Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Lacrosse Pioneer

TigerBlog is a fan of the "Winners/Losers" weekly feature on Inside Lacrosse's website.

He's a bit stunned, though, that this past weekend's biggest winner, by far, wasn't mentioned.

Bill Tierney's Denver Pioneers rallied to defeat North Carolina 12-11 Sunday to reach the Final Four. Denver had given up the first six goals of the game, in the first six minutes no less, and looked like it was going to be run out of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis by the Tar Heels.

As an aside, TB predicted a Denver-Carolina final before the seedings were announced and then predicted a Carolina championship once the draw was known. The Denver-Carolina game is the only one of the 12 played so far that TB has gotten wrong from his pre-tournament selections. 

Anyway, TigerBlog worked with Tierney for the final 20 of his 22 seasons at Princeton, and his admiration for the Hall of Fame coach is no secret.

Neither, by the way, is his admiration for Chris Bates, Tierney's replacement at Princeton, who had to do what is never easy, and that is follow a person who in many ways was bigger than the program itself. So many coaches have failed in that situation, because the pressure to follow such a big name is enormous.

And yet Bates from Day 1 established that this was his program, done his way. He is clearly the perfect person for Princeton lacrosse right now. In fact, were it not for a little bad luck at some inopportune moments against Syracuse and Carolina, Princeton would have gotten the chance to keep this season going - and it still might be going.

Either way, the Tigers are very well-positioned for 2014.

As for Tierney, his first season at Princeton was 1988. Prior to that, Princeton had last won an Ivy League championship in 1967 and had never once played in the NCAA tournament.

In his 22 years at Princeton, Tierney won six NCAA championships, made eight NCAA finals and 10 Final Fours and won 14 Ivy titles.

He then left Princeton for Denver, and a program that had made two NCAA tournament appearances and had never won an NCAA game prior to his arrival. Tierney has taken the Pioneers to four NCAA tournaments in four years, including a Final Four in 2011, a quarterfinal loss by one to eventual-champion Loyola last year and now another Final Four this year.

His record is extraordinary.

Actually, no, it's not. It's beyond extraordinary.

TigerBlog can't remember an NCAA tournament game Tierney had at Princeton where the Tigers came from six goals back, but he does remember two 8-4 third-quarter deficits that Princeton had to overcome (against Duke in the 1998 quarterfinals and 1998 semifinals). TB could imagine that Tierney had the same approach Sunday against Carolina that he had in those games, which was basically to stay focused, not get caught up in the moment and realize that there was plenty of time left.

Of all the thousands of things TB has heard Tierney say, one that has always stuck with him is this: When things are going poorly, stop and think what it is you do best and then go do that.

TigerBlog has found himself asking the question lately of what it is that has made Tierney excel beyond the level of even the greatest lacrosse coaches. Why is it that Tierney has been able to twice now take over programs that were afterthoughts and turn them into national powerhouses?

This wasn't John Calipari to Kentucky or Phil Jackson to the Lakers or Nick Saban to Alabama. It wasn't John Danowski to Duke. As acclaimed as the records of lacrosse coaches like Dom Starsia or John Desko or Dave Pietramala are, they are coaching at places (Virginia, Syracuse, Hopkins) where they have every possible advantage.  

What Tierney has done is even more impressive. There's a reason that Jackson had no interest in the Nets or Cavaliers. It's because he knew he couldn't win NBA titles there, and why would he want to tarnish his legacy by possibly failing?

Tierney could have failed miserably at Denver. It was a big risk.

Sure, he's a great Xs and Os coach. His defensive schemes at Princeton changed the sport. His offensive conversations with Pete Carril were legendary.

But it's beyond that. What is the one trait that he has, and is it common to the very elite coaches? 

TB has always been impressed by Tierney's ability to motivate, to get his guys to play so hard for him - and to play with something of a chip on their shoulders, even when Princeton had some of the best teams and players the sport has ever seen.

Maybe it's as simple as that. Maybe there's something way more sophisticated about it, but TB doesn't think so.

Either way, TB will be at his 19th Final Four in 22 years this weekend when the games are played at Lincoln Financial Field. For the ninth straight year, TB will be doing official stats for the five games (Division I semifinals, Division II and III finals and Division I final).

As such, there will be impartiality when it comes to his job and proper press box demeanor, which means no cheering.

Outwardly anyway.

Inside, he'll be rooting for Denver.

Actually, he's rooting not as much for Denver as he is for Bill Tierney, the greatest lacrosse coach of all time.

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