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Vol. LXIII, No. 24
 
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
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STRONG WORDS: Bill Tierney, right, imparts some post-game wisdom to an ESPNU sideline reporter after Princeton’s 10-7 win over Massachusetts on May 16 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Tierney recently left the Princeton lax program to become the head men’s lacrosse coach at the University of Denver. Tierney, who was known for his strong words on the sideline and deep insight into the game during his Princeton tenure, led the Tigers to six national titles in his 22 years at the helm.

Tierney Has Mixed Feelings as He Leaves PU Lax; But His Legacy Will Serve as a Beacon for Tigers

Bill Alden

Cruising in a plane at 35,000 feet heading from the Rocky Mountains to New Jersey earlier this month, Bill Tierney decided to embark on a journey that will cap his legendary career.

The Hall of Fame Princeton University men’s lacrosse coach was returning from a trip to Colorado where he was wined and dined as the University of Denver tried to convince him to take over its program and he needed the solitude to make up his mind.

“I had a long plane ride home,” recalled Tierney. “I got a chance to look at the big picture without everyone pounding on me.”

By the time he landed, Tierney had decided to take off to Denver, a move that drastically changed the lacrosse landscape.

“I think it was a combination of things,” said Tierney, 57, whose staff at Denver will include his son, Trevor, a former All-American goalie at Princeton and a coach for the Denver Outlaws of Major League Lacrosse.

“It was a perfect storm. They want to be great at lacrosse, from the players to the athletic administrators to Pat Bowlen (the owner of the Denver Broncos and a major donor to DU). There is a lot of support.”

When June started, Tierney figured to take a supporting role in the search for a successor to DU head coach Jamie Munro as he was asked for his advice on some suitable candidates for the job.

“That has happened a lot over the years,” said Tierney, who coached 22 years at Princeton and led the Tigers to a 238-86 record and six NCAA titles. “I am known for being straight and giving people names.”

But he became the target of the search. “I listened to them and the more I talked to them, the more I got intrigued,” said Tierney. “They brought out some guys last Monday (June 1) and they called me on Tuesday and said we want you to come out.”

Figuring it was a way to get a free trip to visit Trevor, a longtime Denver resident, Tierney relented.

When Tierney got the lay of the land in the Mile High City, he realized that there was a good foundation in place at DU.

“This is not 1988 Princeton, they have a lot of good players,” said Tierney, who was planning to eventually retire to the Denver area. “The Denver area has embraced lacrosse. The indoor and outdoor pro teams have done well, the people out there have really supported the sport.”

Tierney acknowledges that things aren’t all rosy as he looks to turn around a Pioneer program that went 7-8 this spring and had three players dismissed due to disciplinary reasons.

“I think the biggest challenge is to change the culture,” said Tierney. “We need to get everybody on board to our way of doing things.”

As he looks to make Denver into a national power, Tierney plans to recruit from coast to coast.

“There are a lot of great kids out west,” said Tierney. “We will come back east to afford the kids the opportunity to know what’s out there in Denver. They have a dedicated lacrosse stadium for men and women. We are looking to fill those seats by having some good teams and getting interest. The goal is to win the national title.”

Building a Dynasty

When Tierney arrived at Princeton in 1988 with the same goal of a national crown, volunteer assistant coach Bryce Chase wasn’t sure what to make of the program’s fiery new leader.

“I thought this guy was nice but he’s nuts,” said Chase with a chuckle.

Chase soon realized that there was a method to Tierney’s madness as he transformed the moribund program into a six-time national champion.

“He has the whole package,” asserted Chase, a 1963 PU alum and former Tiger lacrosse player who has been coaching with the program since the 1970s.

“I work as a lawyer in my day job and I have seen very good lawyers and one or two great ones and some very fine judges. But Bill is so far the best at his job. He does everything; he never seems to make a misstep.”

While noting Tierney’s impact on the Princeton program and the growth of the game in Central Jersey, Chase feels that Tierney’s most special contribution may have come in the way he instilled character in his players.

“He tells them to say thank you whenever possible and clean up after yourself,” said Chase.

“I have been around a lot of locker rooms and they can get messy. We would clean up on the road, whether we won or lost. We wanted the visiting locker room to look better than it did when we arrived. We travel in coats and ties. People have come up to me in restaurants over the years, asking who is this group, they are so nice looking and polite.”

Growing the Game

Longtime Princeton men’s lacrosse contact Jerry Price appreciates how Tierney has looked at the big picture.

“In 1998, before the Final Four, Channel 29 in Philadelphia was coming up to do a spot on Jon Hess, Jesse Hubbard, and Chris Massey,” recalled Price.

