Feature - May 20, 1998

Turnaround Artist
Coach Bill Tierney restored lacrosse's winning tradition -- and created a juggernaut

By David Marcus '92

"One time it goes out of bounds could be the difference in a national championship game!" yells men's lacrosse coach Bill Tierney, after one of his players throws an errant pass, the second such mistake in the last five minutes. Tierney's team -- favored to win its third consecutive national title -- can't make such an error without a reprimand, even in an early-season practice like this one, held in February, rather than in a playoff game in May. The coach is less dramatic the next time somebody throws a pass out of bounds: "Everyone on offense, gimme 25 push-ups!" The players comply, and the drill continues.

Some of Tierney's other corrections are more subtle. A defenseman moves to cover an open man, then returns to cover the attackman he was originally marking. The player may be hustling, but he's not playing the way Tierney wants, and another defenseman should have moved to cover the vacated attackman. "Once you come, you stay!" the coach instructs. "That was a great slide, but you did all the work."

The defensive drill ends at 4:25, and Tierney huddles with his assistant coaches before jogging off the field in the middle of practice. His daughter Courtney, a sophomore at Hun School in Princeton, had been celebrating Washington's birthday by shooting hoops at Dillon Gymnasium, and she is sitting in the stands waiting for him to give her a ride home.

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Princeton hired Tierney in 1987, when he had just six years of collegiate coaching experience. One of the winningest coaches in lacrosse history -- his record stands at 155-0-47 (.767) as this issue goes to press -- came late to lacrosse, having first played the game in his freshman year at Cortland State (now SUNY Cortland), in New York. He was a quick learner, and after graduating from Cortland in 1973, he returned to his native Long Island to teach and coach at the high school level, while earning an M.A. in physical education from Adelphi University. In 1982, he was named head coach at Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, New York; after three years there, he moved to perennial lacrosse power Johns Hopkins, where as an assistant he helped the Blue Jays to national titles in 1985 and 1987.

When Tierney arrived at Princeton 11 years ago, he inherited a program ripe for change. The Tigers boasted an august lacrosse tradition that included 15 Ivy League championships and four national titles between 1937 and 1953. But Princeton had last won the Ivy crown in 1967, and in the four seasons before Tierney's debut it had won only 14 of 60 games.

He accepted the job anyway. Despite the program's decrepit state, it had some strengths: strong ties to Baltimore, a traditional lacrosse hotbed, as well as lacrosse alumni there and elsewhere who were willing to support the team. With Tierney's knowledge of Long Island, another major recruiting ground, the new coach thought Princeton was a smart career move. "When I took the job, I thought I'd come here, help turn it around, and go someplace else," he says.

The Tigers' turnaround came quickly. After losing seasons in 1988 and 1989, they went 10-4 in 1990 and for the first time made the NCAA playoffs, where they upset Hopkins before losing to Yale in the quarterfinals. In 1992, a senior-dominated team won the school's first Ivy lacrosse title in 25 years; it went on to win its first NCAA crown by beating Syracuse 10-9 in double overtime. A deluge of titles followed: Ivy crowns in 1993, 1995, 1996, and 1997, and national titles in 1994, 1996, and 1997.

Tierney's accomplishments have won him the chance to add yet another title to his cache. In July he will coach the U.S. world team, which is heavily favored to win the World Games, lacrosse's quadrennial world championship, at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. The games, which will last two weeks, and the preparations for them will keep Tierney from the lacrosse camps he usually attends in June and July, both to coach and to scout the nation's top high-school talent. Recruiting reaches its height in the fall, when Tierney visits the players he is seriously wooing, and the players themselves visit Princeton. Though Princeton's success attracts many exceptional high-school players, Tierney says he also looks for people he wants to coach -- attitude is at least as important as ability -- and he encourages his current players to evaluate potential teammates. "This year," he says, "we stopped recruiting two kids because a couple of players said no. In a few cases, when I've ignored a player's view on a recruit, I've regretted not listening to him."

Now Tierney's program is one of the most successful in lacrosse history, and he is well on his way to becoming one of the game's all-time great coaches. Instead of going someplace else after making it to the top, Tierney and his wife, Helen, have drawn closer to Princeton. Their older son, Trevor '01, is a goalie on the team; their younger son, Brendan '02, an attackman, will join him next year. Daughters Brianne and Courtney attend Hun. Tierney and his wife have even become fixtures at Reunions: "You'll see Helen leaning up against one of the stanchions, listening to a band, and getting a little misty," says Justin Tortolani '92, a former player.

Defensive wizardry

His daughter safely deposited at home, Tierney returns to practice at 4:45. A half-hour later, he herds his defensive players and goalies to the far end of the field so he can introduce them to two new defenses. He describes the set-ups, choreographs where players will stand, and tells them what they will need to do in various situations. When a player looks confused while walking through the new defense, Tierney reassures him: "It's all right. It's new. We'll get there."

The coach's confidence is well founded. An exceptional defensive teacher and strategist, he's able to make each player understand the role he needs to play. One way Tierney does that is to make players' defensive responsibilities as simple as possible. Says former defenseman Becket Wolf '97, "All I had to do was get top-side [in front of the offensive player]. He screams it every day in practice, and you don't think that's all you have to do, but it is."

