December 1, 2009

Bill Tierney, Then and Now: His Roots

by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

Bill Tierney, Then and Now: A Q&A Series

Part One: His Roots (Tuesday)
Part Two: Method to His Madness (Wednesday)
Part Three: The Princeton Years (Thursday)
Part Four: Behind the Decision (Friday)
Part Five: His Legacy (Monday)

© Trevor Brown

Bill Tierney, a Hall of Fame head coach whose decision to leave Princeton and reengage the sport's westward evolution at Denver stunned the lacrosse world, has been named Lacrosse Magazine's 2009 Person of the Year.

LM sent Matt DaSilva to Denver for an in-depth interview with Tierney, portions of which will be revealed here on in a five-part Q&A series. A full-length cover feature appears in the December issue of LM, which mails to US Lacrosse members this week.

In part one, Tierney talks about his upbringing, his playing days at Cortland and adversity.

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Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get involved in this racket known as lacrosse?

I went to Cortland state in upstate New York, never played high school lacrosse. My goal when I went to Cortland was that I wanted to teach phys-ed and be the head football coach at my high school, and I actually became that. My first year at Cortland my roommate was a goalie from my hometown, Levittown, New York. He talked me into starting to play lacrosse. As one reporter wrote it a long time ago, I turned into a weak-armed third baseman that found a new niche.

I played football my first year in college and got into lacrosse for four years. I really wanted to coach football when I got back to Long Island. I had played four years of lacrosse and I wanted to coach both. I got out of college in '73 and by '80 I was the head football coach and lacrosse coach at my old high school.

What made you make the jump to the college ranks?

My best friend Ray Rostan, who’s now the head coach at Hampden-Sydney, he was the head coach at RIT. It was late in the summer, late August. He called me and said, "I’m leaving RIT and going to Ithaca College." He got named the head soccer and lacrosse coach at Ithaca College. He said, “Would you be interested in moving into college lacrosse?"

I was just starting my first year as head football coach, this dream job of mine at my high school. RIT had decided they weren’t going to move forward right away that fall. I got to coach that fall in football. Because it was a middle-of-the-year appointment, a lot of guys that probably would have gotten that job in front of me because I was a high school coach weren’t available at that point.

Somehow I was able to talk Lou Spiotti, who was the AD at RIT and still is, in the fall of '81 into hiring me. So I moved to Rochester with my wife Helen. Trevor was 3, Brendan was 2, and my daughter Courtney was two weeks old when we moved to Rochester, New York.

Becoming an assistant at Johns Hopkins, the pinnacle, must have been a big break for you. How did that unfold?

I did the RIT thing for three years. Then Larry Quinn, who played for me at Levittown Memorial and was an altar boy at my wedding -- my parents and his parents were best of friends; he lived around the corner from me -- called and said Coach [Chic] Ciccarone is leaving Hopkins and Coach [Don] Zimmerman is getting ready to be named head coach. Would you think about being an assistant here?

Of course. I applied for that job. It was weird because it was March of '84 and it was in the middle of their season that I got interviewed at Hopkins, but I somehow got the job. I had to fabricate myself again for another AD and had to convince Bob Scott that I could coach the soccer team at Hopkins. So I became the head soccer coach after three years prior to that being the head football coach at my high school. And that was weird, because it really catapulted me into the Princeton job. Number one, we did really well at lacrosse [at Hopkins]. In '85 and '87 we won national championships with Larry Quinn and John DeTomasso and those guys. But the soccer job turned into something that the Princeton people were very impressed with. Hopkins soccer had not had a winning season in six years, and my last two years we went 14-3 and 15-3 and made the NCAA tournament, literally in a sport that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

When I was back at RIT, my office mate was a guy named Doug May, who was a phenomenal soccer coach. My first month on the job as the Hopkins soccer coach I called Doug every day. At the end of the month, Bob Scott walks in with the phone bill and asks me who I’m calling in Rochester every day. I had to confess to him I was calling Doug to get my practice plan for the day.

When Princeton was looking for a coach was after the spring of '87, we had won two championships, and between the lacrosse success as an assistant at Hopkins and turning the soccer program around, they were kind of enamored by that. I was lucky to be offered that job. I was 36 years old. I kind of went there blindly. My goal was to someday be the head coach at Hopkins, Virginia, one of those places. Three years later I was offered the Hopkins job, when Zim left. I turned it down and stayed at Princeton for 22 years.

Why’d you turn that down?

I love Bob Scott. I love the institution. It was everything I ever wanted to be. I’ll never forget driving back to Princeton with my wife. She had been following me around all these years. It was 1990. We had just beaten Hopkins in the tournament. We lost to them in the regular season 20-8 and beat ‘em in the tournament 9-8. That was the first NCAA tournament game at Princeton and our first NCAA tournament win ever. With that next group coming in -- we had just recruited Scott Bacigalupo, Kevin Lowe, all these phenomenal guys -- my wife said, “You know you’re going to be pretty good at Princeton.” We kind of felt like, hey, maybe this is something we need to be our program.

