By Michael Spinner
True story: I spent the most of the last two years of my life doing the "corporate" thing for a pretty big company. It was a fun job that required the usual long, hard hours and lots of travel. I got to see the world a bit and meet lots of interesting people, some of whom are considered celebrities in today's world. Most of these meetings were by chance, some were work-related, but only one of them was truly memorable.
During a lengthy stopover in St. Louis about a year or so ago, I could not help but think the gentleman sitting next to me looked terribly familiar, but I could not figure out why. Lacking the courage to ask who he was, I merely sat and observed other people looking at him, actually staring. He was an older man, looked sort of plain and certainly not polished like an actor or public figure … yet he just looked so oddly familiar. It was not until somebody else approached the man that I found out who he was.
"Mr. Brooks, can I shake your hand?" a stranger asked. "I grew up in Duluth and used to travel all the way to see your teams play on weekends at the U of M"
"Don't just shake my hand," the gentleman replied. "Let's talk some hockey!"
The man sitting next to me was Herb Brooks - the man best known as the Head Coach of the 1980 Miracle on Ice Team USA that defeated the Soviet Union en route to the Gold Medal at the Winter Olympics. Brooks passed away tragically last summer, but will probably be remembered as one of the greatest sports people we ever had.
For the better part of an hour, Herb Brooks talked and it seemed like a dozen people sat in amazement and listened. He didn't talk about specific games or achievements. In fact, there was no mention of his National Championships at Minnesota, Gold Medal, or multiple stints in the NHL as a Head Coach. He didn't even talk about his players … he talked about his "people."
A gleam graced his eye as Brooks talked about how many of his former players kept in touch so many years after they finished their playing careers for Brooks. He talked about teaching his players to play "the" game, not to play "his" game. He talked about former players who became great off the ice at other areas of life, professionally, personally, etc. And he talked about how much effort it took to achieve his standards for greatness on the ice.
"I knew they were working hard," Brooks said, "I knew it because I'm not sure if I could have done it myself."
I was reminded of this meeting this past weekend after watching the Navy-Syracuse NCAA Championship Game. Some said it was the best championship game ever. I am not sure if that is the case, but I would venture to say that it was the most emotional. I don't know if it was the 40,000 fans, the prospects of a Baltimore-area team winning the National Championship in Baltimore, or the fact that Navy was in the Finals while every member of the Navy team will, in some way, put their lives on the line to keep our nation free when their academic commitments are over, but you could not help getting caught up in the emotion.
Meade at the NCAA Post Game Conference
One person who got caught up in it and led the emotional bandwagon was Navy's Head Coach Richie Meade. In many ways, the lacrosse world was introduced to Meade this past weekend. While most people in our sport know who Meade is, very few really have ever met him. He's colorful, a bit different if you ask me, but he distinguishes himself because I have never met an individual who wears the institution he coaches on his sleeve like Meade does. Dave Pietramala's blood is Hopkins blue because he was the best Blue Jay ever, and now patrols their sidelines. John Desko was a star championship player at Syracuse and has led the Orange to five Championship Games in his six seasons in the Dome. But nobody, and I mean nobody, in the lacrosse world shows a passion for their institution the way Richie Meade does … and he has never worn a Navy Uniform, or any other military uniform for that matter.
It's not that Meade is always wearing Navy Lacrosse apparel. Most coaches do that for their institution. Meade truly lives the Naval Academy - the atmosphere, the experience, and the people. If you have ever seen Meade make a presentation at the Coach's Convention, it's not only X's and O's, and the drills to perfect them, it's a bit of a history lesson as well. There are slides of Battleships. There are tidbits about life at the Naval Academy. And he talks so glowingly about his athletes that you would think he is a proud father more than a Coach.
This Memorial Day weekend, appropriately, we all got a glimpse into the leadership Richie Meade provides. His lacrosse office is not only the home of an extracurricular activity and sport, but a part of the atmosphere that allows the young men who play for him to develop the leadership skills that will lead to success one day when it really matters. He talks about honor and tradition, commitment and pride, the way that most coaches talk about defense and shooting, transition and checking. He is not a Coach at Navy. Richie Meade is an educator at one of the finest institutions in the world. He does this not only to win games and earn a living. Meade seems to be the Head Coach at Navy for a greater purpose - the betterment and preparation of the young men he coaches, and our nation as a whole.
