Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Former Men's Lacrosse Coach Bill Tierney

TigerBlog stood in the back of the lockerroom four times as a Princeton men's lacrosse national championship celebration played out in front of him (TB was still a newspaper reporter for the first two).

TB was also there for two other NCAA finals that went the other way. He stood off the side, in the background, for big wins and crushing losses, Ivy League championships and losses that ended Ivy titles hopes, great days and tough days.

He's heard Bill Tierney talk to his guys behind closed doors in every possible situation, heard Tierney run the gamut of every possible emotion, string together words that are forever embedded into TigerBlog's memory.

Bill Tierney won 238 games as the head coach of Princeton men's lacrosse. TigerBlog was there for at least 200 of them, including every one of the last 89 and 163 of 167 since TB became the men's lacrosse contact prior to the 1995 season.

And yet when word started to come that Tierney was considering a move to Denver and then later when the Hall of Fame coach confirmed it, TigerBlog's thoughts didn't turn to any one of those wins, any one of those championships, any of those postgame talks.

Instead, TB first thought back to 2006, when TigerBlog Jr. was in third grade and getting ready to play in the Liberty Lacrosse Tournament. The day before the tournament, the mesh on TBJ's only goalie stick broke. Quietly, TBJ whispered to TigerBlog: "Can you call Bill Tierney and ask him what we should do?"

Realizing that it was too late to get the stick restrung, TB did in fact call Tierney, who answered his cell phone while away recruiting. When informed of the problem, Tierney told TigerBlog to go to his house and then told him the code to the garage door opener. Tierney said there'd be four or five goalie sticks there; just grab what you need.

Later on, when TBJ went to Tierney's house to return the sticks after the tournament, Tierney told him that he'd used the stick that Trevor Tierney had used in the 2001 NCAA championship game and that TBJ should keep it.

That's who Bill Tierney is. Yes, he's a Hall of Fame coach. Yes, his move to Denver is one of the most intriguing moments in Division I lacrosse history. Yes, he won 14 Ivy League championships and six NCAA titles and went to 10 Final Fours and eight championship games in 22 seasons at Princeton.

There's also the undeniable fact that before Tierney came to Princeton, the sport of lacrosse hardly existed in the area around TigerBlog HQ. Today, as it's getting harder and harder to field youth baseball teams, every kid out there has a lacrosse stick, and this growth is directly attributable to Bill Tierney.

And yes, he's often a volatile figure on the sidelines during games, and that volatility – and the fact that he won big – made him a polarizing force in lacrosse. All you need to do is read a lacrosse message board to see that he is loved and he is hated and there isn't much in the middle.

Sadly, those who only see the fiery coach are missing more. Much more.

TigerBlog saw Tierney stop practice several times in the mid-1990s to accommodate media people who arrived late for scheduled interviews because of what he saw as a responsibility to help grow the game. TB has seen Tierney at camps, working easily with kids to whom he was lacrosse royalty. TB has seen Tierney talk to youth coaches, who had the same feeling as the kids, and spend literally hours talking about the game itself and his philosophies of coaching.

Earlier this year, a teammate of TBJ's collapsed at the end of a game. A healthy 12 year old who had just played a full game of lacrosse suddenly went down, with a racing heart and trouble breathing. A 911 call later, the boy was off to the hospital. It wasn't until two days later and every test imaginable that it ended up being something reasonably normal for a very tall, very thin, very athletic kid to have happen.

The next day, TigerBlog was telling Tierney the story, mostly focusing on how scary it was. At this point, there had been no follow-up news saying that the boy was fine.

"How can I help?" Tierney asked. "We'll send him a note. Get all the guys to sign a jersey for him. Anything at all. Let me know."

This past season, Tierney and his team became involved with Connor McKemey, a 14-year-old South Carolina lacrosse player who was burned over 85 percent of his body in a house fire at Christmas. This happened while his father was serving as a Marine in Iraq. The team's association with Connor began when Tierney simply wrote the boy a note.

That's Bill Tierney. That's the coach who is leaving Princeton now, who is heading West to help grow the game, to give himself one last new challenge in his coaching career, to be closer to his family, to work with Trevor.

When TigerBlog was walking out of Jadwin Gym yesterday, he saw Pete Carril in the parking lot. Carril stopped and gave his salutory "yoooooo" greeting. After a small chat, Carril continued into the buiding. TigerBlog had written the release about Carril's resignation from Princeton 13 years earlier, and now TB had his laptop with him, ready to write the same about Tierney.

It dawned on TigerBlog that these two men, Carril and Tierney, are quite likely the two greatest coaches in the long history of Princeton athletics. Sure, you can make a case for others, with a list too numerous to write down here.

Carril and Tierney, though, rise above the rest, for their longevity, for their success (and in Tierney's case, the lack of success that immediately preceded him) and for how each impacted the very manner in which his sport was played. And if you want to have two others on your list, that's fine, but Carril and Tierney have to be in the conversation.

