2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Spinner Rebuilds at College of Notre DameBy Katie Scheer
Loyal readers of the sports section in the Baltimore Sun were introduced to a relatively new figure to Charm City the day before Thanksgiving as one of the lead stories on the front page revolved around the Athletics Department at College of Notre Dame on Charles Street. A day earlier, the college announced its decision to cancel the remainder of its basketball season after a series of injures literally crippled the program's roster. Quoted was new Director of Athletics Michael Spinner. While much of the Baltimore sports world was introduced to Spinner for the first time through this article, lacrosse fans in the area were already familiar with Spinner's name. As a lacrosse player, coach, and one of the biggest journalism names in the sport for more than a decade, Spinner's name is a popular one in lacrosse, and even he said he was surprised at both the publicity and how quickly people made a connection with a lacrosse journalism career that he calls a, "past life."
"I still can't believe how much attention we received from the whole basketball situation," Spinner said. "There was no good or bad decision here. Any decision we made would have hurt our student-athletes, and I feel just awful they were placed in such a position. But there was a right and wrong decision here, and we made the right one. The right decision was to cancel the season and disappoint and inconvenience others. The wrong decision would have meant more injures and more serious injuries. It's a tough way to attract attention to the athletics department I am trying to build, but I hope the Sun comes back when we kick-off next season and have the opportunity to flex our muscles a bit. This was a step back to take a leap forward, and in November of 2010, when we're on the court again, it's going to be a great moment for our athletics community. In the meantime, all of the attention we received has been a great mechanism for us to get the word out that we're alive and well at Notre Dame, and moving forward. In a strange twist, it's also reconnected me to the lacrosse world. I have a lot of old lacrosse friends down here, and thanks to the attention we received, I've had the chance to reconnect."
While Spinner may be known to the College of Notre Dame community as an energetic young Athletic Director with big plans to turn around the Gator sports program, the lacrosse world has already known him for some time as a goalie, coach, and journalist. Coincidentally, Spinner's movement for nearly two decades reflects the very challenge he has inherited at Notre Dame. His work in the lacrosse world has been as a builder for the most part, something he says will only help him at his new position.
To most of the lacrosse world, New York City is the stretch of real estate between the lax powerhouses of Long Island and the Hudson Valley. For Spinner, it is what he calls home, and where he developed his craft. Nearly two decades ago, as a goalie for Cardozo High School, Spinner embarked on a lacrosse career that has taken him all around the globe. At the time, New York City only had a handful of High School lacrosse programs, and the Cardozo program was just getting off the ground. Spinner said he actually almost never made it because of his personal struggles and the struggles of his team.
"I am not sure if we even won a game my freshman year. But I took something important away from the whole experience. I can barely remember the coach's name, but I do remember that he had zero faith in me, and he told me that I had absolutely no future in lacrosse. He advised me - in his words - to 'find something else to do.' The problem was that I really loved the sport and had no desire to walk away. I got to work, we got a new coach who believed in me, and the rest is history. I think things have turned out pretty good for a guy with no future," Spinner said.
Pretty good indeed. Fast forward a couple of decades and Spinner - under the guidance of Head Coach Pat Bernardo - who now coaches in Plainview, New York - became an All-American goalie for a championship program, spent four years at Division II powerhouse Pace University playing for Dan Mulholland, and has been a part of the sport in one way or another non-stop. As a junior at Pace, Spinner helped launch Inside Lacrosse as the Division II Editor of the publication. As a senior at Pace, Spinner began his coaching career at a brand-new Pleasantville High School program in Westchester County, New York, where he coached former Ithaca College All-American goalie (now Pace University Assistant Coach) Dennis Butler. After college, Spinner spent a year at the Pace University Law School where he also became an Assistant Men's and Women's Lacrosse Coach at nearby Manhattanville College when Dan Mulholland left Pace University to take over at Manhattanville for the 2000 season.
