College NCAA

Denver & Notre Dame: Why They Are The Future Of Lacrosse

denver-mens-lacrosse-coach-bill-tierney
Coach Tierney, leading the way.

Notre Dame and Denver are two very different schools, with two very different lacrosse programs, yet both are the embodiment of the future of the sport of lacrosse.  These two schools are doing things their way, but have embraced a key characteristic to winning high-level college lacrosse programs, and as a result, they are seeing a ton of success.  What can new programs, or programs that want to make a big leap quickly, do to emulate the success ND and DU have experienced?

The first question any program needs to ask themselves is, “Who are we?”

At Notre Dame, they know exactly who they are already, and they have known that for years: they are Notre Dame.  Academics, moral conduct codes, and athletic achievements are all part of the existing culture.  Kevin Corrigan and the rest of the ND staff have embraced that ethos it seems, and have been able to attract top-notch student-athletes to the program because of it.  Lacrosse benefits from a high number of strong academic recruits, so ND can actually sell their high academic standards and reputation to potential players.  ND is not alone in this regard, but the key for them was realizing what kind of school they were, and then recruiting the athletes that would fit well there.  This is not as easy as it sounds.

If you look down the ND roster, they have kids from ALL over the country, and 16 states are represented.  Typically, the kids are coming from schools with strong lacrosse programs, as well as strong academics.  You won’t see a ton of 6’4″ 245 pound beastmen on their roster, but ND has found a way to make it work, because they have found players who embrace their program ideals.  To me, it seems like ND would rather have a 5″11″ 185 pound longstick with great grades, a strong moral compass, and a motor that runs for days, over a 6’5″ 240 pound defender who might be a stretch academically and has had some behavior issues.  We know this because there are plenty of excellent HUGE players out there, yet ND’s roster isn’t littered with them.  This leads me to believe that they are really focused on character above all else.  Just look at any other top 5 roster for comparison.  There is clearly something different going on at ND.  And it starts at the top.

Denver is a very different kind of school.  It’s not a knock on Denver to say they’re no Notre Dame when it comes to academic reputation, or even reputation overall.  But everything is relative.  I first heard about Denver when a kid I knew went off to school there, but I never thought their lacrosse team would get to where they are now.  Bill Tierney’s arrival in Denver precipitated a change however, and now I can easily see why they are where they are.  He was the difference maker.

denver-mens-lacrosse-coach-bill-tierney

Coach Tierney, leading the way.

There was certainly some talent in Denver before Tierney took over the Pioneers, but the team was never really any good.  At least not consistently.  There were team conduct issues, rumors about players being dissatisfied, and a general feeling of mediocrity surrounded the program.  The program lacked leadership, and it lacked proper support.  When BT took over, all of that changed.

He was able to wipe the slate clean at Denver, and it has worked so far.  There didn’t seem to be a “way” things were done at DU.  But that is not the case anymore.  Their facilities, Denver’s work with Warrior Lacrosse, a new attitude, and other changes have turned this program around, but only because the program is now being managed correctly.  Players who didn’t consistently meet their potential are now scoring when they need to, and even if games are close, for the most part, Denver is winning.  The school seems to be supporting the team more, and they are packing home games to capacity.  For some night games, I’ve even heard rumors that they sell beer!  There is a concerted effort going on here, and it is paying immediate dividends.

Now, not every school in the country has the academics and reputation of Notre Dame.  And every school will not be able to land a Head Coach like Corrigan, or a living lacrosse legend like Bill Tierney.  But that doesn’t mean other schools can’t see success, just like these two have.  And there are ways that smaller, less well-known schools, like Denver, can still succeed.

Marquette brought in Dave Cottle as consultant to help them make the transition to D1, and good players are already transferring there.  I don’t think Cottle is a great final destination coach for any team, but a guy like that can certainly get you rolling in the right direction. And now I’m curious to see how Joe Amplo does as the Head Coach there.  I could see a school like BYU take this approach as well, some day down the road.  In the end though, Marquette needs to set goals, and then allocate realistic resources to get there.  And this starts with their Head Coach.  It always does.  The same would be true at BYU.

