March 14, 2013

Schooling Schooler: Rethinking Coaching Longevity

by Jac Coyne and Nick Schooler | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

When  BYU head coach Matt Schneck (above, with trophy) steered the Cougars to the 2011 national championship, it threw a wrench in Jac Coyne's theory that only long-time coaches have success in the MCLA.
© Cecil Copeland

I'm going to backtrack on a previous position I've held.

I've been hanging onto the notion that the more continuity an MCLA programs had in its coaching staff, the more success that program is going to have. It was an easy assumption to make a couple of years ago when Flip Naumburg at Colorado State, Jason Lamb at BYU and Michigan's John Paul — three coaches who had been with their respective teams for at least 10 years — accounted for 10 of the 14 national titles at the conclusion of the 2010 campaign.

Coaching longevity equals increased success. It appeared to be a sound equation. When Alex Smith and Matt Schenck, the replacements for Naumburg and Lamb, stumbled in 2010 with neither making it out of the quarterfinals, it seemed to confirm my hypothesis.

This assumption, however, gave me a blind spot. When a series of coaches were fired by either their recreational department or the players around the same time, most notably the dismissal of Lamb, my gut reaction was to side with the deposed coach. The fact that I had a working relationship with those coaches and typically liked them on a personal level — along with my inherent belief that it was a step backward for the program as whole — my tendency was to treat the firings as a mistake.

On a basic level, it was unfair. I was usually only getting one side of the story and I was making a judgment when I didn't have skin in the game. If a student-athlete is going to pay thousands of dollars to play lacrosse or a rec department was going to lend its name to a coach, it's their right to make their own decisions about who they want to carry their flag.

My reversal has been a couple of years in the making. Schneck and the Cougars bounced back in 2011, winning their fourth title, followed last year when Smith picked up the Rams' MCLA-record fifth crown, belying the notion that newer coaches couldn't be successful. One might argue that this points to an advantage held by some programs in terms of resources, size, etc. — and there's probably a grain of truth to that — but there was now a hole in my argument.

This year has provided further examples about the short-sightedness of my assumption.

Phil Keebler has stepped in and replaced Joe Kerwin at Oregon, and has the Ducks ranked No. 8 and playing at a very high level. Kevin Orcutt, who is in his first year after replacing Pat McCavanagh, has Boston College rolling, currently undefeated and ranked No. 9. At No. 10 Minnesota-Duluth, Frank Clark and now Sam Litman have followed in the steps of program founder Rob Graff and the Bulldogs are just as competitive as they've always been. First-year head man Andy Garrigan has No. 12 Texas playing at a level we haven't seen in a long time.

The list goes on and there are also examples at the Division II level, as well. Each one is a stick in the eye of my former point of view.

I still don't like to see coaches get fired for all of the reasons listed above, plus I hold MCLA coaches in high regard for their willingness to promote the sport for very little compensation, but my previous approach was wrong. Perhaps it was a subconscious remnant from my days of covering only NCAA lacrosse that I couldn't see clearly what I believe now: successful MCLA programs are simply the product of good coaches, not the length of their service.

Nick, you were at ground zero of several coaching changes that I wrote about. While there is still a measure of disappointment about the brief tenures of Mario Waibel and Lane Jaffe, there's no question that the UC Santa Barbara players and rec staff has found its match with the rehiring of Mike Allan. Is this something you've known all along?

SCHOOLER: There are an assortment of pieces that make up a successful program. The most important in my mind are the capacity to draw talented players (i.e. past success, good academics, fun atmosphere, etc.) and the ability to admit those players into the school (i.e. low admission standards, pull within the admissions department, etc.). Coaching longevity or consistency is in a way tied to that, but for the purpose of this piece, I will address coaching. In several of the examples you mentioned, teams went from one great coach to another, but they were still able to draw top talent while keeping a consistent coaching style.

A great example of that is Alex Smith from Colorado State. He played and coached under Flip Naumburg for several seasons before taking the reigns, and the Rams did not lose a step. While I was not connected directly with the program, I heard that Alex Smith had already taken on a significant portion of the coaching responsibility before eventually taking over, so it may have eased the transition.

