Navy takes on flood of praise, but Meade keeps an even keel

Mids' old-school coach won't get carried away with team's new success

College Lacrosse

May 23, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Richie Meade has never taken a lacrosse team this far, has never been within sniffing distance of a national championship as a head coach. And now that he has Navy in position to do historic damage in the NCAA tournament, Meade is utterly unaffected by the buzz his team has created.

Meade, who until last week had never won a playoff game and had been to only one other postseason during his 10 seasons in Annapolis, shrugged when asked if this special spring had validated his work in those leaner years.

After producing a 61-54 record, which included a 6-7 mark a year ago and three one-goal losses in each of his previous four seasons, Meade sensed the drum-beating in some administrative circles. Some were whispering that maybe it was time for Navy to make a change.

But here is Meade, having led the Midshipmen to a school-record 13 victories, looking like a lock to be named Division I Coach of the Year. The Mids are on the verge of their first NCAA final four since 1981, with a shot at their first crown in the tournament's 33-year history.

From Meade, another shrug.

"I hear [the criticism], but I don't value it," Meade said. "I expect success, but that's never been more important to me than the development of the guys who go through here. Whether you win or lose, you're trying to become a good leader, trying to handle adversity, trying to be humble and handle success.

"It feels different because we're winning. But win or lose, you have to focus first on the process of getting people ready to play. Institutionally, there's a great commitment to that process. That's why I'm comfortable here. I've never been a too-high or too-low guy. I think one of the only talents I've ever had is determination."

At 50, Meade is the middle-aged version of the short, fiery Long Island kid who realized in high school he had neither the height nor the hops to pursue basketball, his greatest love as a teenager.

The older Meade is a tenured physical education professor at the academy who sports a paunch, a receding red hairline and a thick neck that would fit nicely on a heavyweight wrestler.

And the youngest of three sons, whose father fought in both World War II theaters with the 69th Army infantry and supported his family on a New York City traffic cop's salary, is admittedly not the warm and fuzzy type. There isn't much room in his world for small talk.

With Meade, you get a teacher who wears a half frown, has been known to chew out and stare down a misbehaving player with laser-like intensity, but also is prone to tears while talking about his dad, ex-players now risking their lives in Iraq, or while giving one of his patented pre-game speeches.

"It's not necessarily what he says. It's the emotion he puts into it," said Navy sophomore goalie Matt Russell, who recalled one pep talk that painted a vivid picture of Navy Seals storming a target with overwhelming force. "The material is great a lot of times. You know he means so much of what he is saying. I haven't met a guy more passionate about his job."

Meade, who married his wife, Sue, in 1998 and has three daughters, earned two degrees at North Carolina and toiled in five different Division I programs as an assistant before rejoining the academy in 1995 - he worked as a defensive coordinator there from 1983 to '87.

Meade knows his place. Does he ever. He devours books and movies on the military. On his office wall are pictures of the famous flag-raisings at Iwo Jima and atop the World Trade Center rubble after Sept. 11, 2001. He looks on his desk at a photo of Clint Burke and Jay Hull, two Seals in battle regalia who played for him and are serving in the Iraq war. His eyes moisten.

"The academy fits me," said Meade, pointing to the rigid rules and black-and-white disciplinary methods that define his workplace. "The older you get, the more you become the big bad wolf. Guys don't walk into my office to talk about how happy they are. That's why I've got [assistants]. If they come in here, they're either in trouble or they really need something."

Said Jay Tillman, the Mids' offensive coordinator: "[Meade] is kind of an old-school guy. This is what you have to do. Do it a hundred miles an hour until you do it right. There isn't any smoke and mirrors. He's about good, old-fashioned hard work."

Meade's mark at Navy has always centered on toughness. Even when the Mids were struggling to get over .500 in years past, they were typically a punishing, defensive-minded squad that slowed down the game and made opponents earn their goals.

This year's breakthrough model happened for various reasons. Navy moved from the ultra-competitive Eastern College Athletic Conference to the Patriot League, stayed healthy and saw several recruiting classes mature to give it depth it never had. And the Mids became more of a run-and-gun, transition team with a host of scoring options, led by attackmen Ian Dingman and Joe Bossi and midfielder Ben Bailey.

The defense, which got a boost with the promotion of Russell (second in the nation with a goals-against average of 6.38) after a 12-9 loss to Ohio State in Week 2, remained as nasty as ever. Navy (13-2) has allowed eight or fewer goals 12 times. The Mids also have won 63.7 percent of their faceoffs.

Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk, who was hired in 2001, scoffed at the notion that Meade was in trouble going into the 2004 season. Gladchuk said he was taken by Meade's commitment to the school upon meeting him. That hasn't changed.

"We've increased the [lacrosse] budget to help with recruiting. Our alumni funding is up, and Richie is a good lacrosse coach. It's taken awhile, but [success] has come," Gladchuk said.

"He believes in this place and what it's about. He doesn't have an agenda, other than he's invested himself in the academy. You think of a certain mind-set - values, dedication, intensity. Richie exudes it. He lives it. He's real."

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