December 3, 2009

Bill Tierney, Then and Now: The Princeton Years

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 three, Tierney talks about taking a downtrodden team at Princeton and turning it into a dynasty.

Don't get the mag? Join USL and its 300,000-plus members today to start your subscription.

Many wouldn't know that Princeton wasn't very good when you overtook it. Talk about a bare cupboard. What was the state of Princeton lacrosse when you arrived there?

I got there in the summer of '87. One of the reasons I was inspired to take the job was that the athletic director at the time reminded me that Princeton had a great history of lacrosse. Prior to that recent history, when the Ivy League started, they won almost every Ivy League championship until the '70s, and then it just dropped off the face of the earth. Mike Hanna, who's now the AD at Hobart, kind of got it back to a certain point, and then for whatever reason it just didn't work.

Everything changed. You had to get out there recruiting. The coach there before me was one of the greatest coaches to ever coach lacrosse -- Jerry Schmidt. He was a big-time coach at Hobart, won national championships, great coach, great guy, great player at Hopkins, only lacrosse player to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, phenomenal man... But at that time in his career, things were changing at such a rapid pace with recruiting. And admissions with Princeton was hard when other schools were starting to give out scholarships.

Bob Myslik, the AD at Princeton then, said: Look, we're on hard times now. But Hopkins soccer had not won in years; RIT lacrosse had never made it to the NCAA tournament; the Great Neck South program, where I first coached, made it further than any team there; my Levittown-Memorial team that Larry Quinn was the goalie on, we made it to the county championship -- I had kind of built a reputation of turning things around.

I wasn't afraid of it. I felt like I had a formula for it. One of the formulas was to go out, work your tail off recruiting and find kids that came from winning programs. So that's what I set out to do. Princeton had won three or four Ivy games in four or five years. They were 1-13, 2-14 -- they just weren't doing very well. Like all those jobs I took, there was only one way to go, and that was up. I felt good about that, and felt like we could get it done.

I told those freshmen that we could win a national championship. I didn't think we could. My goal was to get the next great job, at one of those programs that could win a national championship.

It was easier in the '90s than it is now. Less players, less schools giving out scholarships. Now there are so many great coaches. Film work, scouting, breaking everything down -- it's become so intricate. I think I was just lucky to be at a place that nobody else respected and come on the scene very quickly, surprise people before they knew what hit them, and then we got on a roll.

I've always said that there are two reasons a kid goes to a school -- one is to start as freshmen, and the other is that they want to go to a good team. We kind of converged those things. When I was recruiting those first couple of classes, I told them, "You can all start as freshmen." We were terrible. If you're any good whatsoever, you're going to start as a freshman. And then we got good, and we could turn quickly over into, "Hey, you can win a national championship. Why don't you come? We started out three years ago, and now we're in the tournament beating good teams. We're going to get better."

The makings of a good program were there. The foundation was there. There's not many sports in the Ivy League that you can win a national championship in. You're not going to win in basketball. They're too stifled. Your best basketball players aren't thinking Princeton when they're 15 and 16 years old. Football, they're not allowed to. You can't play USC in football. There were very few sports in which you could win a national championship. Once we convinced them that we could -- with the help of Cornell and Penn being in the final four; Brown was good; Harvard was good -- not only win an Ivy League championship, but win in the tournament, they looked at me and said, "OK, well, let's win a few games first."

We did that, and it just happened so quickly.

Princeton in 1988; Denver in 2009. Can you make any correlation?

Yeah, we're trying to do that. The only difference is we're a lot better right now. I'm thankful for Jamie Munro and Jon Torpey and Matt Brown, who's still with us, for providing me with so many great players that are here right now. We are in a lot better shape right now than we were in Princeton in 1988.

When we won our championship in '92, only Hopkins, Syracuse and North Carolina, and Cornell before that, had won it. There's only seven that have won championships. The big mystery in lacrosse is, who's number eight? There have been a lot of teams that have come close.

