August 13, 2013

Stagnitta Brings College Philosophy to Outlaws

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

After 25 years as a college coach, Jim Stagnitta wasn't sure if coaching professional players would be the right fit for him. With a 14-0 season and the Outlaws eyeing an MLL championship, it's clear that the college concepts he brought to the pro realm are working.
© Rich Barnes

Update (8/14) - Stagnitta has been named the Brine Coach of the Year for 2013

When the phone call came, Jim Stagnitta had reservations.

On the other line was Tony Seaman, the general manager of Major League Lacrosse's Denver Outlaws, inquiring as to whether Stagnitta would be interested in becoming the franchise's next head coach prior to the 2012 campaign. A lacrosse coach for the previous 24 years, Stagnitta was intrigued, but working exclusively in the college realm meant he also had perceptions about what coaching entailed at the professional level. His preconceived notions were less about lacrosse's professional outdoor league, but rather professional athletes as a group.

"The pro athlete, the egos, the whole 'I don't need to do this' mentality," Stagnitta said. "Managing those people is what I was led to believe would be the biggest issues coming through the door and the biggest challenge. Not just from hearsay, but when you look at pro sports in general, you are dealing with a different type of person."

From his two years as an assistant at his alma mater, Penn, to his 12 years as head man at Division III Washington & Lee to his decade-long head coaching gig at Division I Rutgers, Stagnitta had grown accustomed to the comprehensive nature of college coaching. The recruiting and development of young men was always something he enjoyed. More importantly, implementing systems – the Xs and the Os – contributed to his coaching satisfaction.

Rolling out a ball and acting as a glorified substitution box coach while massaging egos off the field – Stagnitta's perception of what coaching pros required – had very little appeal.

"If I was going to do this, I wanted to have an impact from a coaching standpoint," he said. "I wanted to be able to make a difference and coach these guys. If that's not the case, and all we're going to deal with is personalities, it's probably not going to interest me. If it's going to be a combination of working with the guys and coach them and have a legitimate impact from a coaching standpoint, then it would be very interesting to me."

Essentially, Stagnitta wanted to approach the task of team-building with the Outlaws in much the same way that a college coach would. Obviously, it wouldn't involve recruiting, academic oversight and other aspects specific to the collegiate arena, but the core tenets of producing a squad of successful student-athletes would be utilized with the pro guys. Would that work?

Seaman told Stagnitta what he wanted to hear in their initial conversation and, two years later, the Outlaws have made league history by finishing the regular season with a perfect 14-0 record, and are now standing on the cusp of making even more.

* * *

Stagnitta's approach to coaching the Outlaws found its genesis when he was a post-collegiate club player after his days playing at Penn.

"The thing that I remember back after college when I was playing club, it was just pick up ball and you went out and played," he said. "I missed the structure and what came from playing on a team that shared the ball and had a system."

With this is mind, Stagnitta wasn't just going to settle for running out the best players or the ones with the most impressive pedigree. He was going to put together the best team. That sometimes meant that he had to have long conversations with players in hopes of getting them to adopt roles that they previously weren't ask to play. Stagnitta singles out guys like midfielders Drew Snider, Justin Pennington and Justin Turri as players that have accepted perhaps a less glamorous role for the betterment of the team.

And there were also guys who just didn't fit or had a higher trade value than they did in the lineup.

"We made some changes that appeared drastic," Stagnitta admitted. "And even before I walked through the door, Tony moved some guys for different reasons; they just didn't want to be out there or they wanted to be closer to home or they had different reasons. One of the first things I said to Tony, and it was even if he was a big-time player, was if he doesn't want to be here, get rid of him. I wanted people who wanted to be here because it's not easy to be here. That part helped us early on from a role standpoint."

Stagnitta admits that his philosophy would have been difficult to implement without the tacit approval from the veteran players on the roster, leaning on an old college coaching maxim to illustrate the point.

"It's like any other [college] team – you're only as good as your seniors," he said. "If they buy in, it comes from the top down. With guys like Lee Zink and Brendan Mundorf and Jesse Schwarztman, and you bring in a guy like Anthony Kelly, they've been in the league for a while and they are at the back end [of their careers], so they know what it's like and what it takes. They saw an opportunity to be successful and have fun doing it."

