LM in Happy Valley: Jeff Tambroni Q&A
by Corey McLaughlin | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff
Lacrosse Magazine went behind the scenes of a
transition in Happy Valley, where new
Penn State men's lacrosse coach Jeff Tambroni talked about why he
left Cornell and what he thinks needs to be done to put the Nittany
Lions in contention for a national championship.
When Glenn Thiel retired, was coming here something that
you had in mind?
"I was extremely happy at Cornell, I never pursued any opportunities during my tenure at Cornell. When it opened up, it was not something I had envisioned or imagined, me sitting here in the Penn State lacrosse office.
But Mr. Curley (Penn State athletic director Tim Curley) had contacted me right after the final four, and then I spoke with him probably a day or two after the final four ended. He gave me a lot to think about, in terms of the opportunities here at Penn State. But at the end of the day, we (Tambroni and his wife, Michelle) felt this was probably going to be not for us. We ended up deciding to stay at Cornell through the first portion of that process.
But when we made the decision to stay at Cornell, there was a part of us, both my wife and myself, that thought maybe we had missed out on an opportunity for change. They called back, gosh, about four days later. They had offered the job to somebody else. [Brown coach] Lars Tiffany turned it down. At that point, we had thought about the opportunity to move. It was very difficult to think of myself wearing a different color or being in a different location coaching a different group of kids and representing a different lacrosse program. But the challenge and the opportunity were far too great to pass up. We decided to take the chance."
You mentioned your wife. She went to Penn State and played field hockey. Was that connection a big part of your decision?
"I've had that question a lot. I never realized it would create that much commotion in the sport of lacrosse. There were so many factors that went into the decision. It wasn't because people thought maybe there was something going on at Cornell. It wasn't just about the lacrosse program here at Penn State. There were so many factors that went into it.
My wife, having gone to Penn State, having her affiliation at Penn State and loyalty and passion for Penn State, was part of it. She loved it here. She has a chance to be part of the field hockey program. She's going to help with part of the booster program, as a start. She may eventually go into coaching, but certainly that wasn't the end all of why we came down here. It was a portion of the decision. She loved Ithaca and loved Cornell. At the end of the day, either way we would have gone, she would have been happy and it would have been a good decision. That was so much on the side-burner of this decision. That's a bonus to coming down here."
So what was the reason for you?
"Obviously, we're in the business of winning. At the end of the day, it's much more enjoyable to win. But the journey going through Cornell over the last 10 years was one of the most rewarding experiences I had ever had. It wasn't because we had won any particular game. It was because we went through the experience and the journey with a group of young men, the parents, the alumni, the administrators. They made it an enjoyable journey for all of us. We endured some of the lowest of lows -- through some tragedies, through some defeats -- and the highest of highs -- through some victories and some wonderful experiences. That portion of it, to me, is what coaching is all about.
This presented an opportunity, not necessarily in the near future, but the opportunity to create and build from the start. This is no disrespect to Coach Thiel or anybody that played or coached here before. He did a wonderful job of building a foundation. We thought that if we could come down here and inject a little enthusiasm and energy -- and a little focus in terms of the vision of Penn State lacrosse over the next 10 years -- the same thing could happen here with the type of alumni base and support that the administration was going to provide for us. We thought that was an exciting challenge for us, as a family and for me professionally. The timing with my kids, being ages 6 and 3 at the time, just seemed right for me. It's been an uncomfortable change in some regard, but that's what I was looking for, the opportunity to build something back up and an opportunity to change and create."
What did you want to know from the administration at Penn State before you decided to take the job?
"You get a good feeling from the athletic director. I came down and met with Dr. Spanier (university president Graham Spanier) and Tim Curley. Both those guys gave me a great feel for their passion and support of Penn State and Penn State athletics. I was concerned at first about Penn State being very low on the totem pole or not of the totem pole at all in terms of lacrosse -- [concerned] that was going to create a very large hurdle that we may not be able to overcome regardless of how hard we work, or how passionate we are. After my first meeting, you get a genuine sense from Mr. Tim Curley about how committed he is to Penn State athletics, to all his coaches and to Penn state lacrosse in the future. That made us feel good.
I didn't want to come down here and be swallowed up into Penn State athletics, knowing that football was always going to be at the forefront. But there are also some other sports here that have won on a regular basis that would bump lacrosse down to a notch that would be unheard of over the next 10 years. That's not what I wanted to do.
I promised myself that I would go to an institution that cares about academics, but also cares about lacrosse. I think this is a developing area for lacrosse, but I can see lacrosse growing at the youth level and into State College High School. If we do things the right way here, create a brand that people can respect and be more active and support, people will come out and it will become more mainstream here in State College. If we can do that, the administration will support us like they did on the way in. That was important.