Bill Tierney coached at Princeton for 22 years, and TigerBlog had watched him up close for 20 of those years, the last 15 literally from inside the lockerroom. TB watched as the program Tierney built from the ground up rose to the top of the sport on six different occasions and was there for so many glorious wins that he couldn't possibly say which the greatest one was. Was it the 2001 championship game? Maybe the 1998 playoff run? Maybe 2004? Or 1992, the first time? Or 1994, the year that proved 1992 wasn't a fluke? Where to begin? Which game to think of first?

And yet for all of that, on the day that Tierney announced he was leaving Princeton, TigerBlog's thoughts turned first not to a single one of those days but instead to an upset eight-year-old boy, a stick and how Bill Tierney did everything he could do to help.

What else is there to say?


Anonymous said...

Thank You Coach Tierney. Princeton University is a better place because of you.

Lax007 said...

Coach Tierney is a Gem. My good friend (Princeton Grad) was honored two years ago at a local HS program which he started. We raised money for a Golden Bear Statue (school mascot) and the lead parent behind this honor called Coach Tierney and asked if he could donate a jersey for my friend. Not only did Coach T send a jersey he had it signed by the team, sent a Princeton helmet and wrote one of the most thoughtful letters about my friend.

It was such a touching moment to have friends and family witness how great Coach Tierney is. He went above and beyond what was called for which is typical of this man.

Denver will rule the lacrosse world in a few years. Way to go Coach!

Anonymous said...

Bill Tierney will long be remembered but not for what his true legacy is. Tierny, along with friends Tony Seaman and Dave Cottle, ushered in the 'stall' game. Taking advantage of the ultra ball control that the new equipment seemed to deliver with each new model, Tierney took the fastest game on two feet and shot it dead right between the eyes. Yes, he won, but the price the game paid was high. He strangled the initiative of the player and wrung it out in a terrible 'stall' towel. Such a shame for a Long Island guy as he should know better.

Now, he takes that stall game to the west and will ruin that region as well. He may win, but the game will be the big loser.

Anonymous said...

I agree with “Anonymous.” Tierney took the fastest game on two feet and shot it right between the eyes. All the way to 50,000 people in an NFL stadium and 100’s of games on TV.

Anonymous said...

Tierney is an honorable man, and an excellent coach, but he did change the game in a negative way. I'm not sure Denver will be ruling anything in a few years, but Tierney deserves to move on with his life. I am happy for him, but will never forget how his "legacy" affected one of my sons.

My oldest son attended his Summer Youth camp, and as a Tiger alum, (Class of 1981) I thought his attendance at the camp might turn him on to the thought of attending Dad's old school. Unfortunately, Tierney's role in the camp was minimal, and it was basically run by his players, who were not as professional as he was. My son vowed that he would never go to Princeton after being mistreated at that camp. He also influenced his younger brother to look elsewhere. They are both Div. III players at great schools, but they never considered attending my Alma Mater, despite being qualified as lax players and scholars. In fact, that was when I realized that lacrosse was big business, not the "fastest game on two feet", the old cliche that doesn't fit anymore. Cronyism and an old boy network fits the lax community like a glove, and Tierney has been a big part of it.

Fortunately, the game's increased popularity will force the old guard to re-examine their old boy network. As more people of color play this game, their athleticism will eventually open up the ranks of this closed network. Maybe that's one of the reasons he left for Denver. We will see.

Bill Cirullo said...

Gil Gibbs (Montclair H.S.) and Bill Tierney, two of the finest men to ever grace Lax sidelines in New Jersey. Both raised the game to a whole new level, and to what it is today. Brilliant.
Bill Tierney loves his"kids". He is always there for those who need him. The Princeton Bobby Campbell Lacrosse Foundation "kids" in Princeton and Trenton will be forever grateful for the attention and kindness Bill and his "kids"showed them. He has been a good friend. Upon Bill's arrival in Princeton he told his freshman they would be National Champions in four years. They smiled. In four years they were. A great coach and man. Get ready Denver. bill cirullo Bobby Campbell Lax Foundation

Unknown said...

I recall Coach Tierney jokingly pouring a water bottle onto TigerBlog Jr's head. It was 100 degrees on the field at the Linc (NCAA Championships ('05?).
What Coach didn't know was that the water bottle was filled with Gatorade!

Holy sticky mess! TB Jr took that all in stride.

Good luck to Coach, and I think Princeton will be left in capable hands.

Fast Walk to Fresno said...

I know this blog is super old, but as someone who grew up in NJ in the '70s and '80s, I could let this utter absurdity stand unmentioned:

"There's also the undeniable fact that before Tierney came to Princeton, the sport of lacrosse hardly existed in the area around TigerBlog HQ."

This is utterly and completely FALSE. I went to the Hun School and graduated in 1984 and played lacrosse there since 6th grade. Lawrenceville, Peddie, Pingry, Princeton Day School, Princeton HS, and plenty of other schools in the area had old, thriving, and strong lacrosse programs. After Baltimore, Long Island, and upstate NY, eastern PA and NJ had the richest and deepest lacrosse traditions in the country by the mid '80s. The growth of lacrosse in NJ predates Tierney, and its continued growth in the '90s parallels that of its growth everywhere and had nothing to do with him.