A school like High Point is even less well-known when compared to Marquette, or BYU, so they won’t be able to play off their name as much as other schools may be able to do.  So they really need to take the Denver approach.  It’s not that they need a legend of the game (although it would help), what they need is someone who can manage an entire program, like Tierney is doing at Denver, and then the school NEEDS to support that person.  Money, facilities, gear and more are hugely important, but the most important thing is having at least 2 or 3 full-time assistants.  Without a name like Tierney, the school will need numbers to draw in the recruits, and they’ll need these guys to be at it 24-7.  4 full-time coaches would be ideal.  And with more assistants, a head coach really needs to be good at one thing: management.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have schools like CSU, USC, and Florida, and while these schools are not regarded academically quite like some of the others I’ve mentioned above, they do have the athletic traditions, facilities and support to dominate in any sport, should they choose to.  All 3 of the states where they are located are booming with lacrosse activity, and they would definitely be able to pull a lot of in-state kids to their teams because of their strong regional draw.  But they still need someone to manage the program effectively, even if the support from the school is there.  This factor simply can not be overlooked.  It is everywhere.  Desko knows how to manage the Cuse program.  Danowski knows how to run the show at Duke.  The fact that they’re great coaches helps a lot, but their ability to recognize the strengths of their school and program, and then work with those strengths, is what separates them from the pack.

Some are lucky enough to have the combination of academics and athletics already, and now they are just searching for that singular leader to take them to the promised land.

Michigan is a great example of a very strong academic University, which also has great athletics.  They are going to be playing D1 ball next year, and I’ve heard a lot of people from the NCAA side of the fanbase wonder who will be their coach.  To me, they already have their coach, and it’s John Paul.  It is ABUNDANTLY clear that this guy can run a program.  Just look at what he’s done with Michigan’s MCLA team… they are THE team in the MCLA.  They run like a D1 team, fundraise better than any D1 team, get geared out like a Top 10 D1 team, and then in the end, they also win.  A LOT.

If you can recruit kids to Michigan to come play MCLA lacrosse and dominate at that level, you can recruit kids to a D1 school.  That’s just a “duh” statement.  But John Paul’s biggest strength is that he runs the show.  He does it efficiently, with 100% dedication and professionalism.  The guy is smart, he cares about Michigan lacrosse, and he has PROVEN that he can run a team fantastically.  Michigan not hiring John Paul as their first D1 Head Coach would be the definition of looking a gift horse in the mouth.  Then seeing that it had great teeth, and still not accepting it.  It’s that obvious.

In the end, success at the D1 level usually starts in one place: great leadership.  It takes years to recruit good players, build facilities, create support and relationships with and from the administration, and to make a program’s name known on the national stage.  What got teams like Denver (quickly) and Notre Dame there wasn’t having a big name coach or the best academics.  The success was from having a guy at the helm who has looked at the charts, plotted an intelligent course, and was capable of seeing it through to the end.  The most valuable quality of a coach is a strong ability to manage, and somehow, everything else is secondary.

About the author

Connor Wilson

Connor is the Publisher of LacrosseAllStars.com. He lives in Brooklyn with his better half, continues to play and coach both box and field lacrosse in NYC as much as possible, and covers the great game that is lacrosse full-time. He spends his spare time stringing sticks and watching Futurama.

17 Comments

  • The point you make about ND having players from 16 states is extremely important. Both of these schools recruit heavily from emerging areas. They understand the potential talent and raw athleticism that guys outside of the traditional hotbeds possess. Both coaches have the ability to mold these untamed athletes into real laxers, because they know exactly who they are and what they want. I’d argue that JP is this type of coach as well.
    As good as Danowski, Cottle, Desko, etc. are as coaches, they’ve been spoiled by years of easy recruiting. They know that they guys coming to their respective schools (for the most part) grew up in traditional hotbeds, know offensive & defensive schemes, and are fairly familiar with their respective systems. Recruits to the traditional powerhouses from traditional areas are basically plug-and-play guys. While they do grab some recruits from newer areas, they struggle with using them effectively on the offense. Goalies from new areas seem to transition just fine.

  • I don’t know if Denver and ND are the future of lacrosse, but they are certainly KEY to the future of lacrosse because they have proven that you can be successful west of the Mississippi. The addition of Michigan is great, but until more schools with deep pockets in their athletic departments jump into the fray, the landscape will pretty much stay the same. I do think there will be a shift down the road (hopefully not too far down the road) where the traditional lax powers at smaller east coast schools will be overcome by bigger national schools, but it may take a while. Think about college football in its early stages when it was dominated by the Ivy League and the service academies. I think lacrosse will see a similar shift at some point.

  • Ha. Not the point I was trying to make… but that’s my fault for being less than perfectly clear.

