Denver's Bill Tierney won six national championships… (John Babb, Denver Athletics )
Denver coach Bill Tierney doesn't think he is a genius, but he has one of the greatest defensive minds in the history of college lacrosse.
If there are two head coaches who could come up with a scheme to upset No. 1 seed Duke, they are Johns Hopkins' Dave Pietramala or Tierney. Pietramala had his turn last week, and Duke routed the Blue Jays, 19-11.
Tierney gets his turn Saturday in the men's Division I lacrosse semifinals at M&T Bank Stadium.
"Coach T had a shot at them earlier in the year and I think they lost, 14-10," said Loyola assistant coach Dave Metzbower, who worked as an assistant for 20 years under Tierney at Princeton. "I'm looking forward to this game to see how he defends them. It's going to be interesting."
Added Dave Cottle, coach of the Chesapeake Bayhawks and a longtime friend of Tierney's: "Billy is very good at making adjustments, especially at the moment when it needs to happen. He has experience and pays great attention to detail. His guys buy into him. When you win six national championships, you get that type of respect."
Tierney's presence is what gives Denver hope. The Pioneers and Blue Devils are the two most balanced teams left in the field, but none can match Duke's offensive firepower. The Blue Devils average 15.1 goals a game and have dynamic scorers in attackmen Jordan Wolf (59 goals, 33 assists), Case Matheis (23, 18) and midfielders Deemer Class (33, 27), Myles Jones (33, 24) and Christian Walsh (20, 22).
Who is going to match up with whom? Tierney isn't telling.
"I'm no genius, but you don't have to be to figure out that we've got to win some faceoffs and defend the best offense around from a talent standpoint," said Tierney. "My philosophy hasn't changed much. I still believe in a support-based defense and not leaving anyone out on an island. And if you've got great goalies, they can makes you look a lot better as a coach."
Tierney's style has changed from his time at Princeton, when the Tigers were the dominant power in the 1990s. Back then, Princeton thrived on defense and a no-thrills, deliberate offense.
Princeton's defense was so overwhelming that every team, from recreation to high school to colleges, tried to duplicate the Tigers' zones, which featured hard slides from the crease.
"He made your team become a better passing team or you couldn't beat them," said Cottle.
Cottle sees a difference in Denver compared to Princeton. He says the Pioneers run more of "people's defense" based on who is in the game and on individual matchups. Therefore, Denver's scheme changes from week to week, from possession to possession.
On offense, the Pioneers are almost as prolific as Duke. They like to spin the ball and attack from behind the goal with attackman Jack Bobzien (39 goals, 21 assists). Five players have at least 22 goals, including leading scorer and attackman Wesley Berg (42, 18).
Denver doesn't mind holding the ball for two or three minutes a possession, and the Pioneers seldom take bad shots. This offense is made to counter Duke's offense.
"He is allowing his offense to play the way offense has to be played in today's game," said Metzbower. "Their pace is faster, and he has allowed [offensive coordinator] Matt Brown to come in and play a more upbeat style."
A lot of veteran coaches wouldn't make the change, but that's been a key to Tierney's success. At Princeton, Tierney was relegated to recruiting a certain type of player, particularly one who had high academic success. In Denver, the chemistry is different, with players coming from various parts of the country and even Canada.
The message is still the same.
"Bill has a high standard on and off the field," said Cottle. "There was going to be no wiggle room for any of these players. That's where the Princeton background helped him in coming to Denver. "
The coaching method is still the same. Tierney is a stickler for fundamentals. Most of his coaching is done at practices, not during game day. Off the field, Tierney is relatively quiet and spends most of his time with family.
He is a devout Christian who speaks openly about his faith. On game day, though, a transformation takes place.
"Bill believes that if you take care of it in practice, the games become a lot easier. He allows his assistants to coach on game day, and I think that's why he gets so crazy at times on the sidelines — because there is nothing for him to do," said Metzbower, laughing.
"He believes that if you sell out, play as hard as you can, he will take care of you," said Metzbower. "He hasn't changed much. Some of the guys who might be a little afraid to talk to him on the field know they can talk to him in his office, that it is an open door. He will bend over backward for a kid, and they all know that."
Tierney won 14 Ivy League titles at Princeton and is already in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. He is on the verge of completing a mission that once was considered impossible when he started at Denver five years ago.
But now it's time to face Duke, a team that is clearly the favorite to win its third national championship in five years.
If any coach can pull the upset, it is Tierney. If he does, the genius label might be appropriate.