New Maryland men's lacrosse coach John Tillman did not think of himself as a strong contender for the job when Dave Cottle's contract was not renewed after the team's loss to eventual runner-up Notre Dame in last month's NCAA tournament quarterfinals.
In fact, the third-year Harvard coach, a longtime Navy assistant, did not even consider himself a candidate.
"I'm kind of a focused guy, and I was so focused on doing everything I could do for Harvard," Tillman, 41, recalled Wednesday. "I wasn't searching for a job. I felt very fortunate to have the job I had."
While building Harvard into a program competitive enough to beat a top 10 team in each of the past two seasons, Tillman went from talking about Maryland's prolonged search process with other coaches on the recruiting trail to becoming involved in it after several others with bigger names, loftier reputations and higher salaries pulled themselves from consideration.
Tillman said the process developed "a lot quicker than I think anybody could have expected; it's kind of taken myself by surprise." He interviewed in College Park earlier this week and signed a seven-year contract Tuesday to become the school's next coach.
"It was a pretty short window," Tillman said during a conference call with reporters. "I tried to make sure I stayed focused on the things I needed to do as the Harvard coach and if anything else came about, it was not going to distract me from doing my job to the best of my abilities. It's certainly not something that started two weeks ago , or three weeks ago."
A deciding factor in Tillman's coming to College Park rather than returning to Cambridge, Mass., where he had signed one of the top recruiting classes in the country, was the length of the contract.
"I think what it showed me was that the administration at Maryland believed in me," Tillman said.
It also might have been a way for athletic director Debbie Yow to defuse the growing resentment in the lacrosse community over for the way Cottle was forced out after going 99-45 and taking the Terps to eight NCAA tournaments and three final fours in nine seasons.
Aware of the perception that Cottle was fired because Maryland had not reached the title game, Tillman seems undaunted by the expectations he will face.
"I know everybody has high expectations at every program, and mine are always higher. I want to win every game," Tillman said. "I think it's always important that you can take your expectations and bridge them into the process of what it takes to be successful, and not so much worry about the end result. At the end of the day, it's a result-based business, but if you get too caught up in what happens in the end, you forget about what you need to do daily to get there."
Navy coach Richie Meade, under whom Tillman served for 12 years, including the last six as assistant head coach, said the culture at Maryland was a lot different than it is at Harvard, where Tillman's 20-19 record was considered more than respectable.
"The perception at Harvard is that it was a rebuilding thing. I think John wanted to change the expectation level," Meade said. "At Maryland, I would imagine that if you were going to make a change with the team they have coming back and the people they have recruited, they're going to have the expectation that they're going to win right away."
Richie Moran, who coached Tillman at Cornell and helped win an NCAA championship as a player at Maryland in 1959, said Tillman's experience at Navy should be good preparation for what he can expect on the field.
"If he had just come from Harvard and not had the Naval Academy background, I would say the first year or so would be getting acquainted with the competition week in and week out," Moran said. "At Navy, he played a lot of those similar teams. I've always been a great believer that when you move from one conference to another, you better be pretty solid in knowing what that other conference is like. I think John is extremely familiar with the Atlantic Coast Conference."
Moran said that Tillman's ability to recruit at Navy and Harvard helped him build a reputation nationally, and his success as an offensive coach with the Midshipmen after being a defensive midfielder at Cornell and later in the pros -- including a three-year stint with the Baltimore Thunder of the National Lacrosse League -- showed his versatility as a coach. He was twice named national assistant coach of the year while in Annapolis.
"By all accounts, John is one of the top young coaches in the country," said Michael Lipitz, a senior associate athletic director at Maryland who led the search. "He's a dynamic recruiter and a tireless worker who has won everywhere he's been. Most importantly, he's a man of integrity. Those who know John highly respect him and refer to him a 'class act.' These are the qualities that made us believe he is the right fit for Maryland and led to his hire."
Moran recalled how Tillman came to Cornell as a transfer from Colgate in the late 1980s and converted from goalkeeper to defense. "When we would have board sessions, he always appeared to be the one who would have some questions that were relative to his position because he was playing it for the first time," Moran said. "That was always impressive."
More than 20 years later, Tillman is still asking questions, and still finding answers.
"No one is going to put in more time and be more detail-oriented than John Tillman in terms of recruiting, game preparation; he's extremely well-organized," ESPN lacrosse analyst Quint Kessenich said.
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