"I was part of a building program in High School and by my senior year we were a championship team. I went to college at a place the lacrosse world had never really heard of, but by my senior year the program was the top-ranked team in the country for a while. I guess that building programs is in my blood, and looking back on the last 20 years, the best and most rewarding experiences I have had were building programs or organizations," Spinner said. "As a player and coach, developing programs were pretty much all I knew. As a journalist, I was at Inside Lacrosse and 360Lacrosse.com on their first days of existence, and both enjoyed tremendous success. Now, I have the challenge to rebuild an athletics program. I played for many coaches and I've worked with many people who understood and embraced the value of doing things the right way, so I think I have the right background to turn the athletics program at Notre Dame around."
Spinner isn't the only one who believes he is in the right position to rebuild the College of Notre Dame's Athletics program. Mulholland, described his young prodigy as the, "smartest person (he) has known in 41 years of teaching and coaching."
"If I were a contestant on, 'Who wants to be a millionaire?' and I am in the seat for the million dollar question, I am using my lifeline to call Mike," said Mulholland, now the Head Men's Lacrosse Coach at Mount Saint Vincent. "His success does not surprise me one bit. He is a brilliant observer who sees things that most people do not see. During his first week of lacrosse practice as a college freshman, he understood the team defense as well as the coaches. Later on, while he was growing as a coach, he came to one of my games, and I asked him why my goalie makes all of the saves from the crease, but none from the outside. Mike's response: 'Get him glasses.' It worked!"
Spinner's travels after college included a year of Law School, and then a stint as an Assistant Lacrosse Coach at Salisbury State University. While at Salisbury, his journalism work took him from Inside Lacrosse to the now defunct 360Lacrosse.com, where he served as Managing Editor. There, 'The Latest Spin' - Spinner's popular lacrosse column emerged. For years, Spinner was one of the biggest names in lacrosse journalism, covering topics from the beginning of Major League Lacrosse to the Duke Lacrosse scandal and several other major topics in the lacrosse world. Eventually, Spinner brought his writing to E-Lacrosse, where he continued to push the envelope for lacrosse journalism. Overall, Spinner has covered more than a dozen NCAA Final Fours and hundreds of top-level college lacrosse games for both men's and women's lacrosse.
After his time in Salisbury came to an end, Spinner returned to the New York City area where he entered the corporate at - get this - World Wrestling Entertainment in Stamford, Connecticut. As the company's website editor, Spinner gained leadership experience, and also learned a lot about running an organization. While at WWE, Spinner also accepted a position as Head Girl's Lacrosse Coach at Greenwich High School, a powerhouse program in one of the most lacrosse-rich areas in the country. Spinner's single year there was a success - the Cardinals finished 17-4 and advanced to the Connecticut State Finals, losing by a goal. It was that experience that taught Spinner the path he would soon follow - he wanted to lead an athletics program, but he wanted it to be on his terms.
"It was a fun year at Greenwich High School. I loved the lacrosse there, and it was exciting to be part of such a successful program. I learned there that I had the makings of a very good head coach, but I also learned that the key to happiness in this field was being able to run a program on your own terms, an opportunity I never had as a High School Coach," Spinner said.
Shortly after departing Greenwich High School, Spinner made another major career decision, re-entering the college coaching world as the Head Women's Lacrosse Coach at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York City. A part-time Head Coach, Spinner literally carved up his day to spend his 10 hours at WWE and three hours at Mount Saint Vincent, and somehow was able to balance it all. Spinner would get into the WWE office around 8 am, and work straight through until 3:00 p.m. without a break. At 3:00, he would make the 45-minute drive from Stamford to New York City, and make administrative phone calls along the way. He would leave Mount Saint Vincent around 6:30 - the middle of New York City's rush hour - to head back to his WWE office in Stamford. While sitting in traffic, Spinner would call recruits. Upon returning to WWE, Spinner would work until as late as midnight most nights.