So when the clock ran down and the Midshipmen fell just short of a national championship, Meade was asked of the time his athletes put in and how much it meant to him. He got all choked up and was on the verge of tears as he said, "I know how hard these young men work. I couldn't do it."
I happen to think that lacrosse is still a sport that is about the people first. Lacrosse has not become so big time that the elite don't have time for the "little people." While the top-tier Division I coaches have their fair share of, well, jerks, there are still many who you love to root for, even when you are a journalist and shouldn't be. They have a job for which they love to win … but they also want to make our sport better. Richie Meade is one of these guys and I am very glad that our sport had the chance to get to know him a bit this weekend. We'll get to know him some more over the next few seasons as this young team progresses. As lacrosse continues to grow in participation and popularity, it is very reassuring to know that one of our best coaches is a man who stands for something so much more than winning or losing. It is equally reassuring to know that our future leaders are being led by such a man.
Syracuse won the National Championship … but I would venture to say that not a single loser walked of that field Monday.
To Play or Not to Play … who cares!
I have always respected Leif Elsmo because he worked so very hard to promote lacrosse back when lacrosse was almost never on television. Granted, lacrosse is not on television nearly enough today, but I think he did a lot for the sport back when networks such as ESPN first started to carry lacrosse games. But, with all of that due respect, Leif asked one of the worst questions I have ever heard on National Television moments after Syracuse defeated Navy on Monday. He was interviewing Mike Powell on ESPN after Powell scored what proved to be the game winning goal for the Orange and put the final stamp on one of the finest individual careers in lacrosse history.
"So, Mike, are you going to play professional lacrosse?" Leif asked (or something like that).
"I don't know yet. You're supposed to let me enjoy this, Leif." Powell replied.
Since when did Mike Powell's decision on whether or not to turn pro become so important? Are there millions of dollars at stake? Is the face of the lacrosse world about to be changed by Mike Powell's decision? Was Leif Elsmo going to get a major scoop that even the AP could not break? Well, let's see: Powell's decision was not nearly as important as Syracuse winning the National Championship, the lacrosse world will continue to function as a world that revolves around the college game whether or not Powell plays professionally, and the AP was not even at the game.
I love this sport more than almost everything else in this world, but we have not yet reached the point where the hype around Mike Powell's decision on whether or not to turn pro has quite reached LeBron James proportion. In the latter case, James made a decision that was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and if the experts are right, it was a decision that could change the face of the NBA forever. In Powell's case, he had to decide whether or not he wanted to be exploited by a league starving for an identity to be paid less than a Manager at Wall-Mart, or if he wanted to take some time out of the spotlight and pursue other things.
I for one am happy that Mike Powell is thinking about doing other things besides playing in the MLL. Not that I don't want to see Powell play again, I think he is a rare talent and I will one day a long time from now be able to talk about when I once saw Mike Powell play the same way other sports historians do about their heroes. I'd love to see some more from Powell, and I would love to see him keep Team USA at the top of the lacrosse world every four years. In between, I'd love to see him show his stuff at Vail, Amsterdam, Ocean City, and other venues where lacrosse is played for fun.
It would be almost anti-climactic to see Powell play in the MLL. After all, when did playing in the MLL become the pinnacle of lacrosse? Why is there another step for Powell to take? He just became the all-time leading scorer for the most storied lacrosse program of them all. He just carried his team to victories over the top-two teams in the nation to win the national championship, and he did so in perhaps the most spectacular venue available, in front of more than 40,000 people each time, and on national television. And after all of this, Mike Powell is expected to "cap it off" by playing in front of what would be sparse crowds for big high school games while being paid pennies? Why would he do this?
I hope that part of Mike Powell's thought process is that he has reached the pinnacle of lacrosse and that no matter what the MLL promises, it will never be better than what he just experienced Memorial Day weekend. There will never be 45,000 people at an MLL game, the games will never be live on national television, and winning the "Steinfeld Cup" will never be as meaningful as the trophy he just raised on Monday. For the last four years, Powell has been playing for a lacrosse tradition that is as big as everything else in lacrosse except the sport itself. If he plays in the MLL, he is playing so a bunch of guys can perhaps stop the bleeding and make something out of what has been a sideshow thus far. Why would he do this? It's all downhill from here … hopefully Mike Powell is smart enough to use his God given talents to achieve greatness in other areas while still serving as an ambassador for our sport and representing our country in competition.
