Maryland's John Tillman has worked his way to the top

Lacrosse isn't a job for Terps' new coach — it's a labor of love

February 20, 2011|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK — — Maryland's new lacrosse coach raised some eyebrows while meeting his players last summer.

"Wow, you coached at Harvard?" they said. "You must be smart."

Maybe not, John Tillman replied:

"When I was a kid, I liked to eat dirt."

There's truth to that. As a player, Tillman had to scrap just to get into the lineup. A walk-on at Cornell, he never started, played in 12 contests overall and lettered once, as a senior. He played three positions in college, reinventing himself time and again in an effort to launch his career.

Tillman's struggles shaped a dogged mindset that has served Maryland's first-year coach well. He is passionate, demanding and resilient, those who know him say — a man who values the last one on the bench as much as he does the star players.

"One thing that hurts great players, in terms of coaching, is that they can't relate to guys with limited abilities," said Tillman, 41. "I appreciate guys who aren't major players, because I was one myself. Small and slow is no way to go through life, but if you work hard and bust your butt, you'll find some peace in knowing that, hey, I gave it all I could."

This is the man the Terrapins trust to take them to the top (Maryland's last NCAA championship was in 1975). The Terps, 12-4 last year, open Saturday at Byrd Stadium against Detroit Mercy (1 p.m.).

At the helm is a coach with thin credentials as a player. Tillman never touched a lacrosse stick before high school, and was too small even to play freshman football in his hometown of Painted Post, N.Y.

" 'Till' was the runt of the litter," said Charles (CB) Mayer, a lifelong friend. "If he weighed 85 pounds, he was lucky."

But that part of his resume isn't indicative of Tillman's savvy on the sidelines.

"If I were in college, I would walk from my home on Long Island to Maryland to play for John," said Hall of Fame coach Richie Moran, 73, for whom Tillman played at Cornell.

"Till is a dedicated, tenacious guy who makes all those around him better," said Tony Morgan, a teammate at Cornell in 1991. "I have four boys, and I want them to approach practice the way John does. If I can instill that in them, then I'll have done my job as a father."

Tillman's hands-on grasp of lacrosse — having played goalie, defense and midfield — gives him a unique perspective as coach, colleagues say.

"At Cornell, John figured, 'If I can't play this, I'll try this,' " said Joe Stratton, his coach at Corning West High. "He was a 'Rudy.' He had a dream and decided to keep climbing the hill until he got his chance."

In college, Tillman never got that opportunity. Coaching? That's a work-in-progress.

He joined Maryland after three years as Harvard's head coach, where his teams won 20 of 39 games. Despite fielding just one All-American, the Crimson scored upsets of Duke and Princeton, both top 10 teams. But Harvard also lost 10 of 11 one-goal games during Tillman's tenure.

Were those defeats the result of (a) Harvard overachieving or (b) some flaw in Tillman's coaching?

"He's a thinker, to the point where, sometimes, you can overthink things," said Navy coach Richie Meade, who had Tillman as an assistant for 12 years. "Sometimes, you've got to make a decision and go."

Tillman is quick to admit shortcomings.

"If people wanted the best player for this job, they should have picked (former Syracuse All-American and Hall of Famer) Gary Gait," he said. "I kind of like the fact that I'm flawed. I tell these guys, 'If we play our unselfish, disciplined butts off, we'll make mistakes — but we'll overcome so much else because of our passion that we'll have success.'

"I tell them, 'I appreciate your flaws because, if any of you were perfect, the rest of our self esteem would go down.' "

'Tireless' worker

His work ethic is legend. At Harvard, officials insisted Tillman not sleep in his office. Eighteen-hour days there earned him the nickname of "Cyborg."

"He was tireless. I'd see him working at 5 a.m., watching every game tape he could get his hands on," said Billy Geist (McDonogh), Harvard's captain who graduated in 2010.

Long practices led players to gripe about missed meals. Others grumbled that mandatory weightlifting clashed with morning classes. One recruit told the coach that he'd heard rumors the Harvard team worked out with Navy Seals at 5 a.m.

A bachelor, Tillman once told a friend that he would marry "when I meet a woman who knows how to defend a 3-3 zone."

That tunnel vision failed to win over all of Harvard.

"Tills was totally immersed (in lacrosse), and a lot of guys didn't like that," said Zack Widbin, who played for Tillman in his senior year (2008). "He drives everyone hard, that's for sure. At Harvard, sometimes, the harder he would push, the slower it would go. But I developed more in one year, under him, than I did in the previous three."

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