A Conversation with Bill Tierney

Bill Tierney came to Princeton in 1988. Inheriting a program that had won 12 games in four years and had not won an Ivy League title in 21 years, Tierney has built the Tigers into one of the perennial powers in the sport.

His current team just completed a 12-0 regular season, the first perfect regular season at Princeton since 1935. The 1997 Tigers won his fifth Ivy League championship in six years, and he won national championships in 1992, 1994 and 1996. He takes his current team on its quest for a possible fourth national title in six years when it begins play as the top seed in this year's NCAA tournament. He will also coach the United States at the 1998 World Championships in Baltimore.

Prior to the start of the 1997 tournament, Tierney sat down with E-Lacrosse contributor Jerry Price to discuss the state of the game and the team that he loves:

JP: Before the tournament starts, have you taken an opportunity to appreciate a perfect season?

BT: Well, I wasn't around for last one. All I can relate to is the last 10 years. We're proud of it. It certainly didn't come easily.We had to overcome Jesse [Hubbard's] injury. We've had illnesses. Our seniors had to finish their theses. We overcame all that. To be honest, I'm not sure the players appreciate what they've accomplished so far.

JP: Doesn't that suggest that the program has grown to the point where it is not judged by the regular season?

BT: It shows a lot about the program and where the kids are. I like that mentality. They're not looking at it like this is the end. That's a positive. There are many more things ahead.

JP: When you first came to Princeton, did you think you could build something like this?

BT: Let's put it this way: I didn't think we couldn't do it. Our goals at that time were short-term. We wanted to bring the program to respectability in the league, maybe shoot for Ivy League titles someday. We wanted to make the University proud of the lacrosse team . From a personal standpoint, I wanted to make sure that the players we put on the field and had graduating from here were people that the University could be proud of. What naturally goes along with that is national championships or at least competing for them. We started realizing in 1990 how close we were getting when we beat Johns Hopkins in the playoffs. Our goals changed drastically then.

JP: Were there other breakthrough moments?

BT: On the field, there were a lot of moments. Torr Marro's overtime goal against Navy in 1990 showed us we could play with the big boys. We hadn't beaten them in a long time. The win over Hopkins. The Towson State loss in 1991 in the quarterfinals. We lost in triple overtime. We were in the locker room after that game, knowing we had the bulk of the team back. We set the goal that day to win it all.

JP: Is 1992 the fondest season you've had?

BT: Anytime you have a milestone achievement for a program, it's going to be special. Also the fact that we weren't expected to win made it very memorable. People might have underestimated our ability that year, but we won on a lot of other things.

JP: What about the Class of 1994?

BT: That class was overlooked a little in 1992. Not everybody realized how significant that group was to the '92 title. That's part of what motivated those guys. I remember Kevin Lowe in September of 1993 saying 'we want one of our own, that 1992 was nice, but we want one of our own.' I thought there was more pressure on the 1994 than any team. They were very vocal about the fact that they'd settle for nothing else than a national championship. There's a lot of luck invovled in winning a game in overtime.

JP: Did 1994 establish Princeton's position in the game?

BT: There was definitely a respect issue and people realized that we were a good team. Still I don't think it established us as a power. People said Kevin Lowe, Scott Bacigalupo, Scott Reinhardt, Taylor Simmers were all leaving. What this current group has done is said that we're here for a while.I always tell the kids that it's consistency over a long period of time that tells the story, not just one win.

JP: The 1992 and 1994 teams were known for defense and patience on offense. The 1996 team, and this year's team, are known for their quick-strike offense. Have you made a conscious change in approach?

BT: Princeton became known for defense and slowing it down on offense and people say that that was my style. That was actually born out of necessity. We weren't as good as other teams. The credit should go to David Metzbower and the other assistant coaches who helped establish what we were. One thing about me as a coach is to coach according to personnel. There's a certain degree of control freak in me, and once you let the animals run the zoo, you're never gonna close the gate. And I mean that fondly. It's not me. It's who you have.