I said it four years ago, I'll say it again … lacrosse is a college sport, and if anybody thinks differently after this weekend, they weren't watching the games.
More thoughts from Championship Weekend …
- Why on earth is Championship Weekend being moved to Philadelphia next year? Memo to the NCAA, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Although the parking situation in Baltimore was less than ideal, and it was a pain to get into the stadium, this weekend was as perfect as you could get for Championship Weekend. The crowd was electric, the atmosphere was incredible, the field was perfect, the weather held up, and every game had a drama of its own. The only thing that would have made the weekend better was a Hopkins-Navy Championship Game, but that is a whole other column. As far as I am concerned, Championship Weekend has found its home in a place where lacrosse is the Official State Sport. I just can't see this thing being as good in Philadelphia. Keep the Convention in Philly, but keep Championship Weekend in Baltimore and make it the lacrosse capital of the world like Baltimore should be.
- Division II Lacrosse continues to be underrated. And it is a shame.
- I used to work for Jim Berkman at Salisbury as an Assistant Coach, so I am biased a bit when I write this, but I am a lacrosse enthusiast first before I am a former Sea Gull Assistant. So please take it as a neutral observation when I write that there are many Division I Head Coaches who could learn a heck of a lot from Berkman, who led Salisbury to its fifth National Championship. Salisbury plays a style that is so much fun to watch that their continued success benefits our sport. They play aggressive defense and let their defensemen check, they push transition lacrosse before the settled game, and they move the ball as crisply as you will see at any level. I've been reading on different Internet sites a debate about how well Salisbury would do at the Division I level. I think those debaters are missing the point … the real question would be, how well would the Salisbury system do at the Division I level since only a few coaches employ it. Fortunately, the two coaches in the Division I Championship Game employ that type of system and we all benefited from it. I wonder if Dave Pietramala took a few pointers from the NCAA Finals … open it up, Dave, you may just win the big one!
- Navy's Matt Russell had a horrible weekend overall but was named First Team All-American. If you gave me a choice of any goalie in the NCAA for my team, I'm picking Jay Pfeifer from Syracuse first, second, and third. All Pfeifer does is play at his best in the biggest games … and he didn't even win Honorable Mention All-American? Can somebody please put people on the All-American Selection Committee who actually watch the games instead of the stat sheets?
- I think that if any Division I program is looking for a big-time Coach to inject some new energy into its program, it is LeMoyne's Dan Sheehan. I've known Dan since my playing days at Pace University and have seen him first-hand as he took this program from a total bottom-feeder that we used to overlook to National Champion. When you talk about a first-class guy on the sidelines, Dan Sheehan is that and then some. Nobody this weekend deserved the big win than Sheehan and the program he leads. By the way, this was the first ever Division II Final (since D2 Lacrosse was reinstated) without a Long Island team participating … the rest of the lacrosse world seemed to miss that fact.
- It's funny … everybody talks about Syracuse and Princeton as programs in decline. We were a goal away from another Syracuse-Princeton Final.
May 28, 2004
The latest Spin on E-Lacrosse: Past Columns
Spinner on 360 and Joining E-Lacrosse
Title IX After 30 Years
Are Camps Out Of Control?
Go west, Young Fan.
Promoting the Pros: A Major League Circus
Grades and Sports: Powell's Not The Problem.
Thoughts on September 11, 2002
Women's Lacrosse: Farewell to the Stall
2002 Yale Fall Tournament
A Good Year For "Timmy Mac"
Is Petro Gambling With the 2003 Schedule
The Landon Cheating Scandal
Red Storm Rising
2002 Review & 2003 Punditries and Predictions
Is Football the New Enemy?
Fear and Loathing in Lacrosse Retail
Division II Comes of Age
California Dreamin': Whittier Has To Win The Title
college Lacrosse: What's The Big Story of 2003?
Bergey for Tewaaraton & final-Four Observations
The Goggles Are Coming!
What In The World Is Going On At Duke?
A New Conference?
Pro Lax at Lacrosse Roads.
The DIII Debacle.
Does The Punishment Fit The Crime?
Philly Gets The Nod.
National Development Program
2004 Punditry & Predictions
CCNY Drops Lacrosse
Lacrosse's Parity Party
Rob Randall's Nazareth