January 6, 2014

NJIT, Debuting in 2015, Starts the Building Process

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Travis Johnson, formerly an assistant coahc at Mount St. Mary's, is the first men's varsity coach at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. The Highlanders begin play in spring 2015.
© Mount St. Mary's

The last month has been a whirlwind for Travis Johnson.

Today is his first official day in the office since being hired in mid-December as New Jersey Institute of Technology's first men's varsity lacrosse coach.

Since then, he's worked the phones and email from his current Maryland home spreading word about NJIT's start-up program, which will play its first NCAA Division I game in a little more than a year.

Of course, the holidays arrived and an NCAA recruiting dead-period ended only on Sunday, so the program is just now really getting off the ground. There are no players on the team, and no assistant coaches yet. There's a lot to do, and a lot of change.

Johnson, until being hired at NJIT, was an assistant at Mount St. Mary's the previous two seasons. He is married to Mountaineers women's lacrosse coach, B.J. Johnson, who will finish her season this spring at the Mount. They also have an 18-month-old child.

So for this season, Johnson plans to be on NJIT's campus in Newark, N.J., during the week working to build the program and be home in Maryland most weekends with the family, when he's not accommodating recruits. "That's going to be pretty hectic with the juggling of schedules," he said.

For now, recruiting begins. There isn't much time, considering Johnson's relatively late hire for a program targeting a spring 2015 debut. Compared to other recent Division I startups, such as Boston University, Furman or Marquette, who had a longer head start on recruiting prior to their debut, NJIT has some catching up to do. UMass-Lowell, which also debuts next season for example, announced it was adding a program last February and hired a coach in late July.

That's why today, when recruits are allowed on campus for the first time since Johnson officially started Jan. 2, prospective players will be there, learning about what NJIT has to offer. The New Jersey state school's engineering program and reduced in-state tuition are among the selling points.

A few other details: Johnson plans to wait until the current spring season is finished to hire assistant coaches. A conference affiliation for the program has not yet been found. NJIT athletic director Lenny Kaplan told Lacrosse Magazine that the school is looking for a home conference in all sports. The America East, NEC and MAAC are all targets, but Kaplan said he would also be speaking with conferences about affiliate membership for men's lacrosse in the interim until a school-wide conference is settled. Only one Division I men's program, Air Force, is without a conference home after this spring.

Before serving as a Mount St. Mary's assistant, Johnson had two stints as an assistant coach at Penn State (2004-06, 2008-10) and also at Stony Brook (2006-08). He began his coaching career at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., after graduating from RIT in 2000.

LM caught up with Johnson on Friday to learn a bit more about the future plans for Division I lacrosse's newest program.

What attracted you to the job? Why did you apply?

When I first got out of school, I lived in North Jersey. I started coaching at Stevens Tech, which is about eight miles away from NJIT. I'm pretty familiar with the area, and also the academic stature of that school.

Anytime there is a Division I opening or a new program, a lot of us assistants should look at it, even if only to see what it's all about. I think this is a great opportunity because of my background with Stevens. They are pretty much similar schools, except NJIT is a New Jersey state school. When I first started at Stevens, we didn't have the business program in place, so a lot of the kids that we were recruiting were all engineers. Then they added the business program, which was fantastic, and they built this new building.

It's the same scenario at NJIT, except they already have the business program in place. They have communications, they have some of things Stevens didn't have at the time. The academic profile is pretty much the same with a couple extras. There are a lot of similarities that made it a comfortable fit. I had an idea of what was going on. I had lived in the area, and it felt right. It was a place I could see myself.

How many scholarships will you have to give?

I'm not going to take all the scholarships immediately. We're going to go three per year over the next four years, to get to that point. To start the program, that kind of hinders things a little bit, but as it progresses and we go through the process, we'll be in a good situation.

Are there lacrosse facilities already in place?

The field is good to go. They are going to in the next 2-3 years get a new field in. It doesn't look and feel like it, but the field is on the latter half of its lifespan. There is a project right now for a new building. There's not a locker room right now, but they will build one in the current building this summer. All that stuff is going to be in place for these guys that come in this year. The new building that goes in place will have everything that we need in the future. They've already had architects on campus to go through the bid process for which company they'll be using.

It's a quick start for next season compared to the time for other recent startups. What are you trying to do initially to field a team?

Obviously, it's a unique situation. [Last Thursday] was my official first day. With the holidays and a recruiting dead period, you couldn't have kids on campus. [This week] is going to be a huge week.

Really, it's about trying to find those kids that are available. There are a lot of great kids out there, still. It's just a matter of beating the bushes to find those kids, and get the name out there that we have a lacrosse program that is starting in 2015. I've already been in contact with a number of guys. It's in a positive direction right now.

My goal is to have 30 guys on campus next fall. It would be nice to have in the neighborhood of five transfers and 25 freshmen. That's my goal, and start with those guys. Then we can move on with the 2015s and '16s down the road. I am talking to some 2015s as we go, but my immediate needs are going to the current seniors.

Any specific areas you will look to draw players from?

Being a state school, New Jersey is going to be big for us. With the way college tuition is these days, it's tough to ask families to pay $50,000 to go to school. We're in a great location for lacrosse. The New Jersey residents will get a wonderful deal financially.

The New Jersey guys will be a prime target for us. Then with Long Island being a hop, skip and a jump away, and Philly, I think we're in a great location for all that. And with Newark airport, it's easy with flights, too, from Florida, California, Texas, Washington, Colorado, Chicago. All those areas are on the radar as well.

How often have you been on campus at this point?

I've been on campus a couple times since [being hired]. I haven't been in the office. Most of the things I've done so far, have been from Maryland with phone calls and emails. I'll be in the office [today] for my first official day. The dead period ends Sunday, so that's the next possible day we can have recruits on campus. We'll have recruits in [today].

How are conference plans looking?

Lenny Kaplan, our AD, has been in discussions about conferences. Adding lacrosse is a big reason to make the push for a conference for the entire school. He's dealing with all that. My hope is that within the next year we're in a conference, but I can't really say for sure what that's going to be. There are a lot of great conferences in the tri-state area that would be great fits for us, whether it's completion or travel, I think it would make sense for NJIT to be in those conferences.

What sense did you get of why NJIT wanted to add men's lacrosse?

Part of it is they're using it as a vehicle to get into a conference. We're going to be funded, and it's pretty excited to see some of the things that will be in place and are already in place. We'll have some great things for our guys, for the staff. We also have great academics to offer. I believe that we're the only school Division I-lacrosse wise that can offer kids an engineering academic experience. There's some schools such as Penn State, Lehigh or Lafayette, where kids can get an engineering degree, but how many of those kids on the team are actually engineering majors? Those guys are few and far between on a Division I lacrosse roster. To have a school where you can have the majority of your team be an engineering major or in the sciences is great. We have an opportunity to give kids a little bit of a different academic curriculum than some of the other Division I schools out there.

It may also be easier for engineers to pick up game plans, right?

Yeah, but the smart guys also ask questions (laughs). If we slide seven times, on the eighth, what happens? As it is with any school, you're always going to have some good players and you hope that you can find one or two kids who can make the difference. It will be exciting. I'm looking forward to it.

What do you think about the growing number of programs across the country?

I think it's great that these new programs are getting promotion. The more programs that we can continue to add, the better. Division III has taken off, and Division II is starting to jump on board. Now with all the Division I programs that have started over the last two years, it is great. You never know what's going to happen in the next year. It's an exciting time. Division I-wise, the programs are starting to grow. It's great for the sport.

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