    I was just saying they seem to be looking at different kids than a lot of other programs look at. Many of the teams with top notch defenses have some serious size down low, whereas ND doesn’t seem to have the same focus. Definitely NOT saying that heavier players are less intelligent. Clearly, I had a hard time communicating that idea…

  • I think the focus on the size of ND’s players may not support your point. ND has done well with some (slightly) off the radar types of guys in the past, but I don’t think that’s the case now. Their starting D- Ridgeway (6-6, 215), Barnes (6-2, 205), Randall (6-2, 205), LSM- Irving (5-9, 185). Their top 3 scorers- Rogers (6-0, 190), Brenneman (6-3, 215), Earl (6-1, 180).

  • Other than Brenneman and Ridgeway, none of those guys stand out as monsters to me.

    a 6-2 205 defender is not a 6-4 245 defender. 2 inches and 40 LBs makes a difference. Even Ridgeway is pretty skinny. Brenneman = beast. no doubt there, but he’s sort of a non-traditional kid in that he comes from East Hampton, NY. it’s a different part of the island, IMHO, at least lacrosse-wise.

    Beattie, Foley, Pfeifer, Igoe and Hopkins aren’t exactly monsters either. Are there a couple big boys? Sure, it’s D1. But to me, teams like UVA, Duke, UMD, Hopkins not Cuse (they are another exception. ND isn’t the only one!) are just a little bigger on average. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, and maybe I’m seeing something that isn’t there… I just couldn’t escape it. I like the discussion though… maybe I’m wrong about that.

  • It would be interesting to look at the average heights/weights for D1 teams to see if there were any revelations. I think the nature of the sport allows for quite a range of size for players. For every Ranagan there is a Palmer, Brenneman/Beattie, Turri/J. Wolf, etc. I completely agree that ND was successful because of their ability to develop “system” guys and get the right kind of kids for their program.

  • Connor, Cottle was hired in a consultant type of role. They hired Joe Amplo from Hofstra a few months ago as their head coach.

  • Your opinion on ND is far too high, particularly with the school’s supposed regard for ‘moral conduct codes’. The lacrosse team may not be having any issues, but the football program has dragged down that entire university. Just hope that the football ‘culture’ – the deaths of 2 people and apparently nobody is responsible for either of them – doesn’t spread to other sports.

    Your opinion on DU before Tierney is far too low. Yes, they had some issues and it lead to Munro’s dismissal, but I don’t know where this impression of supposed mediocrity comes from. Not only that, they’ve only been D1 since 1999. The strides were being made, regardless. It appears as though they’ll get ‘there’ much faster under Tierney, but it is not Tierney alone that they are where they are right now.

  • I have said similar things about ND football in the past. Couldn’t agree more. I still think ND benefits GREATLY from their REPUTATION. note: reputation and fact are not always one and the same.
    I also think ND laxers go to ND for the lax now, as well as the ND tradition. I’m not too worried about ND Lacrosse though… why? Kevin Corrigan.

    Regarding Denver…
    Strides were being made. no doubt there. I remember when they added D1 lax ( I was a SR in HS) and it was a huge deal.
    But to the point about their “mediocrity”…
    in 2010 they were rated 21 out of 60 (according to laxpower) with Tierney at the helm. His first year with the team. this year they are #7 (right now).
    in 2009, #30 out of 59 under Munro.
    In 2008, they were 21 out of 57 teams.
    in 2007, they were #30 out of 56.
    in 2006, they were #15 out of 57.
    In 2005, they #14 out of 57.

    All of these seasons are over 5 years removed from starting their team.

    When I think about D1 lacrosse, I usually see 10-15 top teams, then 20-30 more who are definitely behind them. Then I see a bottom with 10- 30 teams, and it all depends on year.

    They got into that top bracket (BARELY!) once or twice and for the most part were in that middle section… so to me, they were mediocre. They weren’t bad, they weren’t good. They were right in the middle. Maybe I should have used the term “middling” but the point stands.

    I don’t mean they played mediocre lax… I just mean that in a small division, they were not near the top, and now they are. And it happened very quickly, and with mostly the same players.

  • agreed 100%. And that’s basically the point I’m making. Sure, they have some monsters… but they’re going after the right guys, no matter what their size is… and it’s working for them. Size doesn’t seem to be their #1 focus…

  • I think I cleared up what I was trying to say there better… thanks for bringing that confusion to my attention, Sean! Much appreciated.

  • Fair points, and in the end, I do agree with them.

    They obviously didn’t compete well with the elites, and I tend to think the number is more like 5-10 of them, rather than 10-15. But then, I also think the perception is that if you’re not an elite in D1 lacrosse, you’re mediocre. Perhaps there’s not enough programs quite yet to get a real feel of a middle ground?

    It’s too bad we didn’t get the chance to see what the program would be like with all the Canadian guys that Munro booted or chased off before his own canning. Before all that went down, it seemed like they were moving back in the right direction.

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