A coach's coach

college lacrosse day of rivals

Hopkins' Pietramala fiercely passionate competitor

April 11, 2009|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

Dave Pietramala smiles when he hears the question. It's one he has heard before. They look at him - his big-barreled chest, his oak tree of a neck and his linebacker-thick arms - and just assume.

You played football growing up, didn't you?

No, sadly, Pietramala did not play high school football. It wasn't that he didn't want to, and it wasn't that his parents wouldn't let him. Quite the opposite. There simply was no football in his small world.

His tiny Catholic high school, St. Mary's in Hicksville, N.Y., couldn't afford the insurance, and so in the mid-1980s, a generation of broad-shouldered young men like Pietramala were steered to lacrosse and told to seek athletic glory scooping ground balls instead of wrestling running backs to the ground.

That unfortunate twist of fate still eats at Pietramala, but it also explains a lot about the man and the way he runs the Johns Hopkins lacrosse program. Watch, though, how he stands on the sideline Saturday as his Blue Jays take on Maryland at M&T Bank Stadium. Arms crossed and jaw clenched, he looks right at home on the gridiron. All due respect to lacrosse, but Pietramala is a football guy. There is an intensity in the way he carries himself, an intimidating snarl to almost every gesture.

The 41-year-old doesn't smile much, but if you mention he would seem more at home on the gridiron, a grin will spread across his face. He considers it a compliment. He doesn't miss playing lacrosse. But football? Yeah, maybe a little.

"I'm sure I would have loved it," Pietramala said during a recent afternoon, talking about football inside his office. "I'd love to go back and play. Sometimes, to be honest, I want to get out there right now."

This is Pietramala's ninth season as Hopkins head coach, and there are few surprises anymore about who he is. On the surface, he is as fierce a competitor as anyone in the sport. But hang around long enough and you'll see some vulnerability. His eyes were noticably red and puffy after last year's NCAA final. When he put his hand on Paul Rabil's shoulder in the post-game news conference, he looked like a father reaching out to comfort his son. Pietramala doesn't so much as wear his emotions on his sleeve as he does wear them all the way down to his shoelaces.

"I can't stand losing," he said. "I'm more scared to lose than I am excited to win. We lose, and it makes me sick to my stomach. My food doesn't taste good for the rest of the day."

What he has accomplished speaks for itself: One of the greatest lacrosse players in the history of the game has become, two decades later, one of the best coaches. But an argument can be made that it goes beyond that. He would scoff if he heard it, deflect credit to his staff, and his peers might howl if they read it, but let us make the case anyway:

Dave Pietramala might just be the best college coach in America.

Not just in lacrosse, but in any sport.

Sound ridiculous? Especially when his team enters today with a 4-4 record? Think Pete Carroll, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams - or even, for that matter, Syracuse lacrosse coach John Desko and Virginia lacrosse coach Dom Starsia - might have a good rebuttal?

Perhaps. But then it depends on what you want, and what you expect, from a college coach. Hopkins isn't near its peak this season, having graduated its entire attack last year. But you can't count it out. A year ago at midseason, the team was in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since the NCAA tournament began in 1971, and all the Blue Jays did was reel off a string of victories that didn't end until they reached the NCAA championship game, in which Syracuse finally wore them down and won, 13-10.

There is a reason New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick will be at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday, perhaps on the sideline wearing a Hopkins sweat shirt, something he has done in the past. He considers Pietramala not only a friend but also a peer.

Since Pietramala took over the Blue Jays' program in 2001, Hopkins has won two national championships (2005, 2007) and appeared in two more championship games (2003, 2008), and every player who has exhausted his four years of eligibility has graduated, earning a degree from one of the country's top universities. While Duke, Princeton and Navy have similarly high academic standards, Hopkins is the only one of those institutions where lacrosse is the main sport on campus - the one sport that really matters.

Couple this with the fact that Hopkins, under Pietramala, has been fearless about what teams it will play. Although the Blue Jays dropped Duke this year and replaced it with Siena, they still play the toughest schedule in the country - by a good margin. When the Blue Jays face the Terps on Saturday, it will be the eighth straight game they've faced a Top 20 opponent. It will likely become nine next week when Hopkins faces Navy.

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