Lambrecht: With Tambroni at Helm, Penn State Set to Shed Also-Ran Label
by Gary Lambrecht | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online
"Ninety-nine percent of the people I spoke with last year, starting with the players, kept saying how the culture needed to change," new Penn State coach Jeff Tambroni said. The Nittany Lions open Saturday against Binghamton.
© Kevin P. Tucker
Jeff Tambroni could have stayed where the house already was built. After finishing the repair job at Cornell begun in the late 1990s by his former boss, current Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, Tambroni probably could have worked for at least another decade on the Ivy League campus in Ithaca, N.Y.
But the reinvigorating challenge of injecting life into a stagnant yet promising program brought one of college lacrosse's brighter minds to an unlikely place last June. Not long after removing himself from consideration for the head coach opening at the University of Maryland, Tambroni listened to the repeated invitations to come to State College, Pa., to discuss how great Penn State lacrosse could be with Tambroni calling the shots.
The bait was too tempting for him to pass up -- a five-year contract to work at a high-profile school with big-time facilities and full scholarship funding. It didn't hurt that Tambroni's wife, Michelle, is a 1991 graduate of Penn State.
"It was an opportunity to reset at the age of 40," Tambroni said. "We all like to win, and this is a business that demands that [coaches] win. This isn't building from the ground up. A lot of good things are in place here. But it's an opportunity to create a new journey and define something new about Penn State lacrosse."
Translation: Retired coach Glenn Thiel, a tremendous ambassador for lacrosse and a man all about integrity, did a fine job at Penn State by winning 236 games in 33 seasons in State College. But the Nittany Lions have only been to two NCAA tournaments in the 40-year history of the event. However sturdy the foundation is, it's time to ramp up the school's expectations and the dividends regarding lacrosse.
Penn State could not have done much better than Tambroni, who averaged more than 11 victories over his last nine years at Cornell, while taking the Big Red to eight NCAA tournaments, including final four appearances in 2007 and 2009. Two years ago, Cornell came within seconds of winning the NCAA title at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., before falling to Syracuse in overtime.
Now, the new face and voice of Penn State lacrosse is trying to change the tone of a program. Tambroni, with a young squad and lots of question marks on defense, officially launches Chapter One on Saturday against Binghamton. The Nittany Lions next month will wade into a tough-looking, Colonial Athletic Association schedule.
"Ninety-nine percent of the people I spoke with last year, starting with the players, kept saying how the culture needed to change," Tambroni said. "It's priorities, lifestyle things, being good citizens in the community. From the time the players' feet hit the floor until their heads hit the pillow, we want each player really to think about what it means to be part of Penn State lacrosse – all day, every day.
"We didn't really worry too much about X's and O's in the fall. But what we need to do is become a more disciplined group. I got the sense it was more about occasionally making big plays before, but not taking care of the simple jobs consistently. We want to be about making the smaller, simple plays, which will lead to bigger plays and better chemistry. Put the system first."
In other words, share the ball more on offense, and don't gamble too much on defense. Get out of the one-on-one, isolation mentality and look more for teammates.
In junior attackman Matt Mackrides, the Nittany Lions have a tremendously gifted athlete and scorer – he had 36 goals in 2010, when Penn State tumbled to a 2-11 finish. But Penn State needs more balance and better-quality shots in 2011.
One reason the Lions fell so hard in 2010 was they averaged just 9.54 goals on paltry, 24 percent shooting, despite winning more than 57 percent of their faceoff chances. And Tambroni quickly found this winter that old habits die hard. Penn State shot 4-for-38 in its first scrimmage against Johns Hopkins.
"Take the best shot available, not the first shot available," he said.
It will be interesting to see how quickly Tambroni's philosophy bears fruit at Penn State, where youth reigns in 2011. Sophomore midfielder Nick Dolik leads the first line. Sophomore attackman Billy Gribbin is established as a complement to MacKrides, but freshmen Shane Sturgis and Steve Aitkin will bolster the attack. Freshman Steven Bogert and sophomore Tyler Travis will be anchors on defense. And freshman goalie Austin Kaut has had a superb preseason.
With so much ground to make up in the ever-improving CAA, don't expect Penn State to be a Cinderella story this spring. But expect the Nittany Lions to establish an identity, a heady, high-effort style of play that pays off before long. Tambroni set a standard of consistency at Cornell, and that is what should be expected at Penn State, where a longtime also-ran will become a serious, Division I player.