Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Bill Tierney, The Greatest Ever

Bill Tierney is kneeling.

TigerBlog is in the Lincoln Financial Field press box. He's across the field and on the other side of the field from the Denver bench, and his job is to input the stats for the game.

He's focused on that task, yet he continues to glance down to see Tierney, in his familiar kneel. And TigerBlog chuckles, in a barely audible way.

He's seen this a million times before, Tierney as he kneels. He has picture after picture of it on his computer.

He can't help but think back to all the times he's seen this before, all of the great days he and Tierney have had together, all of the great Memorial Days he had with Princeton lacrosse.

Now TigerBlog's mind wanders a bit more, between entering stats. So much of TB's life the last two-plus decades has been spent in the sport of lacrosse. So much of his children's lives have been spent in the sport of lacrosse. So many of the friendships TigerBlog has made have been because of the sport of lacrosse.

And none of it would have happened had it not been for Bill Tierney.  

Now the game has ended, Denver 10, Maryland 5. TigerBlog is trying to wrap up the stats, email the game files to where they need to go, all of the stuff that happens when a game ends. As he does this, his phone is in his pocket.

It's set on vibrate. It buzzes. It's buzzes again. Over and over and over.

By the time he checks it, he's heard from 11 different people, and they all have basically said the same thing. Bill Tierney is the greatest coach ever.

TigerBlog can't begin to use enough superlatives to explain what exactly Tierney accomplished yesterday.

Sure, he won his seventh NCAA Division I title, the most ever by a head coach. He's also the only coach in Division I history to win a men's lacrosse championship at two different schools.

But that's not even half the story. It's not like he won a championship at Johns Hopkins and then went to Syracuse. It's not like he won at Duke and then went to Virginia.

He did it in the hardest way possible. He did it in a way that no other elite lacrosse coach has ever shown the courage to attempt, let alone accomplish. Would any other coach who has won an NCAA championship give up all of his current institutional advantages, move 2,000 miles west and start from scratch, while running the risk of failing?

Maybe they would, but they haven't.

So let's go back to 1987.

Tierney left Hopkins - where the Blue Jays won two NCAA titles in his three years as an assistant - to become the head coach at Princeton.

It had been 20 years since Princeton had won an Ivy League championship. The team had never played in the NCAA tournament. Princeton was an after-thought, a non-factor in the national lacrosse landscape.

Enter Tierney. He told his first recruiting class that it would win a national championship, and then he went out and did, defeating Syracuse in 1992. It was his fifth year at Princeton.

By the time he left after 22 seasons, he had won six NCAA titles, played in eight championship games, reached 10 Final Fours and took home 13 Ivy League championships.

Then, after the 2009 season - a year Princeton had been ranked No. 1 nationally during the season -he shocked the lacrosse world and headed west, to Denver.

When he arrived, he took over a team that had only been Division I since 1999. It had made two NCAA tournament appearances, both after winning the long-defunct Great Western Lacrosse League. It's only two NCAA games were both losses, both against Maryland, neither all that close.

This is what he inherited. It would take him one more year than it did at Princeton.

And now here's what he's done in six years with the Pioneers: six years, six NCAA tournament appearances, four Final Fours and now one NCAA title. Add it together and it's a total of seven NCAA titles, nine finals, 14 Final Fours.

No one else in the sport can match it. Add in the degree of difficulty of doing it at two places had no reason to expect to play for national championships when he arrived and it's just extraordinary.

So why is he so successful? Why has he been able to do this?

Yes, he's an extraordinary X's and O's guy, but so are a lot of other coaches. That doesn't explain it, even if Tierney has made some of the most copied innovations in the sport.

If you asked TigerBlog to explain Tierney's success, he would say two things. First, Bill Tierney is able to manage an individual while managing the overall organization at the same time better than anyone he's ever met.

TigerBlog knows this first-hand. In his 20 years of working with him at Princeton, Tierney had a way of making TigerBlog feel like what he was doing was essential to the success of the program. If he could make his athletic communications contact feel that way, what must it be like to be one of his players?

And second? Once you are one of his guys, you are one of his guys forever, and you are left with a feeling that you never, ever want to let him down, never want to fail to live up to his standards and expectations.

Again, TigerBlog knows this first-hand. He remembers one time in his 20 years of working with him that he got that look from him (after he made a joke in one of those NCAA tournament pregame meetings), the one that said "what are you doing?" That was a long time ago, and it still gives TB the shivers to think about it.

Tierney said after the game that he didn't want them to put on his tombstone how many national titles he won. He wanted them to put on his tombstone that his players loved him.

Think they do?

The NCAA honors the team that won the championship 25 years earlier at each championship game. The NCAA vacated the 1990 title that Syracuse won, so there was no team to honor.

As a result, the NCAA had a contest to determine the "Champion of Champions," which allowed fans to essentially vote for the greatest team ever. The winner was Princeton's 1997 15-0 team.

So there were the Tigers, 40 out of 48 of them from the team that won 18 years ago, on the field in the final minutes of the first half, waiting to be honored at halftime.

As the final minute of the first half ticked down, Denver was up 5-3, Maryland ball. As the final 10 seconds wound off the clock, the members of the 1997 Princeton team leaned out a bit, as if they were on the sideline of their own game. Then Maryland's Henry West let a shot fly, one that was headed into the net, only to have Denver goalie Ryan La Plante knock it away as time expired.

As La Plante made his save, the entire Princeton contingent cheered. In fact, they almost exploded onto the field.

Why wouldn't they?

Their coach was that much closer to another NCAA championship. They were his players, sort of cousins to the ones who were about to win their own championship.

They were his players, and they love him. Still. All these years later. His haters - and he has plenty of them - will never understand that.

So, yes, they'll be able to put that on his tombstone.

They can also put that he is, without question, the greatest coach the sport of lacrosse has ever known.

What he did yesterday leaves no doubt about that.

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