Wednesday, September 27, 2017

We're No. 4, Or Maybe No. 5?

Here's the least surprising thing TigerBlog will write in a long time: He thinks Bill Tierney is the best coach he's ever seen.

Stunning, right?

Tierney, in the last 26 years, has made 15 trips to the NCAA men's lacrosse Final Four, winning seven times. The scorecard reads six championships, eight finals and 10 Final Fours with Princeton, and one more championship and five Final Fours with his current team, Denver.

That's a lot of winning.

Want to know what's most impressive about all that? This: zero Final Fours, zero championships, zero NCAA tournament appearances at Princeton before he arrived, and zero Final Fours, zero championships and one NCAA appearance, a lose in the first round, for Denver before he arrived.

Not once, but twice, has Tierney arrived at a place that had no reasonable expectation of what was to follow and then built both into the premiere program in the country. His work with these two teams also was the primary factor for the explosion of the sport in those two areas, and really, with Denver, into the entire Western United States. TigerBlog has seen first hand what an event any home lacrosse game has become at Denver's Peter Barton Stadium.

As you may know, TigerBlog and Bill Tierney go way back. TigerBlog, as you may also know, is somewhat of a fan of lacrosse, and his two children are serious players. This all started with Bill Tierney.

It's not easy to do what Tierney did at Princeton, if for no other reason than most of the program's here have decades of sustained excellence and haven't really needed rebuilding.

Courtney Banghart, for instance, took over a Princeton women's basketball program that was two years removed from a 21-7 record and a share of the Ivy League championship. What she and top assistant Milena Flores have done is take that team so far beyond any reasonable expectation from when they started here, but they didn't have to build the program from the bottom up.

Bob Surace also had a rebuilding job to do when he took over in 2010, but he wasn't starting a program that had never experienced success. In fact, Princeton won the 2006 Ivy title.

What Surace has done is win two titles in the last four years while putting some of the most exciting offensive teams in league history on the field, as well as teams with great balance and lock-down defense.

Chris Ayres has had it much tougher.

The Princeton wrestling coach took over a team that had eight winless Ivy seasons in the 10 years before he arrived and has turned it into the second best team in the league, one that is constantly closing the gap on the Goliath of Ivy wrestling, Cornell.

You can tell a lot about these coaches by the records their first year, compared with the success they've had since.

Banghart - 7-23 (she's now a ridiculous 208-87).
Surace - 1-9.
Ayres - 0-17.

Tierney, by the way, was 2-13 in his first year at Princeton. 

Banghart, also by the way, has taken Princeton to eight straight postseasons and six NCAAs, even winning a tournament game. Surace is almost all the way back to .500 after being 2-20 to start. Ayres has had back-to-back 4-1 Ivy seasons and has had 11 NCAA qualifiers in two years.

All of this brings TB to Ron Fogarty.

The men's hockey coach walked into a situation as tough as anyone when he came to Princeton. The Tigers were 4-23-3 in his first season, in 2014-15.

The ECAC released its preseason coaches' and media polls for 2017-18 earlier this week. Princeton was ranked fifth by the coaches and fourth by the media. TB is pretty sure Princeton has been picked 11th or 12th for the last however many years.

Before one puck drops on this season, think about that.

Princeton was the last team in Division I to win a game last year. The Tigers then went on to host an ECAC first round playoff series, knocking of Colgate for good measure.

Princeton did it last year with a young team, one that seemed to come at its opponents with wave after wave of freshmen and sophomores. At one point, winning a game was a big deal. By the end of the year, winning became expected.

Rebuilding is a process, one that includes recruiting and then culture change within the program. Teams begin to look different long before the games start. There is a different kind of confidence, a different level of respect. Opponents who used to circle that day as a sure win now dread coming to your place.

That's the goal.

Fogarty certainly has his team on track for that, maybe even quicker than he thought he would. Either way, it figures to be a fairly exciting winter at Hobey Baker Rink.

One thing TigerBlog has learned from coaches who rebuild programs is that they think going from 12th to fifth is nice, but going from fifth to first is actually the point.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

TB, I agree with you completely about the impressive turnarounds engineered by coaches Banghart, Surace, Ayres and Fogarty. But without minimizing their respective achievements at all, I'd go further to say that Bill Tierney is the best college coach ever, in any sport. How can I make such a broad sweeping statement? Besides the numbers and championships that you reviewed in today's column, I would mention three impacts that he had on the sport of lacrosse and on Princeton.

First, Tierney completely revolutionized how defense in his sport is played. When he first implemented his innovative slide packages at Princeton, they were unique and caught the rest of college lacrosse by surprise. Today, what were once clever Tierney creations are now simply standard defensive schemes.

Second, when Tierney realized that initially he could not recruit to Princeton the great individual athletes who beat their defenders man-to-man, he implemented a possession-based offense which emphasized teamwork, screens and especially precise passing. While opposing fans decried that Tierney's often low-scoring small-ball approach was ruining lacrosse, he was simply using strategy to overcome his temporary inability to recruit the superstar athletes to Princeton. Soon, as the Tiger program began to win championships, that recruiting limitation was largely flung aside.

Third, although it's tenuous logic to conclude more than simply noting the coincidence in timing, I sense that Tierney had an impact on the Tiger athletic department beyond his individual sport. Although Princeton has always had a successful athletic program, after Tierney's first NCAA championship in 1992, it seemed that we entered a golden age when Ivy and national championships accelerated in frequency. That's about when Princeton began its streak of winning the Ivy unofficial all-sports championship year after year.

Some of that can be explained by exogenous factors such as improved financial aid and the fact that Princeton has been consistently ranked as the best college in America since then, but it also seemed that Tierney caused the entire department to sit up and aim higher than ever. Perhaps that's my imagination, but that's what great athletes and coaches do. They inspire others to raise their own goals.

Having sung Tierney's praises, I think it's only fair to point out the one major debit on his balance sheet. His departure from Princeton was handled extremely poorly, by Tierney and by others. It seemed that he assumed coach Metzbower wanted his job when of course that was not true. As a result, Metzbower not only did not assume his new dream job, he lost a job that he loved. Rather than Tierney moving to Denver to work with his son Trevor, an easier and longer-term solution would have been to hire Trevor as an assistant at Princeton. A simple three-party conversation with Trevor and coach Metzbower would have gone a long way toward mitigating Tierney's messy exodus from Princeton.

Oh well, nobody's perfect. Tierney's mishandling of his own job transition almost humanizes what would otherwise be his profound, transforming impact on his sport and on Princeton.