On top of that, during the 2003 season when he was merely recruiting for Mount Saint Vincent and not coaching, Spinner volunteered at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he helped coach the team to its first and only championship.
Spinner's ability to multitask did not go unnoticed, as Mulholland said that his ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time is perhaps his greatest strength. "What stands out about Mike is that one thing is never enough for him, he thrives on multi-tasking. He not only played lacrosse at Pace, but he had a 3.97 GPA, ran the school newspaper, was an officer in his fraternity, and was on the national champion Model UN team. In lacrosse, he molded successful teams everywhere he went as a coach, while at the same time, as a journalist, he single-handedly gave respect for Division II lacrosse back when lacrosse was first on the web, and nobody paid attention to Division II lacrosse. "
And after one particularly tough stretch, Spinner made the decision to depart the corporate world and focus solely on college athletics. Offered the position of Assistant Athletics Director at Mount Saint Vincent, Spinner left the corporate world to take a full-time plunge into college athletics administration.
Fielding the first-ever Mount Saint Vincent Women's Lacrosse team, and coaching at a New York City school with no home field, Spinner created quite a splash at Mount Saint Vincent. In three varsity seasons, the Dolphins combined for a 31-19 record, earned a trip to the Skyline Conference and ECAC Semifinals in its second varsity season, and did the same a year later. Spinner coached 10 All-Conference selections … all while never practicing on a full-sized field. While at Mount Saint Vincent, Spinner also landed a coaching position at an organization called USA Athletes International. As a member of the organization, Spinner took a college lacrosse all-star team to Australia on several occasions, leading Team USA to a fourth place finish at the 2006 Down Under Cup in Melbourne, and a fifth place finish at the 2007 Aussie Titles in Sydney.
"I get dizzy reading my own resume," Spinner joked. "From my senior year of High School until now, it seemed like I took every opportunity that came my way, and fortunately for me, I always worked with people who did things the right way and taught me well. Playing lacrosse at Pace, I played for the same coaches for all four years, and all three became successful college Head Coaches. Coach Mulholland has led three successful college programs by being the ultimate player's coach, and the best recruiter I have ever seen. Back then, (current C.W. Post Head Coach) John Jez was our offensive coordinator, and he was the fiery, emotional coach that everybody on the team loved to play for. (Former Pace University Head Coach and current C.W. Post Assistant Coach) Frank Vitolo was our defensive coordinator, and he was the ultimate tactician. Playing for those three coaches taught me so much of what I needed to learn about coaching and program administration. And if you look at the Pace program before the administration stepped in and wrecked it, we won almost all of our games, we were a hair away from becoming national champions, everybody on the team graduated on time, and just about everybody has a terrific career today. Our coaches did things the right way. My teammates were on the Dean's List consistently, and now they're doctors, lawyers, teachers, and businessmen. Looking back at the teams I played for at Pace, I never really appreciated until now that our success was not only because of talent but because there was a priority among that group to do things the right way. It started at the top. I wouldn't be where I am today without that team, and I only wish I knew back then how important it was to me. It's a shame, but the Pace lacrosse program has never been the same."
Spinner added, "Later on, I had the chance to work alongside (Salisbury Head Coach) Jim Berkman, and for a narrow window, I had the chance to see what goes into the best lacrosse program in the sport. The theme is the same as what I observed at Pace … Salisbury wins because they do things the right way. Coach Berkman is a legendary coach because there are no shortcuts. That program is run properly, and he basically is three coaches in one. He's the mad scientist tactician and ultimate motivator. He's the player's coach when he needs to be, and he is also the fiery sideline leader. What makes him succeed is that he knows exactly when to be what kind of coach. Their success did not and does not happen by accident, and although my time there was brief, it reaffirmed the value of doing things the right way."
