When Bill Tierney left Princeton to become head coach at the University of Denver in July, the move jolted the lacrosse world. Now, it's only a matter of time before he turns Denver into one of the better lacrosse programs in the country.
The Pioneers have been on the verge of breakthroughs before, playing in the NCAA tournament twice in the past five years, but haven't been able to sustain the momentum. Tierney will get Denver over the final hurdle.
"At Denver, he will have some flexibility in admissions, and his teams will always play good defense," Maryland coach Dave Cottle said. "The offense will play at a faster pace because they have better athletes, and eventually Bill will get the type of goalie he wants. It's only a matter of time before he puts his stamp on this team."
Tierney, 58, is on a mission at Denver like the one he was on before he went to Princeton 22 years ago.
In the East, Maryland, New York and New Jersey are the hotbeds. In the West, Denver is the hot spot. Denver plus Tierney is a pretty good combination.
"It is phenomenal for me to be in this position," Tierney said. "Lacrosse is booming here, and with the growth, there comes a passion that extends from the youth level to the club teams to the two pro teams. Now we want to spread that lacrosse fever here to the university."
When Tierney arrived at Princeton, the Tigers had not won any Ivy League titles or had a first team All-American. During his tenure, the Tigers won six national championships, 14 Ivy League titles and had 26 first-team All-Americans as Tierney compiled a 238-86 record.
Denver started its Division I program 11 years ago and last played in the NCAA tournament in 2008. But the Pioneers went 7-8 in 2009, as eight players eventually quit the program.
"They had too many voices, with too many people telling everyone what to do," Cottle said. "They kind of ate themselves. Bill will straighten that out. He knows, and they know that he knows, what he is doing. They will be an improved team."
Tierney struggled with leaving Princeton. Both his sons, Trevor and Brendan, had played for him at the school. There were reports that Tierney left because Princeton was no longer the top team in the Ivy League or that the school had reduced the number of exemptions for recruits.
There was also speculation that he took the Denver job in an effort to help Trevor eventually become the Pioneers' head coach when Tierney retires. Trevor is Tierney's top assistant at Denver.
What is the truth?
"That's a great question," Tierney said, laughing. "I came out here for the interview fully expecting to not take the job. But the athletic director here is a really great leader and salesperson.
"This job is refreshing. It's a new start, a new campus, where most of the buildings are less than 11 years old," said Tierney, a former Johns Hopkins assistant. "Where else do you get a chance to start something over again at 58? I figured if it didn't work, I'd do it for a few years and then retire."
It will work. Tierney is one of the soundest fundamental coaches in the game. He is already an established recruiter in the East and Canada, and he'll be able to sign some of the top players out of flourishing areas in Texas, California and Colorado.
He'll also be coaching better athletes than he drew at Princeton. Instead of playing that slow, deliberate pace on offense, he can now play up-tempo, like the rest of college lacrosse.
"It will be more of a blue-collar kid," Tierney said. "If you pat him on the back, he won't think he is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and if you kick him in the butt, you don't have to worry about him getting real down.
"Defensively, we'll still be the same, much like we were at Princeton. But offensively, I'm going to let them be free and not stifle them as much. It won't be 'A' throwing to 'B,' and 'B' throwing to 'C' and then 'C' cut. We've got to get away from that."
The key for the Pioneers this season will be depth. Denver has enough front talent in midfielder Charley Dickenson, attackmen Mark Matthews, Todd Baxter and Alex Demopoulos and goalie Peter Lowell, but it has little depth.
The Pioneers also haven't seen Tierney on the sideline on game day. He's an absolute nut, arms and legs flailing while stalking officials.
"Oh, we're still getting used to each other," Tierney said, laughing. "There are still a few more surprises."
And there will be many more victories.
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