March 22, 2010

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Pat Perritt and Kenny Nims each scored four goals, with each also adding an assist, as Syracuse thumped Duke, 17-7, in the NCAA semifinals at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. © Kevin P. Tucker
Pat Perritt and Kenny Nims each scored four goals, with each also adding an assist, as Syracuse thumped Duke, 17-7, in the NCAA semifinals at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. © Kevin P. Tucker

Mondays with Matt: Why Some Teams Make Leap

by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

For all the talk about whom Chris Bates (left) replaced at Princeton, Hall of Fame head coach, few realized the legacy of success he left at Drexel. The Dragons are 6-1 and ranked No. 11 in this week's USILA Division I poll.

We often bemoan the predictability of lacrosse. No matter how much intrigue seeps into a season, we can’t seem to shake old regimes. We call Lafayette a Cinderella team in March not because of some contagious fever of NCAA basketball madness, but because in lacrosse, Cinderella gets snuffed in May.

But do we ever stop to think of why teams such as Syracuse’s men or Northwestern’s women have such enduring success? Why Drexel and Lafayette can surface from mediocrity, but their state’s flagship men’s lacrosse team, Penn State, gets mired in it? Why a professional team like the Philadelphia Barrage could win three MLL championships in four years, but equally talented teams like the Chicago Machine -- which is about to reprise the former Barrage’s role as the ownerless traveling road show -- dwell perpetually in the cellar?

These questions dawned on me recently while reading Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, a corporate self-help book by Jim Collins, as part of a professional development series US Lacrosse is sponsoring for its employees. Collins conducted a study of 11 previously average companies whose transition to “greatness” yielded financial gains that exceeded the general market for a long period of time -- and 11 comparison companies that failed to make such a leap.

I couldn’t help but apply the book’s core concepts to those lacrosse powerhouses both old and new.

For instance, the chapter on “Level 5 Leadership” studies the key figures at the helm of these corporate transformations. Level 5 leaders, Collins defines, “embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will” and “set up their successors for even greater success.”

Chris Bates, anyone?

For all the talk during the offseason about whom Bates replaced at Princeton, Hall of Fame head coach Bill Tierney, few knew just what he left behind for former Penn coach Brian Voelker. Players like Scott Perri, Colin Ambler, Bobby Church and Kevin Stockel have carried Bates’ offensive principles, like the two-man game and Canadian-American blend, into the Voelker era.

So while you might be surprised to see the Dragons ranked No. 11 in this week’s USILA Division I poll, with six straight wins after nearly upsetting Virginia in their opener, Jim Collins would argue that Bates set them up for such sustained success.

For a comparison program lacking Level 5 leadership, look no further than every forum’s favorite punching bag, Penn State. The Nittany Lions lost their goalkeeper of the future, Steven Rastivo, to North Carolina and are 0-6 midway through another disappointing campaign in Unhappy Valley.

Collins uses the metaphor of the window and the mirror. Level 5 leaders, he writes, credit others with success (window) and blame themselves (mirror) for failures. And yet, when LMO’s Steven Russolillo interviewed Penn State head coach Glenn Thiel this time last year, he blamed the university’s lack of investment in men’s lacrosse for the program’s mediocrity.

“Penn State needs to decide if they want to push a sport that’s not a Big Ten sport,” Thiel said. “That’s something we fight all the time.”

Perhaps the book’s most integral concept is “First Who... Then What.” Collins contends that good-to-great companies got “the right people on the bus” and made sure they were in the appropriate seats before developing some self-fulfilling strategy. Take your time in hiring decisions, Collins writes, and make people changes quickly if changes are needed.

Syracuse needed a change. After a 5-8 season in 2007 and failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1982, John Desko chucked everything. He revamped the entire coaching staff. It probably wasn’t easy to tell Roy Simmons III he wasn’t the right person to coach Syracuse’s defense anymore, but Desko did, moving Simmons to offense after nine years as defensive coordinator. He turned part-time assistant Lelan Rogers into a full-time defensive coordinator.

With Desko’s consent, Simmons and Rogers overhauled their ends of the field. The Orange responded with back-to-back NCAA championships and is off to a 4-1 start this year, ranked No. 2 in the nation.