In the spring of 2007, Spinner joined the staff at Yeshiva University in New York City as Associate Director of Athletics. There, he saw college athletics from the eye as solely an administrator for the first time, and helped make some tremendous changes to the department. With Spinner as Associate AD, Yeshiva fielded teams in Women's Soccer, Cross Country, and Volleyball for the first time, and Spinner helped overhaul and create many new administrative processes within the Yeshiva Athletics Department. Of course, his involvement in lacrosse did not end there as he accepted a position as Assistant Girl's varsity coach at Rye High School in Westchester County, New York, a position he held for two seasons.
"I loved every minute of my two years at Yeshiva, and I learned so much. If you look only at their records in competition, Yeshiva is not a strong athletics program. But if you look at their philosophy, the experience gained by student-athletes, and what the athletics program there stands for, it is clear that Yeshiva is one of the best athletics departments in Division III. When I say I want to model my own department after Yeshiva, I mean it as the highest possible compliment. You can't control winning and losing, but you can control doing things the right way so if you lose, the student-athletes involved still gain something special and wonderful. This is the way of the athletics world at Yeshiva, and I believe it is happening at Notre Dame." Spinner said.
During the winter of 2008, and Spinner decided the time was coming to begin looking at Athletic Director positions. While he intended to stay at Yeshiva for at least a year or two more, Spinner said he wanted to learn the nuances of the interview process just so he could be prepared when he was 'ready' to make the next step. Little did he know that his timeline was a bit quicker than he expected.
"To be honest, there was no intention to leave Yeshiva. I had a great thing going there, and I had no reason to want to leave. When I saw the Notre Dame vacancy, I knew I had a chance to go deep into the process. Notre Dame is not unlike the schools I have worked at. It's a faith-based school in a major city, and a place where the athletics program needs some rebuilding. This kind of school has become my personal niche. So I applied thinking it could be a great job for me, but never expecting to get it. When I came to the campus, I knew right away that I was getting this job. I didn't want to sound too confident, but sometimes you just feel like something is the perfect fit. College of Notre Dame was that for me." Spinner said.
Spinner wasn't the only one who knew right away that he was the right person to lead the rebuilding of the Notre Dame Athletics Department. Current Notre Dame senior Whitley Noel is the college's SAAC President, and a three-sport athlete. She represented the college's student-athletes on the search committee for the new Athletic Director last spring, and was involved with the decision to hire Spinner. She said that it was pretty clear from the beginning that there was only one candidate for the position.
"We wanted somebody to fill the position who would communicate well with student-athletes, take pride in the college, and be proactive. From the second Mike stepped foot on this campus he demonstrated all three of those qualities. He seemed to fit in as soon as he got here, before he was ever hired," Noel said. "Mike is a wonderful addition to our athletic staff and I am very excited to have the opportunity to work with him. I have the utmost confidence that he will be a successful leader for the Notre Dame Athletics Department."
College of Notre Dame is a unique institution, an all-women's college, located on Charles Street, right next door to Loyola University, so close to Loyola that the two schools share a library. It is also minutes down Charles Street from both Towson University and Johns Hopkins, putting Spinner literally at the center of the lacrosse universe. However, the athletics challenges at Notre Dame and their Division I neighbors are two different stories.
A member of the Colonial States Athletic Conference (CSAC), Notre Dame was once an athletics powerhouse across the board, qualifying for several NCAA Tournaments during the last decade. However, more recently, the athletics program has fallen on hard times, as most of the Gator teams have struggled in recent years. However, Spinner said he believes he has a plan to turn things around, with the starting point being that he is not focusing on winning as a goal, but instead trying to make winning a part of the department's evolution.
"I'm following the same pattern that the other programs I worked with followed. We're focusing on doing things the right way so winning is the bi-product. Your instinct is to always focus on winning first, but realistically, if you say winning is the only goal, you set yourself up for failure. I want to win because we do everything right and winning is natural," Spinner said. "We're building this from the infrastructure on upwards. We have the right people in place. We also have amazing student-athletes here. The challenge is not re-creating the Notre Dame student-athlete, the challenge is taking who we have and finding more of them. This is a fantastic place to get an education and play sports, and we have the campus and location to rebuild into a strong athletics program. We just have to get the word back out there, and focus on doing things the right way. We do have a challenge because the CSAC is a terrific athletics conference and there are some amazing athletics programs in this area at all levels. At the same time, we have a product to sell to recruits that is very attractive. We're now packaging that product, and taking unprecedented recruiting efforts. The formula will work, it's a matter of how long will it take."