For something a little closer to home for me, I have been around all five coaching changes for UCSB as a fan, player, and alumni since 1999. Scott Demonte came to the Gauchos that year to take over a program that had experienced some success under the previous coach. He made the Gauchos a perennial top tier team in the course of his tenure, concluding with a national championship loss to CSU in 2003. Unfortunately, that summer, he took a job at D-III Plattsburgh State.

When Demonte broke the news to me, I felt lost because we were so close, but he said he was not going to leave us without a good replacement. He told me something along the lines of getting us a coach who would make the smoothest transition. I recommended Mike Allan, a coach I actually wanted to play for when looking into colleges, who was coaching at UCLA at the time. Demonte talked to him and convinced him to take the job. To be honest, there probably wasn't much convincing needed. Allan was going to inherit a team loaded with talent and in a beautiful location.

It was a relatively smooth transition because both coaches were great with Xs and Os and ran the same style of offense. We went on to win the next two national championships and make the semifinals for four consecutive seasons. I believe that because their coaching styles were similar, there was no drop off, something similar to the Colorado State situation.

The following coaching changes were not as smooth for the Gauchos. Mike Allan left abruptly to take a position as offensive coordinator at Towson. Waibel, a coach who had many connections at the local level, won the job. I was not directly involved with the program at the time, but I believe that Waibel's coaching style was dramatically different from Allan's and did not work well with the players that were in place. He was fired by the players and replaced by Jaffe. I believe Jaffe's style fit the players better, but after a year, he had to re-apply for the job, and the rest is history.

Allan has done a great job the last season and a half. They are on an upward swing and will hopefully make more noise than usual this season.

Of course, the players play a major role in all of this. Without top athletes, none of these coaches would have any success, but a consistent coaching scheme can make a major difference in the success of a team.

On to the games, where Coyne is coming off another 5-0 week and enjoying a comfortable lead, 22-8 to 15-15.

No. 4 Colorado (7-0) at No. 7 UC Santa Barbara (6-2) - Friday, 7 p.m. PT

In his five previous seasons with Arizona State, head coach Chris Malone has guided the Sun Devils to at least the semifinals four times along with two championship game appearances. He's one of the many MCLA coaches who hasn't been at the same place for very long, but has still made a huge impact on their programs.
© Cecil Copeland

COYNE: Admittedly, I was a little suspect of the Buffs heading into this season, but they've lived up to their preseason ranking so far, backstopped by Brad Macnee, who is currently the frontrunner for Player of the Year (we'll give him a pass for the 11 goals against Fraser). UCSB continues its trend of making every game close, no matter the competition, although they showed some grit rallying late against Texas.

As those who have been following this space know, I am perpetually leery of the "Double Down" – when one teams travels and plays a pair of teams that have no other games on their schedule. While technically this is only a partial Double Down (Cal Poly plays UC Davis on Saturday), the Buffs will be playing a pair of fresh teams, including the Gauchos on the second day. I'm going to break from tradition and take the Buffs because of Macnee and their goal-scoring prowess this season. Colorado, 8-7.

SCHOOLER: UCSB will come out with an early lead, but not because the Buffs play Cal Poly the night before. The Gauchos have allowed 20 first half goals while scoring 36 of their own.

The second half will be a different story. The Gauchos have given up more than twice as many goals (43) in the second half so far this season. So I can see this being another nail biter just like the Stanford, Cal, CSU, and Texas games.

This isn't because the Gauchos are running out of gas -- they are also scoring more goals in the second half (46). The defense cannot become complacent when they get a lead. They need to keep the pressure on and I see them doing so in their first game in the stadium this season. Gauchos win, 10-8.

No. 10 Minnesota-Duluth (5-1) vs. No. 11 Michigan State (0-0) - Friday, 8:30 p.m. (at Lisle, Ill.)

COYNE: It's not going to be the best game of the weekend (see below), but this will be the most intriguing. We discussed Duluth's plight last week, and now it is entering a critical contest against a Michigan State team we know very little about.

They have a new coach — Brandon Schwind has taken over for Dwayne Hicks — and we know that the Spartans are loaded with talent, but is it realistic to pick a team that has yet to play a game against the Bulldogs, which have already measured themselves against a pair of semifinal squads from '12? The Spartans will be just fine during the rest of the season, and likely cruise to the CCLA title, but they'll be running into a buzzsaw here. Bulldogs, 12-7.

