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Expectations Follow High-Profile Hires
by Gary Lambrecht | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online
John Tillman, the former Harvard coach, replaced Dave Cottle as head coach at Maryland in June. Tillman signed a seven-year contract. He inherits a team that returns 20 seniors.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com
John Tillman would have been thrilled to remain at Harvard University, where he had spent three productive years changing the culture in a stagnant men's lacrosse program he was hired to reinvigorate.
But, when officials from the University of Maryland called to gauge his interest in replacing Dave Cottle, who had been forced to resign following his ninth season in College Park after failing once again to win the school's first NCAA title since 1975, Tillman had to listen. After Maryland offered him the job and increased the length of his contract from five to seven years, Tillman spent four days contemplating a sea change in his career.
Part of him wanted to finish the work he had begun at Harvard, where he felt the Crimson would taste its first undisputed Ivy League title and postseason success with him at the helm. Part of him felt the lure of returning to a region he still calls home to coach in the high-profile, Atlantic Coast Conference, and to lead a distinguished program nearly nine decades old.
"The hardest thing was coming to terms with saying goodbye to the people I care about so much at Harvard," Tillman said. "To give up what we were building there was giving up a lot. I love the school. From admissions to the grounds crew to the kids and their parents, they were really good to me. I felt like we had just gotten there, and we were laying a foundation. It was a cool, unique opportunity to try to take a program someplace new.
"I did some soul-searching, and it was never Harvard vs. Maryland," added Tillman, who established a name for himself as a 12-year assistant at Navy, before getting his first head coaching job in Cambridge. "[Coming to Maryland] feels like I'm going home. I have a lot of friends and family down here. You go to a place like Maryland to be challenged, to be as good as you can be at your profession. The schedule demands it. The history at Maryland demands it."
Tillman signed his seven-year deal on June 15, and he did so with his eyes wide open, fully aware of the steep expectations he was inheriting. Those expectations ultimately cost Cottle, who, after taking Loyola to 14 consecutive NCAA tournaments, won 99 games at Maryland and led the Terrapins to eight straight tournaments and three final fours, but ultimately lost too many big games in May. Those expectations most likely factored into the decisions of three coaching candidates — Jeff Tambroni, Mike Pressler and Gary Gait — to pull out of consideration for the Maryland job, before Tillman got the chance to take it.
Tambroni, who has since left Cornell to coach at Penn State, guided the Big Red to three final fours and one NCAA title game appearance in his last four years in Ithaca. Pressler, currently the coach at Bryant University, built the Duke program and took the Blue Devils to two final fours before being forced out amid the scandal that shut down the program in the spring of 2006. Gait, the women's lacrosse coach at Syracuse and highly successful former women's assistant coach at Maryland, is widely considered the game's greatest player.
Then there is Tillman, whose aggressive recruiting and solid coaching made lacrosse matter again at Harvard. Under Tillman, the Crimson went 20-19 in three years, including an 8-5 season in 2009, during which the Crimson beat a top 5 opponent in Duke. Last spring's home game against Duke drew a crowd of 13,285, the second-largest ever to witness a regular-season lacrosse game in Massachusetts.
At Maryland, Tillman inherits a team that returns 20 seniors after going 12-4, not to mention another heralded Cottle recruiting class. And, oh yes, those expectations are alive and well. Tillman failed to get the Crimson to the NCAA tournament in three tries. That will not be received well in College Park.
"Every time we get to the final four, we have a chance to get to the final game," Maryland athletics director Debbie Yow wrote in an e-mail response. "[I want our coach to] believe we can and should play for the national championship sometimes. So, getting to the final four is certainly a goal."
It was well-circulated in the college lacrosse rumor mill that Cottle was under pressure to take the Terps deep into the NCAA tournament in 2010. Still, when he was forced out, it grabbed the attention of the lacrosse community and underscored the way the game is changing. Division I lacrosse is drawing more television exposure, revenue potential, recruiting competition and overall visibility than ever. With that comes the increased pressure to win, from fans to alumni to administrators, especially at institutions with strong lacrosse traditions, such as Johns Hopkins and Syracuse.
"It's clear that Maryland has said 'Hey, we want to win [a title] here.' When you let a guy like Dave Cottle go, that sounds a bell," said 10-year Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, who has delivered the only two national titles the Blue Jays have won since 1987 and is signed to coach at Homewood through the 2016 season. "When I took the job at Hopkins, I did so with full clarity. If I'm told I have to get to the final four, fine, I know where I am. But the whole sport is starting to change more in that way. Because of that, you're going to see more coaches demanding more compensation and security."
The level of pressure exerted on coaches typically depends on what administrators deem as realistic expectations. North Carolina tolerated several losing seasons before firing John Haus and hiring Joe Breschi. Georgetown, which fights for elite recruits most years, has missed the tournament three straight years, but has retained Dave Urick. Towson University has had two consecutive losing seasons, but elected to re-sign 12-year coach Tony Seaman — rumored for months to be on the firing line — to a three-year extension. It probably helped that Seaman won Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year honors after barely missing the NCAA tournament in 2010.
And Seaman knows about pressure. During eight years at Hopkins beginning in 1991, he took the Blue Jays to four final fours, but failed to win it all, and was fired after going 10-3 in 1998. He promptly landed at Towson.
"Hopkins let me go for not winning a championship. That was kind of the first hit in every [coach's] face," Seaman said. "Now, I'm at a good school that brings in good kids with strong academics, but it's hard to impress a kid with our nice stadium who has just been to Duke or Maryland or Virginia. People have to keep things in perspective."
"Everything needs to go right for us to get to a final four," said UMBC athletics director Charlie Brown, who hired coach Don Zimmerman in 1993 and watched the Retrievers miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in five seasons this year. "Here, I'm worried about how our kids are thriving at the university. Are they graduating? Are we winning? The expectations are astronomical at other places. Lacrosse has been extremely important for a long time at a place like Maryland."
Said Tillman: "I try to not to get too caught up in the end-result stuff. I worry about what we're doing day-to-day to put ourselves in position to win and go on a playoff run. I love going on the journey with a group of guys every year. It's great to be back in an area where lacrosse is so big and important. And I know it's a results-based business more than it has ever been."
COACHING CAROUSEL: D-I MEN
Some stayed; some went. A look at offseason coaching transactions and analysis in NCAA Division I men's lacrosse.
|Dave Cottle|| -
||Forced out at Maryland after 99 wins over nine seasons||One-time candidate for Harvard job moonlighted with MLL's
||-||Promoted to head coach at Cornell after Tambroni left
||Big Red administration hires within its own house again
|Dave Pietramala||-||Signed extension keeps him at Hopkins through 2016||Expectations always high at Homewood; Jays bounced
unceremoniously from last two NCAAs
|Jeff Tambroni||-||Left Cornell to replace retired Glenn Thiel at Penn State
||First turned down Maryland before Penn State sweetened its
offer and lacrosse commitment
|Lars Tiffany||-||Interviews at Penn State before deciding to remain at Brown
||Offered by Lions, who then moved to Tambroni
|John Tillman||-||Left Harvard to replace Cottle at Maryland
||Needs to win early and often; seven-year contract helps
|Tony Seaman||-||Signed three-year extension at Towson
||CAA Coach of the Year missed NCAAs, lives to fight another
||-||Signed extension at Stony Brook through 2015
||Host Seawolves nearly upset Virginia in NCAA quarters before
|Chris Wojcik||-||Former Harvard assistant returns to Crimson as head coach to replace Tillman||Passed over when Tillman was hired, biding time as assistant at Penn paid off|