It also came down to Stagnitta and his staff, which includes B.J. O'Hara, who coached the Rochester Rattlers to an MLL title in 2008 and coached Hobart for 12 seasons, and long-time college coach Stan Ross, establishing a level of credibility with the players. At the college level, coaches "hold all the cards," as Stagnitta describes it, so the coaching can be more vocal and, if necessary, punitive, especially with playing opportunities. With the limited amount of prep time – MLL teams usually get one full practice and a walk through per week – it's less about drilling players on the game plan as it is establishing a belief that they are in good hands.

"You need to be honest and fair and have them believe that your decision-making is consistent and is in the their best interest," Stagnitta said. "It's all about credibility. If you have credibility, they will listen to you. We know all these guys. We've recruited them as college coaches at some point and they know that we're going to put the time and effort in and know enough about the game that we'll do the right thing."

In many ways, it's not dissimilar to a college coach making a pitch to stud player during the recruiting process. This fits nicely into to Stagnitta's concept of bringing a lot of the college game to the pro level – something that seems anathema to the contemporary professional athlete.

"In some ways, we've changed the way people approach the league and look at the league," Stagnitta said, whose Outlaws on Saturday became the first MLL team in the 13-year history of the league to sweep the regular season. "No one really felt like you could do that with a team and have them play in a system and share the ball and do the things our guys do.

"We have great players on our team, but they are selfless when it comes to doing the things you need to do to win. They also understand that if they are going to play for us, they do need to play within a system and they do need to attend that one practice that we have. You can't just fly in on game day and play. They know their defined roles. Again, I'm not sure if that was commonplace in the league, but we're successful because the guys bought into the system."

* * *

The learning has not been a one-way street. Stagnitta has learned that having premium, intelligent players allows him to do things that wouldn't work in college. The pro game is all about in-game adjustments. It's also prevalent in the college game, but the agility that MLL players display in implementing them has been a revelation to Stagnitta.

"What's great about these guys is that they have such a high level of talent that if you make those adjustments, nine times out of 10, they execute it pretty readily without much practice or preparation," he said. "With a college kid, they prepare for the opposition for the whole week and then you get into the game and say we've got to change this, they start to panic. Holy crap, we've practiced this all week, why are we changing now? With these guys, they understand and they make the adjustments."

Stagnitta has also learned that his initial perception of MLL players wasn't accurate. In some ways, it was insulting to lump lacrosse pros into the same group as "pro athletes." While they certainly have egos, as everyone does, nearly all of the professional players have day jobs. To play in the league, especially in an outpost like Denver, it's about a passion for the sport.

"The commitment these guys make and the travel for the amount of money they make, it blows me away," Stagnitta said. "It negates the whole idea of the professional egos because they are playing because they love the game. They all have jobs. They have to fly to Denver seven times a year. Most of the time, they show up at a game on Friday night, practice, do a walk through on Saturday, grab lunch and a nap, and then they are on the field at 5 p.m. for the game. Then they are on a shuttle at 6 a.m. the next morning to get home by Sunday night. It's not as glamorous as it appears. They are doing it because they love it."

Perhaps the biggest thing that Stagnitta has learned is to appreciate the pro game. He's been at the college level for nearly three decades, 10 of which were spent at the Division I level. He, like many, believed that it was the pinnacle of the sport. After two year's in Denver, that's changed.

"I've got to tell you, for me, this level of lacrosse, there is nothing better," Stagnitta said. "For those who say the college game is better, anyone who goes to these games and sees the speed, athleticism and quality of play, they are blown away because it's amazing. They are the best."

If Denver can win their two games on championship weekend – something they fell a game short of last summer – they will cap the most dominant run in MLL history. It will be a testament to the collegiate thinking of placing team over the individual and could even change the entire paradigm of coaching and personnel decision-making at the professional level.

If they don't reach the promised land, it will be a disappointment for certain, but it won't alter Stagnitta's gratitude for being able to coach at the professional level after so much time on campus.

"This team, I swear to you, it's as close of a team of guys and fun to be around than I've ever been around in 25 years of college coaching," he said. "I've played on final four teams and coached on final four teams and with NCAA tournament teams at Rutgers. For a bunch of guys who are around each other twice a week, it's amazing the camaraderie and chemistry they have. It is everything that I hoped it would be."

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