From the lacrosse perspective, Spinner expressed excitement to reside on Charles Street.
"I am not going to lie, I can't wait for the spring. Charles Street is probably the most famous road on the planet when it comes to lacrosse, and I am one of four AD's on the block. That is pretty neat. I've already made the decision that since the AD's at the schools in the area are all colleagues of mine, I can't go to only one college's lacrosse games. I'll have to go to as many Hopkins, Loyola, Towson, Navy, UMBC and Maryland games as I possibly can. It's a nice perk of calling Charles Street my home, and I can't wait. I picked the right time to be here, too, with the NCAA men's and women's championships coming to the area this year." Spinner said.
Spinner added that whether or not the Notre Dame Athletics Department is going to turn around is not even a question.
"We've turned it around," Spinner emphatically said. "People thought ideas like Midnight Madness were a crazy idea, and we filled our gym for it. We were told recruiting was difficult here, but we have a database with hundreds of interested student-athletes. We're getting a new athletics logo, and hopefully a new website. Our student-athletes are succeeding in the classroom, and having fun on the field, and our teams are competing as hard as they can and never giving up. We're turning over every stone to make this a successful athletics program. If you look at this from the perspective of attitude, commitment, energy, and enthusiasm, we are a great athletics department. And if we continue on the path we have begun to pave, the wins will come. It'll take some time, but they're coming."
He is not the only one who feels this way. Senior Lauren Terry is a two-sport athlete, who as a junior earned first-team All-Conference honors from the CSAC a year ago. She expressed excitement to have an Athletic Director at the helm with such a distinct lacrosse background.
"Of course it's exciting to have an Athletic Director who played and coached lacrosse. He is exactly what the Athletics department at Notre Dame needed because he is motivated to make positive changes in the department to enhance the student-athlete experience. And more importantly, he is just a really cool guy who makes every student athlete feel wanted and important," said Terry.
"We've seen a lot of positive changes since he arrived. The athletics department has really become more spirited and active. I feel like he has really started to lead the student-athletes into having more pride in being a Gator both on and off the field."
While his new position at College of Notre Dame does not have a formal coaching role, Spinner said he will be willing to help out the program's goalies, and pitch in for the lacrosse program only if asked by Head Coach Melissa Falen. He said he does not think he has the time to take on a formal assistant coach role, but he thinks his best work for the lacrosse program would be to continue what he has started behind the scenes for the entire department, and continue to share his unique experiences to assist the student-athletes at the college, both present and future. He also hopes to begin writing again and has not ruled out the return of "The Latest Spin." But, according to Spinner, that comes after finishing his master's degree in Sports Business Management from SUNY Cortland (another lacrosse powerhouse) this fall.
"I'm a very lucky guy, and I remind myself of that every day," Spinner said. "I'm very lucky that somebody who was once so important to me took the time to tell me I had no future in something I love so much, and I am equally lucky to have had such a wonderful career in lacrosse and beyond. Since being told I have no future in this sport, I've played the game all the up to college, coached all the way up to college, and covered the highest level of lacrosse as a journalist. Lacrosse has literally taken me all around the world, and I am honored that it has taken me to Baltimore for this incredible opportunity at College of Notre Dame. I have a lot to learn in this position, but I feel like this college has provided me with a chance to build a department from the ground up, and do things the right way. Who wouldn't want this opportunity? Not many people have the chance to wake up as excited about going to work as I do, so I am going to enjoy every minute of this challenge, and hopefully continue to give back as much as my experiences have given me."
December 7, 2009