Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 25
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
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PIONEER SPIRIT: Bill Tierney gives a postgame interview in 2009 during his final season guiding the Princeton University men’s lacrosse program. The Hall of Fame coach took over the University of Denver men’s lax program last June and proceeded to guide the Pioneers to a 12-5 record this spring and an appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Former PU Coach Tierney Broadened Horizons In Guiding Denver Lax to NCAA Tournament

Bill Alden

Last June, the world of college lacrosse was rocked when Hall of Fame coach Bill Tierney left the Princeton University men’s lax program to take over the squad at the University of Denver.

During his 22-year tenure at Princeton, Tierney established himself as the face of Tiger lacrosse, guiding the team to six national titles and a 238-86 record.

A year after his stunning move, Tierney acknowledged that he was a bit uneasy about heading west.

“I had said I would leave Princeton under two circumstances- if I left it better than I found it and the cupboard was full — and it was,” said Tierney, whose final team at Princeton went 13-3 and advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals.

“But there was a little trepidation. It was a new opportunity and other than the middle 10 years at Princeton, I was more someone who built up programs.”

Upon arriving at Denver, Tierney realized that he had to start from square one with a program that was coming off a disappointing 7-8 campaign.

“A lot of them had wanted change and I told them in life you have to be careful about what you ask for,” said Tierney, who lived in an Embassy Suites hotel during his first two months in Denver.

“I told them I signed a five-year contract and there was going to be change. I told them two main things — trust us and how we teach and be confident that we will be fair. It was a philosophical and a cultural change.”

The team’s fall season took on greater urgency as Tierney tried to inculcate those changes.

“Usually in fall ball you have 10 or 11 new guys and the other 39 or 40 know what you are doing and speak the language so 75 percent can hop right into drills,” said Tierney, whose coaching staff included his son and former Tiger goalie, Trevor Tierney, Kevin Unterstein, and hold-over Matt Brown. “Here 100 percent didn’t know the language; there was a lot of teaching.”

While the Pioneers ultimately applied those lessons well in going 12-5 and making the NCAA tournament, things were a bit rocky in the beginning as the team lost its first two games, falling 15-9 to Syracuse and 13-12 to Jacksonville.

“We were playing Syracuse in the dome and we were 8-0 after eight minutes and outscored them the rest of the way,” said Tierney.

“It wasn’t their first string but we fought hard; we felt good after that game. Then against Jacksonville, we were down 10-4 at the half and I don’t know what happened. At the half, it was the first time I really went after them and they clammed up. They froze and we lost in OT.”

An 11-7 loss to Penn in early March proved to be a galvanizing moment for Tierney and the Pioneers.

“We learned a lot from the Penn game,” recalled Tierney, whose team dropped to 1-3 with the setback

“They outcoached and outplayed us. That night we got together and decided that we had to win by playing defense and being smarter on offense.”

After going 2-1 in its next three outings, Denver got rolling with a 13-12 win at nationally ranked Stony Brook.

“We showed fortitude and the never-say-die attitude that day,” recalled Tierney. “We were down 6-1 and 12-8 and came back and won 13-12. We walked off the field looking at each other thinking wow. We became a family that day. We started believing in each other and played better after that.”

Indeed, the Pioneers went on a nine-game winning streak that saw them crack the Top 10 in the national rankings.

A highlight in that stretch came when Denver whipped No. 6 Loyola 12-4 to clinch the ECAC lacrosse title and a spot in the NCAA tournament.

“We played the game of our season against Loyola,” asserted Tierney. “We played a nearly perfect game against a very good team. Maybe it would have been better if the regular season ended that week; we didn’t play as well against Air Force.”

Tierney had his club primed to play well as they flew across the country for a rematch with Stony Brook in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

“We were excited to go to the tournament; we prepared well,” said Tierney, whose team dropped a 9-7 nailbiter to end the spring at 12-5.

“Credit Stony Brook, they played well. We had our chances but unlike the rest of the year, we didn’t finish well around the the goal.”

While Denver didn’t achieve its goal of beating Stony Brook a second time, Tierney believes the program made a lot of progress this spring.

“We wanted to show our guys what it took to be good and compete for a league title,” said Tierney, noting that the team’s success this spring has spurred a lot of interest on the recruiting trail.

“We did that and more. We went undefeated in a very good league and made the NCAA tournament. We lost our last game of the season and that is disappointing but we played well in that game. We came together as a team; we learned a lot about each other.”

In the process, old dog Tierney learned some new tricks. “I thought it could be great; I thought it could be exciting starting anew at 58,” said Tierney.

“I was excited about getting the chance to coach with my son and to just enjoy coaching. All of those things came to fruition. My three young assistants were great. I never thought I would be into visualization or yoga. Trevor is great; I learned so much from him about enjoying the game and the team and looking at the big picture.”

As Tierney was broadening his horizons out in the Rocky Mountains, he did keep an eye on Princeton this spring as it won the Ivy League title and made the NCAA tournament.

“I did keep tabs but I was very much in the background,” said Tierney. “I would talk to Chris [head coach Chris Bates] and Greg [assistant coach Greg Raymond] when they wanted.”

While Tierney may not want it, he recognizes that a Denver-Princeton matchup in a future NCAA tourney would be a tantalizing prospect for the selection committee.

“The two teams are close to my heart,” said Tierney. “It might be inevitable that we play against each other. If it does happen, it means that we are both doing well.”

If a Denver-Princeton game ever happens, you can bet it will capture the attention of the lacrosse world.

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