But certainly, there's a lot of similarities to what I was doing then to what I'm doing now. That's what I'm telling the kids. Shoot for the stars. You'd be amazed at what you can achieve if you just set your goals high.

So many young men have come under you and learned from you. Is there any individual that stands out as a success story, of whom you're most proud?

There's so many that you can go back to. And they're at different levels. Take a guy like Scott Bagicalupo that comes out of St. Paul's and is a valedictorian, best goalie in the country, in my estimation one of the best that's ever played the game. He comes to Princeton and does really well. Four-time All-American, three-time first team All-American, two-time MVP of national championships -- I didn't do that. That's a story unto itself, just being thankful for the fact that he came to us and he made us look better. And yet, Scott will still say at Merrill Lynch on Wall Street that he harkens back to some of the lessons he learned at Princeton through me. I look at that and say that's ridiculous. This kid started out as a superstar and ended as a superstar.

We've had poor kids, superstars, guys that overcame great odds, walk-ons that became great players, kids that overcome health issues. I've got a kid right now, Drew Babb -- the top-ranked recruit as Denver's best midfielder. He got diagnosed in August with Hodgkin's disease. So he can't play this year. He's going through chemotherapy as we speak. He's going to be a success story. Four years from now, ask  me. He'll be a success story. He's going to red-shirt this year, with what the chemo is doing to his body. But they say he's going to be fine.

I never had a kid write me or call me back after he graduated thanking me for being too easy on him. That's what drives you. Those things you do to push kids to is what makes them better. Even if the kid's not a player -- I know what it's like not to be a great player; I experienced that -- it might be that walk-on that you kept that just loved the program.

There's the famous story in 1996 of Pancho Gutstein, being our backup goalie all year. Patrick Cairns being our starter, me pulling Patrick in the semifinals and putting Pancho in and us beating Syracuse -- and then doing it again on Monday against Virginia. Pancho saving a ball with his foot and being named to the All-Tournament team. The only reason he was at Princeton was because his twin sister was a great player and she was recruited by our program. He got in too. Those kind of things are neat.

All that stuff, the big picture. What do you say? What you do? You say some ridiculous things. The '92 guys, when they were freshmen as my first recruiting class, they say I kept them in this room after this meeting and I said, "You guys are gonna win a national championship." Yeah? The team had just gone 2-13. But they were. When they were seniors they were national champions.

We had a kid on that team named Evan Garfein. I was going to cut him. He was a great kid, but not a great player. The guys came to me and said, "Coach, keep him. He's a good guy. He's a friend of ours." So Evan came in before his senior year and I told him, "You're not gonna play. You've been wonderful for this program. You're a wonderful guy. Just enjoy the experience." But I said, "I'll make you a deal. If we make it to the national championship game, I'll let you play man-up on the first penalty." We had beaten Carolina in the final four. He taps me on the shoulder and says, "Remember your promise?" I couldn't have been happier -- we just beat North Carolina, that had won the championship the year before. I didn't remember anything from two weeks ago. I said, "What are you talking about?" "You made me a promise that in the championship game, I'd play on the first man-up." I'm thinking, "You gotta be kidding me. I said that?" Sure enough, playing Syracuse on Monday, first man-up, I float the big guy out there. He's now a surgeon. Give him credit, he takes a shot. He was at the top middle of a three-three, takes a shot and tries to squeeze it past the goalie. It sails over, we lose the ball, he comes off. He looks at me, I look at him and that's it. We win that game, and the kid has that forever.

Too many success stories. The one closest to my heart is my son Brendan. He was an undersized attackman who a lot of people doubted should be on our team or even in D-I lacrosse. I don't know if he made it over 145 pounds. His sophomore year, BJ Prager blew his knee out. So he wound up starting on attack for us in the semifinal and, in the championship game, he scores the winning goal against Virginia. Amazing story. He's my favorite Tiger. Yeah, he's my son, but more of his story, that "I'm gonna make this thing and we're gonna do this together." There have been a lot of those guys over the years. It's been a blessing. I just hope I have a few more of those stories the next five or 10 years to round this thing up.

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