November 21, 2011

McLaughlin: 'Presidential' Paul Made Michigan Varsity Dream a Reality

by Corey McLaughlin | | Twitter | Related: Paul is LM's Person of the Year

In 26 years with the Michigan club program, Ann Arbor native John Paul was a player, assistant coach and highly successful head coach. In the spring, he'll lead the Wolverines in their first NCAA Division I season.
© Tony Ding

Sometimes, good things happen to good people who work hard.

John Paul is a living example. He didn't know he would be the first coach of the Michigan men's varsity team, in the spring of 2012, 14 years after he thought he was done assistant coaching the Michigan club team.

Back in 1997, he was prepared to settle into a development and fundraising job with the university's liberal arts college, having just recently married. When a few Michigan club players approached Paul, a 1992 Michigan alum and former club player, to become head coach to replace Bob DiGiovanni, Paul told them he would coach until they found somebody else.

But within two years, with his wife's blessing, Paul quit the development job and agreed to dedicate himself full-time to the Michigan lacrosse program. It was a hard decision financially, but an easy one emotionally.

"I tell people all the time that if there's a hero in this whole process, it's my wife because she let me quit a pretty good career, and become a vastly underpaid club coach," Paul said one day this October of Lisa, his wife of 15 years.

Simply, lacrosse and Michigan were and are Paul's passions. From the time he went all-in on Michigan lacrosse, until now, he has worked -- first to build the club program into one of the best in the country, while at the same time, having the long-term goal of turning the club program into a varsity one. The latter was a dream and a tall order. No school classified as BCS -- a big-time Division I school -- had added men's lacrosse as a varsity sport since 1981 when Notre Dame did it.

I traveled to Paul's native Ann Arbor in the week leading up to Michigan's first fall scrimmages in the 109,000-plus seat Big House in October, to learn how and why Paul led the Wolverines transition to an NCAA program, a move formally announced in May by athletic director Dave Brandon. The result of the time spent around the program is Lacrosse Magazine's Person of the Year December cover story on Paul.

Paul, nicknamed "JP," opened the doors to the team with no restrictions. He gave me a spot to set up my laptop at the future desk of a volunteer assistant coach in Michigan lacrosse's temporary double-wide office trailer. He offered lunch as soon as I walked in. As I munched on a chicken Caesar wrap, Paul talked on the phone a few feet away, getting a verbal commitment from a top-ranked high school junior goaltender from Pennsylvania. In the room adjacent, assistant coaches Ken Broschart, in charge of defense, and Judd Lattimore, the offensive coordinator, debated personnel moves regarding the current roster.

Soon, Paul walked in with the good news about the goalie and started to settle down his assistants, asking what started their whole conversation. They talked about potential solutions and talked throught the positives and negatives of each. It was very "presidential," as senior co-captain J.D. Johnson described Paul's quiet personality and coaching style as after practice the next night.

As Lattimore and Broschart worked with their specific groups at practice, Paul oversaw. Our photographer, Tony Ding, was left free to roam around practice and snap the image you see above, and more.

Earlier, Paul walked me into Michigan's fancy, to say the least, $26 million indoor football practice building and gave me a faux lacrosse recruiting pitch. As we walked in, he said, "This is where we tell guys this is how Michigan does it and what we will have," meaning the eventual lacrosse-only facility that is in the plans to be finished in 3-4 years. It sounded as down-to-earth as it could. This was JP at work. The guy who had players over for BBQ's and had always been available, captain Trevor Yealy said, just to talk about stuff.

Michigan's club-to-varsity move is one a lot of lacrosse people are talking about. It's certainly drawn attention to other colleges and universities about the sport's potential. But whether Michigan's move directly leads to similar announcements at the sport's most visible level remains unclear. It's hard to imagine other schools with smaller alumni and fan bases being able to pull off the fundraising accomplishment Michigan did. Evem Paul and Brandon, the AD, question if you'll see a run of big-time schools rushing to add NCAA men's and women's lacrosse, or any sport for that matter.

But those tough odds also indicate just how hard Paul worked to get this done, cultivating relationships over his 26 years as a club player and coach. He spent some of that time in the development office of the athletic department and liberal arts college, which no doubt helped. He is also an Ann Arbor native and the son of a longtime dean of Michigan's College of Pharmacy, and rubbed elbows, or least knew the names and could get an introduction, with some decision-makers on campus. All the connections helped the varsity dream come true.

Michigan club lacrosse reached what Paul called a "critical mass" of success on the field and off in recent years. They won three straight MCLA titles at the time of the varsity announcement, and sent the team all over the country with a budget of $700,000 over the last couple years, going 76-2 over the last four seasons.

"JP was the coach from Day One," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said. "I wouldn't have had it any other way."
© Lon Horwedel

In a larger sense, the culture of the program changed from when Paul took over. The "clubby" program – his words – would have players show up to a Friday night practice after they hit one of the Ann Arbor bars. Paul started the Michigan Lacrosse Booster Club as well as the Michigan Lacrosse Alumni Advisory Board to assist in fundraising and communications. His career coaching record is 214-44.

Paul put the pieces in place to ensure that if or when the athletic department decided it was a good idea to make lacrosse a varsity sport, that there would be no doubt those connected with the lacrosse program would throw in their full fledged support -- and the practical matter of money needed to start up what eventually became varsity men's and women's programs.

More than 70 people raised nearly $6 million in five months to make it happen to show the university that there was plenty of support. Donations came from former club players, parents of former and current club players and some were just fans of Michigan and lacrosse. Donations ranged from triple-figures to thousands of dollars, and there were three major donations.

Of course, before all that, the athletic department needed a reason to consider lacrosse as a varsity sport.

Former AD Bill Martin was unreceptive to the idea, even as Paul coached his son at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, where Paul for a time was a junior varsity coach and varsity assistant. When Brandon was hired in January 2010, Paul had another shot.

He set up an appointment to meet the new AD in his office within weeks of Brandon arriving on campus. Paul brought his passions -- lacrosse and Michigan -- with him, along with a 20-page proposal detailing just how and why the athletic department could and should add lacrosse. Within this document was all of the club's teams past success and numbers and trends indicating potential growth for the sport and benefit for the university. There were also plans for a privately-funded club lacrosse building that they were to break ground on in weeks.

Brandon was impressed, with the success, the rapid growth of the sport, its TV potential and the possiblities the sport could have in growing the Michigan brand. He told Paul to ditch the plans for the facility the club program had planned. They were going varsity. In October, I sat down with Brandon, a former Domino's Pizza CEO, and he called lacrosse "a sport of the future."

And there was only one guy, Brandon said, who would take the team into that future.

"How do you look at man, who for 14 years, built a club program, brought three consecutive national championships, untold numbers of conference championships, recruited high-caliber players who not only did great on the field, but were also terrific student-athletes, who grew up in this town, built this program, put us in a position where we could cultivate this donor base. You're going to do all that and you're going to look at the guy who was instrumental in making it all happen and say, "Gee, I'm going to go out and do a coaching search?'" Brandon said.

"There was no coaching search," he said of rumors that big-time established Division I coaches had flown into town for job interviews. "There were no interviews with anybody else. JP was the coach from Day One. I wouldn't have had it any other way."

Those statements say just about all you need to know about Lacrosse Magazine's 2011 Person of the Year.

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