September 21, 2009

Ivy, Uprooted: Q&A with Harvard's John Tillman

by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

With Bill Tierney's blockbuster departure from Princeton, three new head coaches, a first-ever postseason conference tournament and top-to-bottom parity, the Ivy League has stolen back some of its thunder from the new Big East and resurfaced as a must-watch entity in 2010.

Lacrosse Magazine's Matt DaSilva examines the impact of this tumultuous offseason in the publication's September issue. Check back this week for the full interviews with Ivy League coaches and top players, including this one with John Tillman, head coach of the Harvard men's lacrosse team which some are anointing as the league's next big thing.

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What do you make of the tumult this offseason in the Ivy League?

After a breakout 2009 season, John Tillman's Harvard men's lacrosse team will be at the forefront of a revamped Ivy League in 2010.

I think it’s interesting in a lot of ways, because there’s been so much turnover. But I think one thing that’s pretty clear is that each school has a great coaching staffs and a young head coach that’s pretty energetic and hardworking. In that regard, you know that everybody’s going to be getting after it pretty hard – you know that everybody in the league is good and every team has talent. It’s definitely a dogfight week in and week out – everybody realizes that. You look at the big picture of your year and you look at the schedule. You want to make sure you get some marquee names on there for strength of schedule and recruiting.

In your own league, you’ve got to be careful. Everybody’s good; everybody’s dangerous. Brown beat Cornell. Penn only won two games, but they beat Brown. You look at parity. It just doesn’t matter who you’re up against. Everybody’s well-scouted.

You have to be optimistic now that Princeton no longer has Bill Tierney at the helm, right?

Give Coach Tierney and his staff its due. Coach Tierney is arguably one of the best coaches ever. He deserves a ton of credit for what he’s turned Princeton into. Give him credit for what he’s done not only for Princeton, but for the league and lacrosse. When you played Princeton, you knew they’d be well-prepared, organized, disciplined and they would play great defense. You knew you had to play your best game. There was certainly an aura about Princeton when Coach T was there. But I don’t feel like any of us feel now that he’s not there that they’re going to be an easy team to beat. That would be foolish.

Still, if there was ever a time for a new Ivy League team to take the mantle, this is it, right? Is this Harvard’s year?

You want to hope that there is an opportunity for some other teams to step up and do it. Until that happens, though, you’ve got to keep working hard to put yourself in that position. Here at Harvard, we’ve got to continue to work hard to get ourselves in that very top tier. In two years, we feel we’ve made progress, but if we don’t come ready this year, you could see yourself dropping right back.

What was it like being on the recruiting circuit with all the changes afoot?

With a new conference tournament, who will win the 2010 Ivy League title?

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We felt like you could have done a reality show this summer with all the changes. OK, we hear Coach Tierney’s looking at the job. Oh, we heard he took it. OK, who are they interviewing now? What happens next? People joke about what coaches talk about when we’re at all the recruiting events as we sit there, and it’s pretty comical. You’re there for 10 hours just watching kids and there are some pretty funny comments that come out. You hear everything from when guys are interviewing, to “I heard he turned that down.” That was the biggest thing, when we heard that  [longtime Princeton assistant] Dave Metzbower turned it down and then [Cornell associate head coach] Ben Deluca turned it down. You’re wondering why. Do they know something we don’t?

What was your gut reaction to the Tierney news?

I didn’t believe it. I guess a part of me still doesn’t believe it. I heard rumors he was out there and he had interviews. Somebody called me and said they thought he’d take the job. I didn’t believe it. When you think of Princeton lacrosse, you think of Bill Tierney. He was such an iconic figure at that school. I feel the same way of Dave Pietramala at Johns Hopkins… I was shocked.

Three Ivy League teams -- Dartmouth (Andy Towers), Penn (Mike Murphy) and Princeton (Chris Bates) -- have new head coaches. What do you expect from them?

Andy’s unique in that he’s been there (as an assistant). He’s a guy that had a lot of responsibility with that team. I don’t think that team will change a whole lot, especially on the offensive end. Defensively, they’ll be different. With Jon Torpey as defensive coordinator, they will play a much different style defense. Andy runs their offense. He’ll throw a few wrinkles, but it won’t be too different.

Penn will be a little bit different. I haven’t seen Coach Murphy’s teams play. I’m going to have to get a feel for what they’re doing. They’ll play good defense. Conor Ford is gone, so you’d think they’d be different on offense. [Brian] Andrewjewski has been one of the best players in our league the last couple of years. Without him, they’ll be different.

Princeton defensively probably won’t change too much. Greg Raymond has been there, so he’ll probably take a lot of things he did before and follow even some of the same calls systems.  Offensively, that will be interesting to see. I know at Drexel, Bates had done different things. They had some Canadian players. They may employ a different style offensively.

It is weird, though, with so much turnover. Even David Evans has left Brown and he was their offensive coordinator. They could be different from last year.

Harvard beat Duke and had its first winning season in five years, but consecutive one-goal losses to Cornell, Princeton and Brown mitigated what otherwise might have been a breakout year in ’09. How does that translate to 2010?

