May 25, 2011

'Our Sport Needs This,' Michigan Coach Says

by Corey McLaughlin |

The success of Michigan's club lacrosse program, the buzz it generated and fundraising efforts "reached a critical mass," current club coach and presumed varsity coach John Paul said, allowing the university on Wednesday to become the first BCS school to add the sport since Notre Dame did it in 1980.

What once seemed like a nice idea is now a reality. The University of Michigan is adding NCAA Division I men's and women's lacrosse programs, Michigan athletics director Dave Brandon announced Wednesday at a press conference on campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"We see this is as a big deal," Brandon said. "This is a big deal for our athletic department, for our university and we hope for the sport of lacrosse."

The men's team will begin varsity play for the 2011-2012 academic year and the women's team will start the year after. More than 70 individuals donated funds "in the millions of dollars," needed to transition both teams from the club to Division I level. Michigan is the first Bowl Championship Series (BCS) conference school to add men's lacrosse since Notre Dame added in 1980 and started competition in 1981.

A national search is underway for a women's coach, as club coach Jen Dunbar recently retired. A men's coach was not formally announced, but current club coach John Paul will likely be it.

"He showed up here and he's got a tie on, so I'm hoping things are looking good," Brandon said about Paul at Wednesday's press conference. "I think I've got a really great candidate for this job."

Paul coached the club team to a 241-44 record over the last 14 seasons and won three straight MCLA championships prior to this season, when the Wolverines lost in the MCLA semifinals.

Lacrosse Magazine caught up with Paul Wednesday afternoon in the middle of a hectic but happy day for a Q-and-A on how Michigan varsity lacrosse became a reality and what to expect from the program in the future.

The idea of Michigan adding varsity lacrosse has been floated and rumored for several years. Why did varsity lacrosse at Michigan ultimately happen now?

It really became a realistic goal when we reached a critical mass in a number of areas with the program. In our success, so there was buzz about us as the sport continued to grow. With our fundraising, so that the development community at Michigan was aware of lacrosse and the senior administration was very aware. And then we got an athletic director who came in with this on his agenda. He didn't know that he could do it when he got here, but he knew he wanted to do it. As soon as he got here, we met, and I didn't have to convince him. He just needed time to get established here, figure out what the job was, and start figuring out with his staff if it's possible.

Why did Dave Brandon come in with adding lacrosse on his agenda?

Certainly he had been exposed to lacrosse as everybody has by now. But he had no direct connection. He played football here, but none of his kids played lacrosse. He had friends' kids who played. He's from Michigan and is a big part of the Michigan community. He's just an astute businessman and he saw an opportunity here for positive growth for the university.

More than 70 individual donations from a group dubbed the "Project Lacrosse Founders Club" provided the money needed for the men's and women's programs. How did that come to be?

That's correct. We were charged to raise a significant amount, in the millions, and we had about eight weeks to do it, and we hit it. So we had a lot of people step up in a very short time, which showed the depth of passion for this. We had a few people step up in an incredibly huge way to make sure that it did happen. So [Brandon] saw both incredibly large financial commitments and he also saw a lot of people chip in. Both of those made it clear to him that this is something that can be sustained.

Is there any concern about going varsity next year, given the competitive disadvantage you'll face playing against Division I teams with a roster of club players?

The original plan and the original way I had always approached it was to wait a year, and have a transition year [from club to varsity]. But the more we thought about it and the more we got into planning — and this really only changed fairly recently — the more we thought, "Why wait? Is it really going to make an enormous difference negatively for us to go next year?" We'll have more competitive challenges going right into it, but there also might have been some negatives in trying to sustain our program next year as a kind of pseudo-club/varsity program. That could have been a very challenging year. Now we have a very clear-cut mission. We're not just starting a new program. The unique thing about Michigan is we really are transitioning the program. Certainly our program right now is not a super-competitive Division I program. We know that. But we are organizationally and culturally ready for this. So there really was no reason to wait. If we're going to do it, let's dive right in and give us another year of growth.

Will you recruit players with the idea of giving them scholarships for next season?

"The original plan and the original way I had always approached it was to wait a year, and have a transition year [from club to varsity]. But the more...we got into planning...the more we thought, 'Why wait?'"

We have recruits coming in. We really haven't figured out if we're going to be adding to that list, if we're going to add some late recruits, if we're going to be accepting transfers. We certainly have a lot of interest. But no, those are things that we are figuring out over the course of the next couple weeks. But certainly we'll be moving on beyond that with the class of 2012 and the class of 2013 full bore. But the scholarships (12.6) are available if we need to use some for this year.

I guess we'll see you on the Division I recruiting circuit now?

Yes, but one of the advantages that we have is that we've been on the recruiting circuit for years with the club team, and recruiting nationally for years. We spent the whole summer on the road. We know how it works. To become competitive at the Division I level, that changes. We're recruiting a different age, we're recruiting a different level of player, and we're competing against programs that we haven't competed against before, but we're definitely used to the process. We have that advantage. We've been out there and people know about us.

Where will the team play on campus?

There's a lot of thinking about it. The long-term plans are exciting. We plan to build dedicated lacrosse facilities, potentially both indoor and outdoor, that will be among the best in the country. Those will come as quickly as we can plan for them and fundraise for them. I'm confident that we'll be at or near the top of Division I lacrosse facilities in a few years. In the meantime, Michigan athletics has some of the best facilities in the country. We may have to move around a little bit, but we're going to be playing in great facilities. We have the turf practice field that can certainly be set up as a game field. There's the Big House, which can be used and probably will be used. There's a varsity soccer stadium that's a beautiful, brand new, 2,500-seat stadium. There's an indoor facility we've been using. Facilities are not going to be an issue. The issue is going to be is we won't have a dedicated home right away, but that will come.

What are your general emotions?

We're excited. We're a little bit overwhelmed, but it's an exciting day for Michigan lacrosse, and I hope it's an exciting day for lacrosse. It's been 30 years since a BCS school has done this. I think our sport needs this.

Virginia coach Dom Starsia said a few weeks ago that Michigan going varsity would be "probably the biggest news in our sport perhaps since the final four concept" because of the statement it could make to other big-time colleges and universities about the sport. What did you think about that?

I think I sent him a note after that saying thanks for the pressure... It is amazing. Everything's changing, and a lot of things are staying the same, when you look at three out of the four teams in the final four. All of us new guys have our work cut out for us, but we're excited for the challenge.

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