Under heightened pressure, Johns Hopkins' Pietramala reinvents himself

After missing NCAAs last season, coach changes his methods because he knows he's under the miscroscope

April 11, 2014|Mike Preston

Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala appears to be cool while the whirlwind blows around him.

A year ago, the Blue Jays failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 41 years, and they are on the verge of being left out again if they don't get another big win in their final five games.

That might be impossible for the Blue Jays faithful to bear. Lacrosse to Hopkins is what football is to Notre Dame and basketball to Kentucky. Lacrosse isn't just a sport at Hopkins, it's the sport. It's an identity.

"If people at Johns Hopkins are unhappy with what I'm doing, then they will ask me to leave," said Pietramala. "I know I have the support of the athletic director — it's unwavering. I know I have the support of our president, but I also know the coaching world. Is there ever security in coaching?

"You can go from the penthouse to outhouse in two years," added Pietramala. "We are in a transition period in our sport with fans and alumni. Everybody is realizing that there is a much more competitive landscape. When I played, there was no Duke, no Georgetown, no Notre Dame and no Loyola. They played, but weren't powers. There was no Denver, and no West Coast lacrosse. The landscape of lacrosse has changed."

But it's hard for some Hopkins fans to overlook their storied tradition. The Blue Jays have 44 national championships, nine NCAA Division I titles and 183 first-team All-Americans.

Most colleges build facilities for the football team. Not at Hopkins. The university created one for the lacrosse teams with some plans modeled after the facilities built by the Ravens and other NFL franchises. The Blue Jays even have a marching band that travels with the team.

So, despite being 6-3 and ranked No. 9 in the country, the Blue Jays are struggling, and a lot of fingers are being pointed at Pietramala.

He understands.

"I'm smart enough to realize the lay of the land, parity and how things have changed, but not making the tournament last year happened on my watch and I take it very seriously," said Pietramala.

"Does everyone outside of the coaching and playing world understand that the game has changed?" he added. "Probably not. But we have passionate fans and alumni here. I want to be somewhere where there are expectations, wants and desires. They care, and I think our players like to be in the same surroundings. That's what makes this place special."

Pietramala has done a great job in his 14 years as head coach. He has a 153-53 record and been to the NCAA tournament every year except last year. He has had Hopkins in the NCAA semifinals six times and won national championships in 2005 and 2007.

He has coached like he played, with the same relentless, nasty and demanding style that made him arguably the game's best-ever defenseman.

But old-school is out and new-school is in. Pietramala has tried to reinvent himself this season. His late-season practices aren't as long. He isn't as gruff on the sideline. The offense underwent a face-lift from being dominated by midfield play to one with more balance.

The change hasn't gone unnoticed.

"I don't think he's under any more pressure than he puts himself under," said long-stick midfielder Michael Pellegrino. "He's his biggest critic. He put so much work and effort in this program, and anybody that judges him, this guy works harder than any other guy in the nation. I think he's one of the best coaches. The amount of time he spends, the amount of film he watches, the game-planning, when a game doesn't go well, it's usually on us [as a defense] because the game plan was always perfect.

"He's changed. He's altered his coaching methods," said Pellegrino. "Now he coaches for the individual. He doesn't treat everyone as a Type A player. Now he realizes that there is a Type A, B, C, D, E and F player, and he will coach accordingly. I like it. It's especially helpful to our offense."

The good coaches know that they either have to find another way to be effective or move on. Pietramala chose the first, the result of failing to make the tournament last season.

He searched a lot of souls.

"We were humbled," said Pietramala. "We were 9-5, and that usually gets you in, especially with a win over Virginia and Maryland, who was ranked No. 1 at the time. But we couldn't complain. We helped create the system and had been beneficiaries of it in the past. We didn't have the safety net of a conference, and we chose to do it that way.

"It was a long offseason," said Pietramala. "You change some things, but the standards remain the same. We have just chosen a different way to communicate. After talking with different people, we didn't want to talk about last year, just move forward. One thing we wanted to get across is that we didn't want to be in their heads, but in their hearts."

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