I can’t believe I called Bob Scott and told him I wouldn’t take the Hopkins job. It was crazy. Thankfully, things turned out for us at Princeton the way they did and over the years I was offered a few other jobs, but I just kind of stuck with Princeton and was happy that I did.

Amidst all the twists and turns, it seems coaching was the tunnel vision. Was there a calling?

I loved sports from the time I was little. I had two older brothers and an older sister who was a phenomenal athlete. Being successful in little league sports, football, baseball and basketball, I was trying to find a way to do that. My sister went to Springfield to become a phys-ed teacher, and she wanted to be a coach. That kind of clinked in my head.

The reason I went to Cortland instead of Springfield was because at the time, Cortland was $2,000 a year and Springfield was $2,900, and I was trying to save money. My dad was a beer truck driver and my mom was a nurse. I was trying to save them some money. Thank God I went to Cortland. I never would have played lacrosse at Springfield.

It was a calling I had. I can remember back to midget football coaches and little league baseball coaches -- guys that I really looked up to -- then my high school football coach and all those guys I looked up to so much, it just made me know that’s what I wanted to do.

I never thought about the college thing until Ray had called me.

You grew up in Levittown, which was a pretty interesting time on Long Island and in the U.S. That was the genesis of suburbia. What was your upbringing like?

I was born in 1951. Levittown was started right after World War II in 1947. They were building hundreds of homes a day. It turned out 17,000 homes and 70,000 people in a matter of five years. It was all the GIs coming back from World War II. The prediction for it was that it was going to turn into a slum. All they did was clear out farmland.

It was such an amazing place to grow up. My block had something like 22 houses and 48 kids on the block -- all squished in those baby-boomer ages. My brother was born in '42, my younger sister was born in '56. Our family had five kids. That was kind of a microcosm of what was going on there. Everybody there was a teacher, a nurse, a truck driver, a bricklayer, a plumber -- all those things. It was really a neat place to grow up, a real honest place to grow up. Nobody had much; everybody was the same. Nobody’s dads were rich. Nobody was poor. You could walk into anybody’s house on the block and have peanut butter and jelly on the table for lunch. You didn’t have to worry about crime. Everybody’s doors were open.

Cortland was kind of a continuation of that. It was a teachers college. The lacrosse guys were a lot of New York and Long Island guys. I hadn’t seen anything much different. My first lacrosse coaching job was at Great Neck.

What kind of player were you at Cortland?

Not great. I started my freshman year. The beauty back then was that they had freshman teams. My freshman year there were six or seven guys who had played lacrosse before and 20 on the team. You had to play. I was a starting attackman, led the team in assists my freshman year.

My sophomore year I made the varsity and Jack Emmer was the coach back then. I made the varsity, sat on the bench. Made the varsity again my junior year, and sat on the bench, because we had four All-American attackmen in front of us.

Ray and I were seniors together, and we won a national championship that year. It was a great experience. I was not a great player. But I think not being a great player made me a better coach. As a senior, Chuch Winters was my coach. I was really upset I didn’t play much in our Cornell game. We lost 5-4. This was gonna be my year. All I wanted to do was play. He said to me, "This is going to make you a better coach." At the time I didn’t give a crap about being a better coach; I wanted to be a player. He worked out a rotation for four or five attackmen. There was one freshman, Judd Smith, who was better than all of us. He played all the time and the other four of us rotated. I was OK. I actually became a better lacrosse player in the two years after that. The NLL had a precursor to it. The old NLL -- 1974-75; Google it; it’s got some funny stuff on it -- Ray and I were the only two Americans on the Rochester team. We came back to Long Island and played for the Long Island Tomahawks. My better lacrosse playing days were club lacrosse and in box lacrosse. But Chuck was right. Being on the bench a lot and hearing these phenomenal coaches, I did learn more about the game being on the scout team and getting beat up every day. I knew I wanted to coach. Having phenomenal coaches like that really helped catapult my lacrosse experience.

On or off the field, what’s the greatest adversity you have ever faced?

It’s hard to say. Certainly, I remember in coaching, the hardest thing I ever did was go 2-13 my first year at Princeton. I thought I could change the world overnight. That was really difficult. I came home from our Dartmouth game at the end of that season. It was a late road trip. Every night before I go to bed I have a cup of hot tea. I opened up the cabinet, and there’s this quote on the cabinet. My wife got it out of a sports page. It said, “We’ll be back next year, and we’ll be better.” I kind of went, “Whoa, where does that come from?” We’d been married 12 years or so, and she knew that was the motivator to kind of keep that going. We knew we had that great recruiting class coming in, but things like that help you overcome adversity.

To this point, certainly the death of my dad at too young an age was really pertinent in my life. I was 22 years old. He was a tough guy, a beer truck driver, smoked three packs a day, drank beer -- the whole bit. He died of cancer. It wasn’t like we were best friends, but it changed my life. Because the last year of his life, I was living at home alone. I had come back from college. It was just him, me and my mom. We became really close in that last year. It helped me, even in those years when I was away a lot and probably wasn’t there enough for my kids, realize how important it is to be a father. That’s clearly the most important thing.

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