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Jimmy Johnson and Michael Irvin at the U Miami football

The Bad Boys Of Lacrosse

Connor Wilson takes a look at the possibility of a true team full of bad boys in the lacrosse world. Could it work? Would it help or hurt the sport? And have we seen these types of teams already?

I was watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 the other day, and it was the episode that featured the Miami Hurricanes football team; and if you don’t already know, they were super famous for two big reasons: 1) they won.  A LOT.  2) they were the bad boys of college football.  This team was the talk of the media, and while much of it wasn’t exactly positive, their rise propelled Miami to the top of our national consciousness.  With all the scrutiny that major college athletics, like football (and basketball), are now under, we may never see another major sports program run like this.  But in the less popular sports, lacrosse being one of them, it still seems like a possibility.  So is there a Miami Hurricanes style college lacrosse team out there right now?  And could there be in the future?

Let me start off by saying that right now, there is not a single team that even approaches what the Miami teams were like.  Yes, Virginia is a powerhouse that has had more than its fair share of issues and major problems, but the program didn’t support the behavior, or excuse it, and while winning was the most important thing for the Cavs, it definitely wasn’t the only thing.  During the 2011 season especially, they focused highly on character, kicked guys off the team who didn’t measure up, and elected guys like Bray Malphrus captain.  This was no Miami team.  They won people over in spite of their off field struggles, not because of them.

Jimmy Johnson and Michael Irvin at the U Miami football
Jimmy Johnson and Michael Irvin at the U.

In fact, the closest teams to anything that even remotely resembles Miami in recent college lacrosse are the Syracuse teams in the late 80s and early 90s, and the Morgan State team that was featured in Dr. Miles Harrison’s book, Ten Bears.  The Cuse team is included because they were GREAT on the field, a bit wild off the field, and had to vacate their National Championship in 1990 (although Cuse still recognizes the team as champs) because Roy Simmons Jr’s wife co-signed a car loan for Paul Gait.  But the Syracuse teams back then still had nothing on the Miami program.  And the media sensationalism barely even registered.

Morgan State, on the other hand, was really only similar to Miami on the race issue, at least according to 3o for 30 and Ten Bears.  Well, that and the fact that both Miami and Morgan State played physically, and would be happy to meet you in the parking lot after the game to settle things again, if that needed to be the case.  So while the Ten Bears book definitely paints the Morgan State group as African-American outsiders in a mostly white sport, much like Miami was perceived, it also shows the most stark contrast between the two programs: People began to embrace, and even love, Miami, especially the suburban white kids I grew up with.  But the general population was never as inclusive of Morgan State.

Miami’s rise came years after Morgan State’s lacrosse dominance, and race relations in the country had definitely improved by that time.  Football is also a lot more popular than lacrosse.  And Morgan State only had a couple of “rough” guys, while Miami had a whole team.  And Miami was already a better known school than Morgan State.  But whatever the reason, there was still a major difference between Miami and Morgan State, and that was simply their relative popularity and notoriety in our culture.

So now that lacrosse has launched into a larger piece of the American sports psyche, is the game ready for a team of bad boys to win, win big, and be the swagger kings of yesteryear?  Or is that just not a path to ever be taken?  Is it even feasible?

First off, let me dispell the false notion that a modern day team of bad boys would have to have any African-American players on it.  During Miami’s glory days and Morgan State’s run, those college sports were still seen as white dominated.  And while lacrosse is probably still in that mindset now, I just don’t think it matters that much to younger generations.  People are people.  Anyone can be bad or good, and skin color should have nothing to do with it.  Swagger knows nothing about melanin.  A team full of swaggertastic players would probably be enough in our conservative sport, no matter what its racial make up was like.

And yes, I believe the path can be taken, but it definitely has its risks.  Young players today do a LOT to get recruited to play in college.  There are a ton of players out there, and they are all competing for a still very limited number of roster spots.  Emphasis is placed on athletic ability, skills, lax IQ, size, speed, character, grades, and a bunch of other factors, and not necessarily in that order.  Lacrosse has a reputation as a great sport academically, and often attracts the best true student-athletes.  But there are a lot of lacrosse players out there that don’t meet all these requirements, just most of them.  So could a team of highly skilled and athletic, but supposedly “lower character”, guys dominate the college lacrosse landscape?  Of course they could.  So I guess the question quickly becomes, would someone actually put together a team like this?