Hopefully our players learned last year that they have the potential to play with anybody in the country and they can beat anybody in the country. To go out and do it, that’s a different thing. It’s one thing to say you can do it, one thing to be close and another thing to get those games. We hope that’s the next step…

… You look back and you could spin it a couple different ways. You can say, “Oh my gosh, we were so close,” or step back and say those one-goal losses were in games that weren’t that close a few years ago. That’s progress.

I don’t see why we wouldn’t have an opportunity to play for the league title. That will be one of our goals, to win an Ivy League championship. Until somebody can knock off Princeton or Cornell, they’re still the champs and we’re still chasing them.

How does the implementation of a postseason conference tournament in 2010 up the ante?

It’s up for grabs in that everybody’s doing more than they used to. It makes it harder, but it also makes our league stronger.

Bill Tierney deserves a lot of credit for the tournament. He led that charge with a lot of hard work behind the scenes. It actually got shot down before, and they brought it back to the table.

How has the vibe at Harvard changed since you took over?

It’s a great time here, lacrosse-wise. We’re very lucky to have an athletic director who was a great player, an All-American who I think scored 11 goals in a game once. He was at a lot of tournaments all over the country. His son is on our team. He comes to all of our games. He loves the sports and knows how important it is at Harvard.

We’ve made a lot of changes. We play in a stadium now. We have five turf fields and arguably the largest weight room in the country. We’re certainly excited about the potential. But until we do it, it’s still just potential. Every Ivy League coach is going to come back with a lot of optimism. We’ve got to do our part. Nothing worthwhile should be easy.

There’s been much ado about the economy’s impact on the endowment at Harvard. Has any of that trickled down to athletics and your program?

Every college has had to step back to find where we can trim some fat, be more efficient and do a better job. I’ve talked to guys at state schools and private schools. Everybody’s watching every dollar for recruiting, FedEx, on-campus visits, dinners, things like that. In the Ivy League a lot of the money you use is fundraised. You always want to justify what you do. We stay at nice hotels, but not the nicest ones. Keep it classy, but not extravagant. For our athletic department, we all had to cut back our budgets. Luckily for us, we’ve been able to fundraise a little bit more – to rally people, gather support and energize the alums.

Has the economy affected scheduling?

It does. You want to be smart. Our people are good. They understand that for us, we play so many regional New England schools, but to be successful, we have to leave the region. We can’t survive just playing New England schools. It’s not going to help us recruiting, either. Why are we going to Johns Hopkins for one of our first scrimmages next year? It’s one of the top teams in the country, great for visibility, important for alums from that area and for guys on our team from Maryland. As long as we justified it, they were pretty good about it.

We’re not doing a lot of outlandish things anyway. The UMass game makes a lot of sense. We’re talking to Albany, trying to play them because that makes sense. That’s a good team that’s only two-and-a-half hours away. Duke will be up here, and that’s going to be great for New England lacrosse. I can’t remember the last time an ACC school was up in the Boston area. It’s also great for Max Quinzani. Duke will be up in his backyard. It’s great to have a team of that caliber come up here. We’re also most likely going down to Georgetown again.

This year was tricky in terms of scheduling with so many teams joining conferences, being handcuffed.

How do you actually lock in scheduled games?

Some guys just say, “Hey, this is what we’re doing.” Eventually a contract goes out. People have paperwork. Certain schools offer guarantees or some money to make it more enticing. But a lot of times early on it’s just an agreement. At the last second, somebody could change his mind, and there’s not much you can do. It’s a gentleman’s agreement.

There’s no shortage of great attackmen in the Ivy League. How do Jeff Cohen and Dean Gibbons stack up?

It’s funny. Last year we had some pretty good success, but a lot of credit goes defensively. We gave up the fewest goals in the country. We were young on offense and for most of the year we started two freshmen and a sophomore. Then at times, Dean got hurt. We really didn’t have a healthy dean most of the year. I’m excited about him coming back as a junior and providing leadership. Another guy, Kevin Vaughan, started every game as a freshman. Jeff, meanwhile, really did better as the year went on. He’s worked very hard this summer. I’m impressed. Sometimes you wonder, talk about a sophomore slump, but Jeff’s been working his butt off. He and a number of our freshmen from last year stayed up here over the summer and they have worked very hard. That’s a decision they came to on their own. Jeff’s not taking anything for granted.

How will the added experience factor into Harvard’s style of play?

We would prefer to play a more up-tempo style, as long as we can do it well. That wasn’t something we were able to do last year. A lot of our short-stick defensive middies were former defenseman. That wasn’t playing to their strengths, getting the ball and attacking the ball. Their strength was playing good on- and off-ball defense. We feel this year it might be more in our best interest to get up and down. We’ll make mistakes, but as long as we make more good plays than bad plays, we’d be OK with that. It’s a fun way to play. Kids love it, fans love it and it always helps us encourage the guys to do more conditioning. “You want to run and gun? You got it.”

What are some questions Harvard needs to answer?

Who’s going to be our goalie? Let’s see those kids grow from competition and work. Three will compete. Sam Michel is a senior for us, a local guy who’s been here this summer. Christian Coates is a sophomore from near Ocean City, Maryland. Harry Krieger is an incoming freshman from St. Paul’s in Maryland.

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