Tierney's tyranny has rhyme, reason Princeton coach takes style to national team

July 12, 1998|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

The 26 best lacrosse players in the world casually walked into their first U.S. national team meeting, only to receive a startling introduction to coach Bill Tierney.

He told them to sit down and explained in detail how to do line drills. Tierney then charged over to the blackboard and distinctly des- cribed how many players he wanted in each stretching line.

Welcome to Lacrosse 101 by Tierney, a strict philosophy that has guided Princeton to five NCAA championships in seven years -- during what many refer to as an age of parity -- and landed him as coach of the U.S. national team.

"I came into that first meeting and I think the guys expected something out of me -- and they got it," said Tierney, 46, who is 125-40 in his 11th year at Princeton and 117-19 in the '90s. "We learned later that we had to loosen up and find a middle ground."

Yet his accomplished coaching style isn't up to debate at the college level. And it's prompted many to call him a disciplinarian and a perfectionist, while others refer to him as a technician and sometimes a madman.

Question him and he'll shoot you back an honest, off-the-hip response just like his father, who drove a beer truck in Levittown, N.Y., and provided Tierney with the roots of his discipline.

Take the dress code: no facial hair, no long hair, no personalized markings on helmets or uniforms, and everyone must wear the same Princeton crew socks.

During practice, a mental mistake can result in the entire team doing 25 push-ups. Make a second error and it's down for 50. Once last season, Tierney had his players on the brink of exhaustion when he ordered them to do six straight sets of 50 push-ups because someone forgot to yell, "Release," when he grabbed a loose ball.

"It's almost deja vu," said U.S. team defenseman David Morrow, who played under Tierney at Princeton in the early '90s. "It's almost five years, but I can't notice any difference. Coach T's so particular about everything. Everything has to be done a certain way."

This precision plays a key role in Tierney's strategy of team defense.

Unlike the usual concept of man-to-man defense, Tierney stresses a more sliding, help-based defensive scheme. It's a system of positioning to force certain angles rather than throwing checks, and knowing when there is a double team waiting to back you up.

"He's established a system where the sum is bigger than the parts," Towson University coach Tony Seaman said. "It's the most copied defensive scheme around. It's the basic fundamentals that everyone uses, but nobody has perfected it to the level Billy has."

Nevertheless, the premier technical coach in the nation who has an unassuming demeanor off the field transforms into a self-proclaimed raving lunatic on game days.

His players call his tirade "The Jackhammer," a move where his arms are stretched to his knees with his palms wide-open while )) his legs pump emphatically. And the words that accompany the act wouldn't be found on any Princeton thesis.

"What you see on the field is not Bill," said Tierney's wife, Helen. "At home, he's not a coach or a perfectionist. He's just Bill, playing outside with the kids."

"When I coached with him, there were times at the end of a game he'd ask, 'I wasn't that bad, was I?' " said U.S. team defenseman Brian Voelker, who was a Princeton assistant in 1992. "I didn't really want to tell him, 'Yes, you were.' "

Some in the lacrosse community say Tierney's antics against the officials are the reason Princeton tends to receive favorable calls and leads the country in fewest penalties annually. Tell that to Tierney and he's nearly ready to perform his infamous move that once drew a reprimand from the NCAA in 1992.

"I've been at five different schools, and every athletic director has talked to me about my act on the sidelines," Tierney said. "I go home and my wife talks to me about my act on the sideline. My kids are embarrassed about my act on the sidelines. I look at the films and I can't remember some things I do on the sidelines.

"If I'm a referee and this guy is always in my ear, I'm not thinking about doing this guy a favor. The truth is we just don't foul. We don't believe in stick checks, which are 60 percent of the fouls in a game."

Then bring up the rumors that his success of building Princeton from a basement program to the dynasty of the '90s can be traced to lenient admissions and generous financial aid.

But Tierney bases his strong recruiting on a direct, albeit clever, technique that no one can fault.

When Tierney visits a recruit, he asks them to write down the five best schools in the country academically. Then he wants them to list the five best lacrosse programs. When Tierney scans the paper, he usually sees that Princeton is the only institution on both of the lists.

Still, Tierney would rather not have to justify his achievements.

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