SCHOOLER: As discussed last week, this is a must win for Duluth, and a doable one at that. This will be the first game for the Spartans, but expect them to start where they left off. They have kept their core intact and look to improve on their 12-4 record last season.

I see this as the end of the road for any hope of the UMLC getting a team to South Carolina. Sparty, 9-6.

No. 2 Brigham Young (6-0) at No. 6 Arizona State (5-1) - Saturday, 1 p.m. MT

COYNE: Ah, the game of the week. It features a pair of semifinalists from last year who are definitely heading back to Greenville, but both want this win just in case Colorado State stumbles and the top seed becomes available at some point. Oh, and it also happens to be a rematch of the '11 title game, won by the Cougars, 10-8.

The Sun Devils are certainly a more dangerous team than last year, when they were forced to rely heavily on their defense and pray for a couple of opportunistic goals. Still, they rely on heavily on the one-on-one abilities of Payson Clark and Justin Straker, who account for over half of ASU's goals this spring. Clark and Straker are undoubtedly good, but that kind of top-heavy scoring makes game-planning relatively simple. BYU has some holes, and they will get a handful from Grand Canyon on Thursday, but they'll find enough goals to take this one down. Cougars, 12-9.

SCHOOLER: The Sun Devils are in a comfortable place. They do not have to leave the state of Arizona for the rest of the regular season. The Cougars are stepping out of the mountains and into the desert, and it is tough to win games in Scottsdale.

I will be visiting Arizona this weekend, but will not have the time to check out the game. That is unfortunate because I believe this will be a good one. I can see this being a classic battle of defenses. I'm sticking with the SLC in a close one. Devils, 8-7.

Schooler's Pick

Texas State (7-1) vs. Northeastern (0-3) - Saturday, 1 p.m. (at Providence, R.I.)

SCHOOLER: This is a bold trip for the Bobcats. The PCLL must be gaining a lot of respect if teams are leaving the warmth of places like Texas to play some lacrosse in the chilly northeast. I have tried playing in the cold before, and if you are not used to it, it is all you can think about during the game.

Texas State better hope for warm weather because I do not see it in the forecast. This Northeastern team is good despite their winless record. Those losses all came at the hands of teams much better than Texas State. Huskies win, 13-9.

COYNE: The records entering this game would lend one to believe that Texas State is the prohibitive favorite in this contest, but in actuality, the Bobcats are underdogs. Northeastern showed on its season-opening trip to California – where it lost by a goal to No. 13 Cal and No. 3 Stanford, and by three to No. 7 UCSB in the third game in four days – that it can run with anyone. Meanwhile, TxState has played one team of note, No. 9 Boston College, and lost, 9-7.

The Bobcats have some offensive weapons in Dom Pizzuti (24g, 5a), Clark Dansby (18g, 4a) and Andy Uhl (17g, 15a), but they may never see the ball. Mike Lehmann, who happens to lead the Huskies in points at this point, is one of the top faceoff men in the country, and will control possessions for Northeastern all afternoon. Eventually, the State defensive will wear down under the constant pressure, leading to a comfortable win for NU. Huskies, 13-8.

Coyne's Pick

No. 25 Davenport (2-0) at No. 24 Grand Canyon (3-2) - Saturday, 12 p.m. MT

COYNE: Look at the Panthers and 'Lopes, all grown up. The two teams that bumped up from Division II to the senior circuit finally square off and, most impressively, they are both doing it with a national ranking. Grand Canyon has a better resume at this point, including a victory over No. 22 Arizona and a one-goal loss to No. 5 Chapman. Meanwhile, Davenport has a couple of walkovers against CCLA lightweights.

Both of these teams play on Thursday night — GCU versus No. 2 BYU and Davenport against 'Zona — before their showdown, which doesn't really favor either. This is a tough one to call, so I'm going to default to last year, and take the Panthers in an upset. DU, 15-13.

SCHOOLER: I came out doubting GCU this season. I did not believe that a team could make the transition from DII to DI with success in the first season, but the 'Lopes have proven me wrong. While Davenport is strong, they do not have the DI resume that Grand Canyon has.

It is only fitting that both teams come into this game ranked No. 24 and No. 25. It's like the lacrosse gods wanted it that way. So we know this will be a close one, but I am going with GCU, 13-12, in overtime.

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