A couple of years ago, I might have said no.  No one would do that in lacrosse because the lax world is just too small to amass a bunch of kids who slipped through the cracks due to character issues, and right now big athletes from non-traditional hotbeds are the big thing in recruiting (along with the constant blue chip areas).  But as more and more teams step up their scouting game, these players with all the tools, even in newer areas, get snatched right up.  So how can a new team, or perennial bottom dweller catch up with Dukes, Hopkins, Virginias and Syracuses of the college lacrosse world?  Recruit bad boys, who aren’t getting looks from other schools, and don’t try to reform them.  Just embrace the swagger and move forward.

The first step that would need to be taken by a school that wanted to do this successfully is a coach who commands respect.  There is no line drawn in the sand with this guy, until he draws it.  And it’s constantly moving around.  There are no rules and no consistency.  Just the Coach and the program.  He takes the heat, distributes the glory, and unleashes hell on his opponents at every opportunity.  The players just play.

It's sort of like that Cuse swagger.

Of course the first real step is finding a school that would actually do this.  You can throw the perennial powers right out the window.  They recruit on reputation, tradition and winning, and aren’t going to want to tarnish that.  Forget schools like Michigan, Penn State, Oregon or USC (should they ever add a program) because they don’t NEED lacrosse to draw in students.  They have football, and other sports, for that already.

This approach simply wouldn’t be worth the risk for them.  But for schools like Loyola, UMBC, Towson, Boston University, Cal Poly (should CPoly and BU ever go D1), and a whole bunch of NCAA DII and DIII teams, this is a real possibility.  All of these schools could use a boost from a successful sports team and none of them have such a vaunted reputation that they couldn’t possibly take the risk.  I’m not saying they should do this, just that they could.

Now, if any of these teams did decide to take the risk on a bad boy lacrosse team (and I still think it’s unlikely), they would probably need to do a couple of things first.  The lacrosse team would need to be elevated to the top spot in the Athletic Department.  Mediocre football and basketball teams would need to swallow their pride, in order to make lacrosse KING.  You simply can’t have a truly swaggerific team if they aren’t even top dog at their own school.  Then the school needs a SERIOUS equipment deal.  Bring kids in with 3 helmets, 3 pairs of gloves, a big stadium, nice locker rooms and a special training center/weight room just for them.  Give them more gear than they could ever sell on ebay.  Make it seem like they are the most important people on campus.

People said they attended Miami because of the football team.  People go to Oregon to be a fan of their sports teams.  Michigan, USC, OSU and a host of other schools enjoy the same love.  ADs and University officials will take weird steps to boost their school’s profile.  And I think lacrosse is reaching the point where it is capable of just that.  This is NOT the direction I would ever take as a head coach or athletic director, but I’m being reasonable here, and realizing that not everyone thinks like I do.

Of course it’s not so simple as to just say we are now the bad boys of lax… Transfers would need to be approached, and along with giving players so much free gear, this is another possible snag up point.  How do you get great players to transfer in if you can’t even talk to them?  Craftily, and online, are the answers.  Show off your team’s sweet new gear, do interviews with every media site you can.  Be the kind of coach and program that overlooked players want to play for!  Have a chip on your shoulder, and never hold back.  The kids you want won’t do this, so set the example, and welcome them in with your own swagger.

And then finally, when it came time to play, your team would have to go out there and just BATTLE.  They could give no quarter, would have to run up the score, and dominate in all facets of the game.  The team would have to be physical and comfortable playing man-down.  They would need speed and players hungry for glory and big plays.  And they’d need a couple guys to be real leaders on the field.  They’d need those special players to shine, and do their thing.  And they’d need a coach who would let them.

It would be like the Syracuse of old.  These guys would run you up and down, slash you at every opportunity and beat you into the ground.  After a goal they would talk smack and get in every opponents head.  Warm ups would be filled with hooting and hollering and a mean edge that said we came to fight you.  AND beat you.  This can’t be forced or faked.  And it can’t be adopted.  But as the popularity of lacrosse increases, and more D1 schools add teams, someone will take this approach, and it might even work.

Will it be good for the game?  I honestly don’t know the answer to that.  College football is more popular than ever and I think the show Miami put on has helped that.  The Pistons (NBA), Flyers (NHL), and Raiders (NFL) all boosted their sports’ popularity by being bad boys, so I am pretty sure it would work in lacrosse too.  And then that begs the question; is there really anything about lacrosse that makes you believe this COULDN’T happen?  My mind, for once, is actually blank.

Got a problem with something that was said?  Disagree completely?  Let us know in the comments and we shall discuss it further!

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