JP: Did you know what you had when recruited Jon Hess, Jesse Hubbard and Chris Massey?

BT: Yes. We thought we had something very special with those three, but they all had huge question marks. Jon was small physically. Massey played on a great team with another great attackman. We didn't know how he'd fit in the system. With Jesse, we just knew had to find a way to get him the ball. All three of them had the ball in their stick an awful lot in high school. When you throw them together, you're not sure what's going to happen.

JP: What does it say about guys like Todd Eichelberger and Lorne Smith, who moved from attack to midfield because of Hess, Hubbard and Massey.

BT: It says a lot. You're talking about guys who could score a lot more than they do. Ike could have been one of those attack guys, especially this year. He accepted the situation and thrived in it. He knows that if you are unselfish, you get the ball back a lot too. Lorne Smith could have been one of best attackmen to play here and will be in his senior year, but he made a decision to come to Princeton based on lot of reasons. Everybody in the country asked him why he would come here with Hess, Hubbard and Massey. We made decision that we had to get him on the field.

JP: David Morrow was quoted as saying that he was basically a bad player when you found him and the national player of the year when he left. If your players owe something to you, do you feel you owe something to what they've done for you?

BT: Absolutely. The first thing I thought of when I was named world team coach was the players I'd coached at Princeton. I'd hate to start listing names because I'd leave too many out. I have a wall in my office with 24 All-Americas on it. Every one of those guys is a guy I owe something to. And then there are unheralded guys too. Look at the face-off guys, Greg Waller, Paul Murphy, James Mitchell. Without them, we don't win three national championships. I have a great deal of indebtedness to them, and that's just one position. A lot of guys who didn't make anybody's all-anything team are responsible for what I've been able accomplish. I don't forget that.

JP: Your son, Trevor, will be a freshman on the Princeton team next year. Can you talk about coaching him?

BT: That's one thing where I can't go back to something I've done in the past and ask myself how I handled it. I can't look at this experience from a previous year and see what I did right or wrong. That's what you want in life and in coaching. New challenges. I talked to Dave Urick about it. He's coaching his son now, and he said there's nothing like it. It's the right thing and don't doubt it for a second. That meant a lot to me. I know his son Scott well. I know their relationship is a lot like Trevor's and mine. I respect what he had to say about it.

JP: You've been around the game long enough to see the evolution of the NCAA tournament. Has it grown beyond anything you thought it would be?

BT: My first experience at the Division I tournament was when we played in it at Cortland State. We beat Army and lost to Virginia . I think that Virginia game is still the largest crowd ever to see a sporting event at Cortland. That was my first touch of it. To move on from there and watch the games and see it grow has been great. I coached at the Final Four in 1986 as an assistant at Johns Hopkins, and now it's grown from there. I have to give a lot of people credit. Many coaches, myself included, doubted the wisdom of the Final Four concept. There's been no more signficant moment for the growth of the college game than that. To see it now, with all the people who are there, is a great moment.

JP: Win or lose at the NCAA tournament this year, the off-season is going to be different with your responsibilities with the national team.

BT: I don't think it's hit me yet. When I was named, we were getting ready for our first game. We've been going through some things for tryouts, and it'll hit soon. It's an overwhelming responsibility. It's a thrill that's tough to match in our game. To be recognized by your peers as someone able to coach that team is a great honor.

JP: With all that you've accomplished at Princeton, have you been able to maintain your same level of motivation?

BT: The beauty of coaching is that each year is different. You have new kids. New challenges. Each year is a new group of 45, and everyone else has new group of 45. There's nothing mundane about it. Every year is it's own challenge, and that keeps me going for a fourth championship as hard as going for a first. It'll be the same next year, whether we win this year or not.

Jerry Price is Princeton's
Manager of Sports Media
Relations, and a regular
contributor to the E-Lacrosse
News Releases Section.
The tigers boast the top
team in the nation, and the
best press releases in the game!

Read interviews from past issues.