Rogers has instituted a culture of discipline -- another Good to Great concept -- on defense. That was evident Saturday as Syracuse put the shackles on a dangerous Johns Hopkins offense. Joel White smothered Michael Kimmel, Matt Tierney shut down Steven Boyle and John Lade -- the type of loose cannon that might leave less-disciplined defenses exposed (see: former Orange defenseman Steve Panarelli) -- was appropriately disruptive. For all their talents, these players have tailored them to Rogers’ defensive system.

Another Collins brainchild is “The Hedgehog Concept,” the big idea that good-to-great companies strictly pursue in their path to greatness. The enduring success comes in the discipline to focus only on those ventures that support the hedgehog concept, even when other tempting opportunities arise.

Tony Resch’s hedgehog concept was the four-man midfield rotation.

This topic actually came up in a recent, unrelated conversation with Ryan Boyle, who played for Resch as an attackman on Philadelphia Barrage teams that won MLL championships in 2006 and 2007. The two have reunited, with Resch an assistant and Boyle an attackman on the 2010 U.S. men’s team.

We got to talking about Matt Zash, another former Barrage player on Team USA, and how he hates that he has been typecast in the MLL as a defensive middie. But in Resch’s system, just four middies played offense the entire game, giving them continuity and allowing the other midfielders to focus on more specialized roles.

Said Boyle: “In the MLL, if you can’t sling it 99 miles an hour as a midfielder, you sometimes have a hard time finding a spot. [Zash] got drafted by the Barrage at a time that our four midfielders were Matt Striebel, Roy Colsey, Jed Prossner and Justin Smith. Striebel runs forever. Roy, who’s in great shape, set up shop next to Striebel. And Jed and Smitty were young guys who were really good with the ball in their stick and dodging. How in God’s name are you going to play offense on that midfield?

“To Tony Resch’s credit, he had the wherewithal to play four offensive midfielders and that was it. Some teams played two full lines and six midfielders. We would play four. Tony would load up on d-middies and let them push the ball in transition, ride the offensive midfielders and get them in a groove with more touches. Instead of fighting that, Tony said, ‘Yeah, sure. That works,’ and stuck with it.”

Other MLL teams, including the Long Island Lizards, for which he is an assistant coach, have adopted Resch’s four-midfielder rotation. Team USA could do the same thing this summer with Paul Rabil, Kyle Dixon, Matt Striebel and Max Seibald.

Yet another Good to Great concept is that good-to-great companies use technology as an accelerator of the hedgehog concept. I thought of Dave Huntley when I read that chapter. His hedgehog concept: play up-tempo and take lots of shots. As such, he swears by shot charts, and signed with eSpor as the exclusive video editing software provider for his Toronto Nationals (MLL), Philadelphia Wings (NLL) and Canadian national teams. eSpor’s technology allows coaches to apply metadata to game video and break it down by basic (shots, turnovers, ground balls) and advanced (shot locations, positioning, game situations) functions. It's the only lacrosse-specific software of its kind.

Like Collins writes, technology alone can’t be the key ingredient of a good-to-great success story. But it can be a facilitator. Huntley used this technology to understand, for instance, what situations suit Merrick Thomson best. Thomson responded with an MVP caliber season for the Nationals.

Lastly, the ultimate good-to-great lacrosse example: Northwestern. “The good-to-great transformations never happened in one fell swoop,” Collins writes. Instead, they are sustained only after persistent pushing over a long period of time, like a flywheel that builds momentum and eventually hits a point of breakthrough.

Kelly Amonte Hiller didn’t just flip a switch to turn on the Northwestern dynasty. When the university revived the women’s lacrosse program in 2002 after a nine-year hiatus as a club sport, Amonte Hiller got great athletes (regardless their sport) from her home state (Massachusetts), on campus (remember the Koester twins?) and other nontraditional areas (“First Who”), molded them into a high-pressure system (“Then What”) and worked exclusively on the hedgehog concept that she could train them to become great lacrosse players.

As those skills developed, the Wildcats endured 5-10 and 8-8 seasons in 2002 and 2003. The breakthrough came in 2004, with a 15-3 season that ended an NCAA quarterfinal appearance. And they’ve been nothing short of great since, winning five straight national championships.

After its closest call of this season, a 13-12 comeback win Sunday over No. 8 Syracuse, top-ranked Northwestern is 112-3 in its last 115 games.

Unreal.


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