“They were an hour late but he stopped practice so they could do their interviews. He knew it would help the game. People see him screaming on sidelines. They don’t know that side of him and how many people he has touched at Princeton and outside of Princeton. He is lacrosse royalty but always has the time to help someone.”

Tierney’s desire to help people has extended to Price’s son, Greg, a sixth-grader who has become a passionate lax goalie under the influence of the Hall of Fame coach who befriended him years ago.

“I had Greg tagging along with me when he was four and it wasn’t just hi, how are you from Bill,” said Price. “He went out of his way to encourage and work with him to show him the right way to do things.”

That encouragement has made an indelible impact on Price’s son. “Wherever Greg goes in lacrosse, it will be because of the encouragement he got from Bill,” asserted Price

“He has also taught him to focus on God, family, school, and lacrosse in that order. If he has learned nothing else, I am very glad Greg has been exposed to that.”

Princeton athletics have been lucky to have been exposed to Tierney’s coaching, in Price’s view.

“I think Pete Carril (Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach) and Tierney are the best coaches in the history of Princeton athletics,” said Price.

“I know it is hard to make that statement with the long history and all the great coaches that have been here. Those two changed the way their sports were played with their systems; they made an impact beyond Princeton.”

Impact on Players

Princeton junior men’s lacrosse player Tyler Moni couldn’t believe it when he learned that the team’s iconic coach was heading west.

“I got the e-mail while I was sitting at dinner,” said Moni, referring to the e-mail that Tierney sent to his players on June 8 to inform them of his move.

“I opened it and I went through it; my initial reaction was shock. I didn’t know where to go.”

After getting his bearings from talking to teammates and alums, Moni was able to reflect on playing for Tierney.

“Coach T has done a lot for me as a player and as a person,” said Moni, a former Princeton High star who played on the Tigers’ second midfield unit this spring in his sophomore season.

“I was lucky to play for Coach T; I am going to miss him. The players in Denver are lucky to be getting a coach like him.”

While Tierney will be gone, Moni will try to apply some of the key lessons he learned from the coach.

“He taught you to rise up to the occasion,” said Moni. “You come in from high school and the game comes on you quickly. It is so much faster in college. It is different and he helps you deal with that. He is one of the most honest coaches I’ve had. If you are doing something that doesn’t fit in, he lets you know what you need to do. He teaches you mental toughness.”

Star sophomore goalie Tyler Fiorito sees Tierney’s exit as a chance for the members of his class to display their toughness.

“For the next three years, it is our team and our chance to lead Princeton into an era after Coach Tierney,” said Fiorito.

“Now there is an opportunity to show who we are and how we can play. We have to rely on ourselves and each other. We have really gotten closer as a group. We need to do what we can to prepare ourselves this summer. We have some guys in our class who can step up and some older guys who can be good leaders.”

Fiorito won’t soon forget the leadership exhibited by Tierney. “The biggest thing for him is character,” said Fiorito, an honorable mention All-American this spring in his freshman campaign.

“It is character first and then talent, you see that when you get here. You know he is going to keep people motivated. You know he is going to be yelling but he is the first guy to compliment you and tell you that he loves you.”

For Tierney, the toughest part of his move is leaving his Princeton players.

“You know how I feel about the players; I love them dearly,” said Tierney, noting that there is a solid foundation in place with the Tigers having gone 13-3 in 2009 and making it to the NCAA quarterfinals.

“It’s weird; I feel like a divided person; one part loves Princeton and one part is excited about the new challenge.”

Tierney admired how his Princeton players have faced the myriad challenges of succeeding in the classroom and on the field.

“They could go places that make things easier, where things are less challenging academically and less demanding,” said Tierney, who points to the six national championship games as obvious highlights of his tenure, particularly the 2001 title team that included sons Trevor and Brendan.

“You could bemoan the obstacles and give in. At Princeton, though, they cherish the challenge. I used to not talk about the senior thesis, but I started bringing it up in recruiting. If they don’t want that challenge, they will be afraid when they are playing Johns Hopkins at M and T Bank Stadium. They look it right in the eye.”

And Tierney will be eying Princeton’s progress from Denver. “I had a talk with some of this year’s freshmen after I made my decision,” said Tierney, whose likely successor, top assistant Dave Metzbower, turned down an offer this week to take over the program, meaning that the school will resume a national search for a new coach.

“They said this is going to make us stronger; they got to live under one of the greatest senior classes that we have ever had. They have some of the best defensemen and probably the best goalie in the country. They are loaded. I want them to do well. I am going to be their biggest cheerleader.”

In the meantime, Tierney will be doing his best to earn the cheers of the Denver fans.

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