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 Notre Dame 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 Notre Dame can actually sell their high academic standards and reputation to potential players. Notre Dame 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 Notre Dame 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 Notre Dame has found a way to make it work, because they have found players who embrace their program ideals. To me, it seems like Notre Dame 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 Notre Dame’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 Notre Dame. 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.
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.