nobody's saying a damn word out here."
But make sure you say the right things. Tambroni hears too many Ric Flair-like "Woos" for his liking after apparent good plays during one drill.
"I've heard 'Woo!' about 10 times," he says. "That is not in our repertoire."
So what is in the plan? Tambroni sums up his general philosophy like this:
"The ultimate compliment for any team is that you can achieve at the potential that you think you can, or achieve more than the outside world believes you can," he said during an interview in his new, relatively undecorated office on campus.
"The one perception I'd really like to change about Penn State is 'underachievers,'" Tambroni says. "If we can reach our potential for this program each year, regardless of the end result — winning a national championship, making the playoffs, winning a CAA championship — we'll feel good about our efforts. When people look at Penn State, I want them to look at a team that meets or exceeds their potential. Then I'll know we're doing our job — that the players are giving everything they can for each other."
Penn State practices after dusk under the lights of Bigler Field in State College, Pa. "He gets you pumped up to clean the locker room," senior defenseman Matt Bernier says of Tambroni. "He wants to build Penn State lacrosse into something that we all came here believing it can be."
© Kevin P. Tucker
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Tambroni says to expect to see a hard working, disciplined, relatively basic offensive and defensive team that he typically had at Cornell, where he took over as a rookie 30-year-old college head coach 10 seasons ago.
Cornell had such unparalleled success under his watch that many in the lacrosse community were stunned when Tambroni, a native central New Yorker, left Ithaca to become the Penn State head coach.
Why do it?
For those that say money, Tambroni says, "It had nothing to do with money," and that he's being paid fair relative to the sport of lacrosse as part of his five-year contract. It's not $1 million, though, as per one rumor he heard.
"We have to do our job here to earn anything, but they've been very good to us at this point," he says.
More than anything, the 40-year-old says he was swooned to State College by the challenge, not necessarily on the field, though there is something to overcome there as well. The Lions went 2-11 in former coach Glenn Thiel's final season.
Tambroni was more tempted by what the opportunity meant in the larger scope of the sport.
Penn State has long been called a sleeping giant of the Division I men's ranks, seemingly with all the resources — facilities, central location to recruiting hotbeds, good academic, athletic and social reputations to attract players — at its fingertips to be a national title contender, but for some reason isn't.
If Penn State winning a national championship under Tambroni changes that reputation, so be it. But he isn't ready to put a timetable on that and said, most importantly, he wants to enjoy the building process along the way with players, parents and alumni, much like he did for the most part at Cornell.
That's why he first turned down the Penn State job when it was offered shortly after the final four. He couldn't picture himself in "a different color, coaching a different group of kids in a different location." He says he didn't give leaving much thought.
A search committee looked at other candidates to replace Thiel, who retired after 33 seasons. A few current Penn State players met in State College with former Maryland coach Dave Cottle, and the job was offered to former Lions assistant and current Brown coach Lars Tiffany, who wrestled with the decision but ultimately turned an offer down.
It was then that Penn State athletic director Tim Curley returned to Tambroni, which turned out to be a good decision. Tambroni said he and his wife, who have three young children, were in a much better mindset to make a move then, having turned the job down and reflected on what they now thought was a missed chance for change.
Tambroni was intrigued by the opportunity to build at Penn State, with the promised backing of an athletic department that's overseen national success in football and several other sports (women's volleyball, for one). If everything works out, Tambroni says Penn State will be the final stop of his college coaching career.
"My goal coming down here was to develop and be part of a program that I thought could establish itself in the mainstream of college lacrosse," he says. "I do believe that there is no ceiling."
Tambroni also talks about what he knows many others are: that his wife, Michelle, is a Penn State graduate and former Lions' field hockey star. And how much did that play into the decision? Tambroni says she will be involved in the field hockey booster club, and maybe eventually coach.
"I never realized it would create that much commotion in the sport of lacrosse," he says. "That wasn't the end-all of why we came down here. That's a bonus. It was a portion of the decision. She loved Ithaca and loved Cornell. Either way we would have gone she would have been happy and it would have been a good decision."
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On the field, Tambroni doesn't know exactly what to expect right away.
Junior attackman Matt Mackrides, granted a temporary release from the university after the 2010 season to explore transfer options, decided to return after Tambroni was hired.
© Mark Selders
Senior Matt Bernier, a team leader and probably the Lions best defenseman, sat out fall ball while recovering from an ACL injury suffered in the penultimate game of 2010.
Attackman Jack Forster, potentially the team's best offensive player, has battled various knee injuries during his career and is recovering from a torn meniscus suffered last May. He was to be cleared for running for at least part of fall ball.
Tyler Travis, a projected starting defenseman as a freshman who suffered a season-ending knee injury prior to the start of the 2010 season, also remains sidelined in the fall.
"I've never seen a team so injured on the first day we come in," Tambroni says.
But still, the greater challenges might come off the field — changing players' routines (the Sunday night practice a rarity among many 6 a.m. practices) and the larger task of changing the culture.
"This place is a double-edged sword," Tambroni says of Penn State. "There's so much to do here, so much fun, football weekends, the downtown area, entertainment at the Bryce Jordan Center. You can do so much and that attracts a lot of people to come here. But if you get those people who are so excited about all that stuff, and not as excited about their academics and athletics, then you're not going to reach your potential."
"These kids need to understand at this point it's going to take a little more discipline and commitment going into the weight room, to the field, to practices," he says. "They can enjoy football weekends, but not at the expense of our program. Take more pride in developing our program so that people will want to come out and watch us compete and play, like they do all other sports here at Penn State."
Of the athletic part of it, Mackrides says, "We're excited. That's about it. We're ready to go."
Mackrides was granted a temporary release from the university after the 2010 season and was exploring transfer options. He decided to return after speaking with Tambroni on the phone shortly after his hiring.
"He gets you pumped up to clean the locker room," Bernier says of Tambroni. "He wants to build Penn State lacrosse into something that we all came here believing it can be."
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At the end of that night practice and after a ball hunt around Bigler Field, Tambroni is neutral in addressing the progress of the team as it gathers in a huddle. But he does say the next few weeks will be big for the future of the program, with several recruits coming in, and that the players have done well handling recruiting visits so far.
In the immediate future, he suggests to players that they use the film room facilities if they have time between classes during the week. After the huddle breaks, a few tell Tambroni their schedule and when they will stop by the lacrosse offices.
"Text that to me," Tambroni tells them.
The schedule is fluid, but the goal is clear. Where do the Lions go from here?