It had nothing to do with money. Cornell was generous in their offer; they always have been. It was a gut feeling of change at this point in my life and, at this point in my coaching career, as an opportunity more than financially to provide for my family."
What's your timeline for success here?
"Our timeline is not a year from now or three years from now that we're going to be bringing a national championship back to Penn State. That would be an extremely rewarding experience, but that's not our goal to come here. We can realize our goal on a daily basis, and I talk a lot to our guys about this. If we do the best job that we can for Penn State lacrosse, the community and each other, that goal will be realized on that day.
My goal coming down here was not to win a national championship. It was to develop and be part of a program that I thought could establish itself in the mainstream of college lacrosse. I do believe that there is no ceiling. With Penn State athletics and the university with the alumni support, this program can be as good as any in the country on the field.
Off the field, you have the opportunity to be a part of one of the greatest traditions in sport, and one of the greatest alumni networks available. I am hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to put Penn State in the conversation as one of the more competitive programs year in and year out. I think it's going to take a long time to build a successful tradition. But we have tradition. We've played lacrosse at Penn State for almost 100 years, but we're not in that mainstream conversation about the greatest programs or the best teams to have ever competed and played.
We'd like to take the step and put ourselves in the conversation to be competitive year in and year out. But I believe in my heart, with the backing of Penn State and our alumni, that kids will come to Penn State because it's such a wonderful opportunity both athletically and academically. If we can get the right kinds of kids to come here, we will eventually change the face of lacrosse in regards to another team being considered or vying during semifinal weekend. That's the ultimate goal, but not just to get there. We want to establish ourselves as a team that will compete at that level year in and year out, and concerns itself more about how we got there, the way we went about it versus just walking away with a piece of hardware or a national championship. That would be a really shallow goal, and clearly not why I left Cornell."
What do you want to change at Penn State?
"I don't want to disrespect Coach Thiel. He is an icon in college lacrosse to a certain degree. His father coached here, and did wonderful job. I want to build off it. It's not like we need to change everything.
The other side of it, when I talk to players, administration and people in town, they talked about the culture of this program. We want to make this thing a more rewarding experience for these guys. In order to do that, they need to see more of what they're trying to achieve. They're talking about setting goals. Every year they come back and talk about establishing a program that's going to be competitive in the CAA, make the playoffs, be a team that's going to compete deep in the playoffs. And then I looked at what they were willing to sacrifice throughout the course of the year and looked at their priorities. I asked them to kind of list both, and they didn't match up. We need to bring a little more perspective to the goals that they've been setting, to the vision that they have, from the start of the year to the end, and rearrange their priorities a little bit more.
There's so much to do here at Penn State, so many experiences that they can takes advantage of athletically with Big Ten sports. Socially, there's so much to do every week with concerts in Bryce Jordan Center, and in a community that shares State College with 40,000 other students. When kids came here, they weren't willing to prioritize everything they wanted to do or needed to do to equate to the goals and visions that they set out. This is certainly a place where you can have a lot of fun and enjoy it, but these kids need to understand at this point it's going to take a little more discipline and commitment going into their weight room, to the field, to practices. Not so much enjoying the football weekends, which they can, 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.
So I don't have any notion that we're going to magically change all the Xs and Os and have this formula on the field for something that's never been done before. We believe that we're going to be a disciplined team that prides itself on the fundamentals of the game, and rearrange our priorities more so that our goals will be at the same level as our daily investment in one other."
What's been the reaction from Cornell?
"When that move was announced it was tough on our family, and probably on everybody. But Coach [Ben] DeLuca is extremely capable there at Cornell. It's just change. It's always been difficult to go through a change at any level, especially when things are going well. The reaction has been pretty good. Slowly, I get e-mails or texts each week from parents, players or alumni that say, "'Hey, I know I haven't reached out,' but they want to say thanks and good luck."
Is this a place you want to be at forever, like Joe Paterno?
"I don't know if I'll be Joe Paterno (laughs). But that's the plan.
That question is a slippery slope. When people ask me about Cornell, I honestly thought I was going to be there forever and could have been there forever and been very happy. The administration was good with my wife and I kids. We loved Ithaca; the tradition is as good as any. We thought we were going to be there forever.
The plan -- now that I'm 40 years old with just moving three kids ages 8, 6, and 3 into State College -- is that this is going to be the last stop college coaching. Can I guarantee that? No. But I can't imagine at this point, having just moved and just starting this thing, that we're ever going to be anywhere else than State College. I hope Penn State is the last stop of my coaching career and, if that's the case, it means we'll have had a pretty successful career."
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