WINNING AND LOSING IN THE COACHING GAME
By Michael Spinner
One major contrast between men's and women's college lacrosse that never ceases to amaze me is the affects of growth on the women's game, and lack thereof in the men's game. Women's Lacrosse has grown by such leaps and bounds in the Title IX era that finding quality, experienced coaches is often a chore, and there are many division I coaching positions being filled with coaches who have little experience. The men's world is a completely different story - if a full-time position opens … any full-time coaching position … the application process is nothing short of a dogfight.
As a result, job security is becoming more and more of an issue in men's lacrosse. A few years ago, Hobart head coach B.J. O'Hara was fired at the end of the season after his Statesman advanced to the NCAA tournament. By all accounts, O'Hara was a quality coach at Hobart who did a good job, but apparently not good enough for the Hobart brass.
This summer, longtime Stony Brook Coach John Espy was "relieved" of his duties at the Long Island College. Espy guided the Seawolves from division II to division I, and even led Stony Brook to its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance not long ago. However, an incredible new stadium at Stony Brook and a few seasons without advancing to the NCAA tournament left the Stony Brook brass in the position where they more or less fired Espy, sensing that they could do better. Better turned out to be Penn State's high profile assistant Lars Tiffany. Tiffany is not only a top-notch guy, but he is a gifted coach, and he is going to do a great job at Stony Brook. That is not the issue. The issue is half "how did we get here?" and half "where do we go from here?"
It's always easy to assume that lacrosse could be a lot better at Stony Brook. After all, they have one of the best facilities in Division I and they are a state school in a lacrosse hotbed. Logic dictates that Stony Brook could compete with the UMBCs and Towsons of the world. I could not see Stony Brook at the level of the University of Maryland because the America East is peanuts compared to the ACC, but there certainly could be a nationally ranked Division I team in Suffolk County. But, at the same time, being on Long Island and getting the best lacrosse players to stay there are two different stories. And getting students from other areas to go to a school with a population primarily from Long Island is another issue. This is a job that is not even as easy as it sounds.
John Espy is one of those guys that you just never heard a bad word about. He is a true gentleman and did a great job running a respectable program at a school that went through some major changes during his time there. Was he the perfect coach? Probably not … but is the be-all and end-all of lacrosse winning games every year? Only a couple years ago, whether true or not, the rumor was that Navy's Richie Mead was on the way out after a few down years on the field. Now that seems silly after he took the 2004 Midshipmen to the national title game, but in reality, it was even sillier back then. He might very well have had his best year as a coach on any one of those "bad" years with a lesser mix of talent. It would take a decade of history to determine as every one of his graduates aspires to achieve far more after college in service to the country. It's not inconceivable that a Meade coached Navy graduate will one day be on the Joint Chiefs of Staff or even our President. Will anyone remember that kid's wins and losses? We'll never really know how successful a guy like Meade really is, but we do know that he graduates quality young men year-in and year-out which should be the barometer of his success. It will ultimately be his legacy, with or without a championship. Ask any 30-something Syracuse graduate what Roy Simmons II's legacy is and very few will mention the collection of NCAA hardware before they say things like "He's like family" or "He changed my life".
College basketball and football at the division I level is no longer an extension of academia, but instead, a business that can bring millions of dollars to an institution. Athletic departments fielding teams that succeed on the gridiron and the hardwood at the highest level basically live or die financially on the fate of those teams. It's business. In fact, it's big business. Lacrosse, well… isn't. While successful Division I programs do make some money off of their success, nobody's making rain. Whether or not Stony Brook was winning enough games did not cost the institution millions of dollars. So to fire quality people such as B.J. O'Hara and John Espy sets a questionable precedent and it begs to wonder if winning is the only standard by which these programs should now be run. The rumor is that Stony Brook structured an unsuccessful multi-year, multi-million dollar offer to lure away Princeton's Bill Tierney, so the answer might be obvious.
Is the challenge for Lars Tiffany to win at all costs at Stony Brook? Or is it for the new coach to run a program with class and dignity that provides a quality life experience for its athletes, and win some games as well? And if the latter is the expectation, why fire John Espy in the first place since he was doing just that? Although I never played for Stony Brook and I only saw them play a few times, by all accounts the only thing John Espy did wrong at Stony Brook was not build a program that reached the NCAA tournament annually. Is this such a bad thing? If he were to have reached the "show" every year by running a military-style regimen and revoking scholarships for poor play, would he still be the coach? On balance, was a Stony Brook player getting a better lacrosse experience than a player in a highly competitive and highly stressful program like Hopkins.
After all, without growth there are more quality coaches out there than there are positions in the men's lacrosse world. Everyone can't win. In fact, more than half of division I coaches achieve a losing record on any given year. Are they all losers? In a sport where only three teams have won every title in a generation, we need to adjust the meaning of success.
This summer, University of Maryland assistant Paul Cantabene took the reigns at Villa Julie College. As great as VJC is, somebody with Cantabene's background and high profile as an up 'n coming talent in football or basketball, would have likely gone a different direction. But it was a full-time head coaching position; one of only a few available in lacrosse. In the women's lacrosse world, Cantabene could probably have had one of a dozen good division I jobs if his experience were in the women's game. It's an amazing and pretty powerful dynamic!
The power right now is in the hands of the administrators, and if a short-sighted Athletics Director feels that a lacrosse program could do better, there are a slew of coaches out there waiting in the wings and willing to fight for the job. In other words, is there any college head coach with true job security, even with a winning record? If a top program has a mediocre year or two on the field, is that coach in danger of losing his job? It certainly would be in sports such as basketball and football and we're all ok with that. But, this is lacrosse. We have always been a sport that comfortably fit into environments placing a heavier value on the academic experience than the fleeting glory of athletic excellence while many others straddled that fence gingerly. Whether that comfort lasts, and whether it really IS a unique quality of the sport or WAS just a convenience of the times is yet to be seen.
October 5, 2004
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