Princeton has three basic defenses, each with multiple variations, all of which must be practiced until the team can execute them flawlessly. The hours the players spend learning their own -- and each other's -- roles allow Tierney, a master at shuffling players, to take advantage of their skills at crucial times. For example, in the first quarter of the 1996 national-title game, against the University of Virginia, the Cavaliers' Michael Watson scored three goals against defenseman Kurt Lunken-heimer '99. Since it was clear Lunkenheimer couldn't stop the faster Watson, Tierney put Christian Cook '98, the team's fastest player, on Watson. Cook had ample experience as a defensive midfielder, but he was not a starting defenseman -- yet Tierney's defense would now rely on him to stop Virginia's best attackman. Cook held Watson to two goals for the rest of the game.

A switch Tierney made in the third quarter of that game attracted more attention. Just as he had done two days before in the Tigers' 10-9 semifinal win over Syracuse, he pulled Patrick Cairns '97, the team's starting goalie for two years, in favor of senior and team captain Pancho Gutstein '96. The move was unorthodox, but so is the coach's approach to goaltenders: "Certain kinds of people are starters, and others are relief pitchers," he says. "Pancho was more observant than Patrick and had a different style. Balls that scored on Patrick never scored on Pancho." Managers may use relievers in the late innings of a close baseball game, but when a coach pulls his starting goalie in a close lacrosse game it's almost always a sign that the coach, the team, or both, are panicking. Instead, the Tigers went on to win in overtime, 13-12, garnering their third NCAA title.

Back at practice, freshman John Walsh, a former high-school midfielder whom Tierney has converted to defense, throws a pass to another freshman, goalie Trevor Tierney (the coach's son), who has run out of the goal area looking for a pass. Such passes are dangerous both to the goalie, who may be clobbered by an opposing attackman, and to the defense, which risks giving up a goal if the opposition intercepts the ball with the goalie out of position.

Both players have made fundamental mistakes, and their inexperience is no excuse. The coach lets them know it. "One's dumber than the next!" he yells. "Trevor, stay in the crease. John, just because he leaves the crease, don't be dumb enough to throw it to him." Learning to pay attention to such details is a critical part of the team's success, but many of Tierney's players find it difficult to accept the criticism the coach doles out as he teaches. "You're working as hard as you can, but you've got someone who's riding you really hard," says Wolf. "You have to step outside yourself and listen to what he's saying."

The coach concentrates on criticizing the play, not the player: "You always have to remember when you go after a guy to tell him that it's not personal. You make sure to pat that guy on the back after he makes a good play."

And the screaming? Tierney says his intensity is a vital part of his persona: "My fear is that it's not in my nature ever to be a mellow coach. If I stopped being emotional, would it mean that I've lost my love for coaching the game?" But he has learned to use his intensity more selectively. "At some point, you get tired of yelling and screaming. I think I'm more aware of who needs it when."

At some point, most players learn how to deal with the coach's ranting. One who did was midfielder Craig Katz '97. At a practice last year, Katz remembers, Tierney yelled at him for making a mistake during a defensive drill. "Two minutes later he was rotating the midfielders in and out, and he turned to me and said, 'Craig, have you done this drill yet?' That's when it hit me that he doesn't remember who he's yelled at or why," says Katz. "About a week later he asked me why I thought I was playing better, and I said, 'I finally learned to ignore your yelling at me. You never remember why you're screaming, anyway.'" For his part, Tierney says his short memory is an advantage: "It's not important to remember who you yelled at, as long as he remembers what you yelled about, and the team remembers."

In his willingness to challenge his players, Tierney acknowledges that he risks alienating them--"One of the greatest things a coach fears is mutiny from his players," he once told Wolf. But Tierney is open to dialogue. Last spring, Wolf recalls, Tierney threw out a challenge to his seniors, telling them they hadn't established leadership of the team. "I was disgusted with him and went to his office to talk about it," says Wolf. "He didn't back down, and the senior class came out of its shell." By the time Tierney's players are seniors, he thinks they deserve the opportunity to tell him what's on their minds: "At first you say, 'I'm the boss here, shut your mouth.' But then you say, 'Ah, they're becoming men.'"

Tierney also accepts responsibility when he makes mistakes of his own. For example, during a game at the University of North Carolina in 1992, Tierney told attackman Andrew Madden '92 to prepare to go onto the field. But in the heat of a close game, Tierney forgot to put Madden in. On the bus drive back to Princeton after a 9-8 loss, Tierney found Madden and apologized for not getting him in the game. Says Madden, "Maybe, as a player, that kept you going."

Tierney on occasion shows surprising affection for his players. Before the team's quarterfinal game against Yale in the 1990 NCAA tournament, the coach addressed his team, as he does before and after every game. But on this occasion, he didn't speak about clearing the ball or looking for the open man. Instead, says Tortolani, Tierney "talked about how much he cared about us, about how much other people cared. He said that someone's mother said a novena for us, and he broke down in tears. Having him say that, we knew how much we meant to him."

Tierney ends the February practice in a more restrained way, telling his players they've done a good job and giving them the next day off so they can watch Princeton's basketball team play Penn that night.

"Don't forget about lacrosse," he warns. "For some of you, that means spending six hours in the library, and for some of you it means working on your shooting. Whatever you need to do, do it." Most of the players walk back to their locker room at Jadwin Gymnasium, but the extra-man offense and defense stay on the field for another 15 minutes of work. Princeton scrimmages Loyola on Saturday, and, as Tierney tells his defense, "They have maybe the second-best man-up unit in the country."

The best unit is Princeton's, and Tierney, wearing three jackets to stay warm on a 20-degree February night, wants to keep it that way.

David Marcus '92, a former manager of the lacrosse team, lives in New York City and reports for Corporate Control Alert, a mergers and acquisitions newsletter.