SEVENTH HEAVEN: University of Denver men’s lacrosse head coach Bill Tierney, left, shakes hands with Maryland head coach John Tillman before the teams met in the NCAA championship game on Memorial Day. Former Princeton University head coach Tierney, who guided the Tigers to six national championships during his 22-season tenure with the program, won a seventh NCAA title as the Pioneers posted a 10-5 win over the Terps. (Photo Courtesy of Will Schneekloth and Denver’s Office of Athletic Communications)(Photo by Will Schneekloth for The University of Denver)
Bill Tierney was in Philadelphia on Memorial Day in 1992 and enjoyed one of the most memorable days of his life.
Tierney guided an upstart Princeton University men’s lacrosse team to a 10-9 overtime victory against Syracuse in the NCAA championship game to give the program its first-ever national title.
It was an improbable triumph for the Tigers considering that the team had gone 2-13 just four years earlier in Tierney’s first campaign as its head coach.
As Memorial Day rolled around this year, Tierney was back in Philly for the NCAA men’s lax title game and he once again made history, leading outsider University of Denver to a 10-5 win over Maryland and its first-ever NCAA crown.
The victory gave Hall of Fame coach Tierney a seventh national championship to go with the six he won during his 22 seasons at Princeton. He became the first coach to lead two different schools to an NCAA title and Denver is the first team from west of the Mississippi to earn a men’s lax national title.
For Tierney, there was a distinct sense of déjà vu as he walked off the field at Lincoln Financial Field after Denver’s triumph.
“It was great, whenever you win a championship, it is crazy,” said Tierney, 62. “It felt like my first one at Princeton. It was in Philadelphia like that one. It was the first one for the program. It was different guys and a different team but you are thankful to the people who trusted in you.”
Coming into the season, Tierney felt his team had a great chance to contend for a national title.
“When we looked around the country, Syracuse and North Carolina had amazing talent but they had flaws like everyone else,” said Tierney, whose squad was ranked No. 1 in the Inside Lacrosse preseason media poll. “Duke had lost enough so you had a chance. I liked our talent.”
After falling 13-11 to Ohio State on March 14 to begin a spring road trip and then looking out of synch in a 10-4 win over Lehigh and a 10-8 victory over Penn State, the team was at a bit of a crossroad as it returned to Denver.
“We were not playing well, we won the last two games but we were disgruntled,” recalled Tierney.
“We played Georgetown the first game back and it was the nicest day of the year, it was 80 degrees. We played a great game (a 19-7 win on March 28) and that kicked us off. We won those regular season games and then we played well against Villanova and G-town in the [BIG EAST] tournament.
After beating Brown 15-9 in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Pioneers faced a big challenge as it took on nemesis Ohio State in the quarters at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver.
“That was a huge one; we tried not to use the revenge thing with the kids,” said Tierney.
“It was at the big stadium, that was a help. We were at home twice in a row for the playoffs. Our first road trip was not until the Final 4. They jumped out to a 7-1 lead. The guys were resilient. We thought if we got two or three goals, we could get back in the game and then we went on a 9-goal run. We went on some long runs this year and this was one of those.”
In the NCAA semis against rival Notre Dame, a late 5-1 run by the Fighting Irish nearly ended Denver’s season as the Pioneers squandered a 9-5 lead and the game went into overtime with the teams deadlocked at 10-10.
“When OT came, the kids were confident,” said Tierney. “We just needed to get the ball. Our senior captain, Carson Cannon, made a takeaway check. We thought we could do it without a timeout but then we took a timeout and the next thing I knew we had a goal.”
With Denver having lost in the national semis in 2014, 2013, and 2011, the 11-10 victory was meaningful on a number of levels.
“It was huge, there were so many things wrapped up in it,” said Tierney. “It was Notre Dame, our biggest rival; it was winning in the semis. We had lost our last three and it was getting a chance to win a championship.
In the title game against Maryland, Denver jumped out to a 4-1 first quarter lead and never looked back on the way to a 10-5 triumph.
“It just felt like things were going our way; we jumped out to a lead and that helped,” said Tierney, whose team won its last 13 games in 2015 to end the season at 17-2.
“They would get a chance and hit a pipe. They would get another chance and our goalie would make a save. We were winning face-offs evenly. We were clearing the ball well. We never got overly emotional.”
Tierney did get emotional when he crossed paths with members of his 1997 national championship team at Princeton who were in Philadelphia being honored as the “Champion of Champions” via an online tournament coordinated by the NCAA earlier this season.
“That kind of folded everything together, a bunch of the kids stayed in the same hotel and we talked a lot,” said Tierney.
“When we went in at halftime on Monday, they were getting pictures. I wanted to go over but I didn’t want my team to think that I was not focusing on them so I waved.”
Although Tierney has now been in Denver for six years, he has remained tight with many friends in the Princeton area.
“I am still close to a lot of people in Princeton and with the Hun School,” said Tierney. “They are very close to me and very important to me. I know that although they would rather have Princeton win, they are rooting for Denver.”
His Princeton connection resulted in Tierney receiving a special honor as U.S Lacrosse recently announced that the playing field at its new national headquarters in Sparks, Md., will be named “The William G. Tierney Field.” It will be used as a training field for the U.S. national teams, as well as for games involving college, high school, and youth teams.
“It goes back to Princeton, Eddie Calkins (a member of the 1992 championship team and the chair of the U.S. Lacrosse Foundation Board) did the fundraising,” said Tierney.
“He first contacted me two years to get my permission to have this done in my name. People stepped up, I don’t know how much they contributed but there were some who made major contributions. It is really humbling. I knew where it came from, it was clear that it was Princeton people. I had 22 special years there, there were a lot of terrific people.”
Tierney is looking forward to some more good years in Denver. “I am talking with them about a long term contract,” said Tierney, who has an 83-25 record in his six seasons at Denver and is now 355-118 overall.
“I feel good; I want to get this contract signed. I would like to win a couple more of these things.”
In reflecting on his trip to Philadelphia this spring, Tierney noted that the pleasure derived from accomplishing the goal of a national title doesn’t dim over the years.
“It is just a matter of working hard and trying to do the right things,” said Tierney.
“I told the guys that nobody can take this away from you and there is no feeling like it. In ’92, I was 40 and in ’15, I am 62 and the feeling is the same.”