As Bill Tierney heads into his final postseason as the University of Denver boss, he long ago cemented himself as the most accomplished college lacrosse coach of all time.
But it’s the other labels that resonate the most amid Tierney’s impending retirement. He’s not just the owner of a record seven national titles, and the first and only coach to win crowns at two programs. “Coach T” is also an icon in the sport.
“There’s a sign at our games that says ‘Coach T For President’ and honestly, he should run for President,” said Matt Brown, DU’s associate head coach and Tierney’s successor. “This guy is the complete Commander-in-Chief. The way he pulls all the pieces together, and makes people feel wanted and important and heard — all while making sure everyone’s in line with one vision — is remarkable.
“A lot of people say he’s the best college lacrosse coach ever. I’d go one step further to say he’s one of the best coaches college athletics has ever seen.”
Tierney has become synonymous with success in the sport with six national titles at Princeton and one at DU, where he’s coached the past 14 seasons. Tierney, who actually is a president, of the Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association — has accumulated a 438-151 record over 39 seasons.
He announced his intentions to step away in January, setting a timetable for the end of a coaching run for a guy who didn’t pick up the game until college when he was an attackman on the Courtland State team that won the 1973 Division II national title.
“I was a sore-armed third baseman in high school, so I turned to lacrosse in college,” Tierney recalled. “I was one of those dumb curveball guys at nine years old in Little League and I probably could’ve used Tommy John surgery 60 years ago. But once I got into lacrosse, I’ve been in the right places at the right times, and worked with the right people.”
After college, Tierney coached at two different high schools, the second of which was his alma mater, before landing the head job at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1981. There, he revived the RIT program and made two NCAA tournament appearances before landing as an assistant at powerhouse Johns Hopkins, where he was a part of two title teams in three seasons.
While at Hopkins, he was also the head coach for the men’s soccer team, a role that helped him get the head lacrosse job for struggling Princeton in 1988. He took the Blue Jays to the NCAA soccer tournament, despite “not knowing anything about soccer.”
“I told my team that I’ll recruit, which we did pretty well, and I’ll yell and scream and give good halftime speeches,” Tierney said. “But the fact that I helped turn around that soccer program helped my case in the Princeton interview because I guess they assumed if I could turn around something I didn’t know anything about, I could turn around something I at least knew a little bit about.”
Tierney’s reputation as a program builder was cemented at Princeton, where the Tigers went 2-13 in his first season before slowly emerging as a national powerhouse. Amid the humble beginnings of his tenure there, he told recruits such as Dave Murrow that Princeton would soon be lifting the NCAA trophy.
“I thought he was crazy,” said Murrow. “Princeton’s going to win a national championship? This program? I thought, ‘This guy is nuts.’”
Even so, Tierney got Murrow — who chose Princeton over offers from a hoard of programs — and other recruits to buy in to his vision. By 1990, the Tigers made the NCAA Tournament. Headlined by Murrow, they won their first title in 1992, one of five crowns in the 1990s capped by a three-peat from 1996-98.
When Tierney came to DU he strived to make Denver the “Lacrosse Capital of the West.” DU, which had never won a playoff game prior to Tierney’s arrival, has reached the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament five times in the past 11 tries.
“He won championships at Princeton playing one way, then he took a program at DU and won a championship another way,” said Dave Cottle, a longtime coach at Loyola and Maryland. “At first Princeton had outstanding defensive teams to win titles, then they got really good on offense, and then that team that won a title in Denver was more of an offensive team. He’s always had the ability to change with the times, and philosophies, and he’s always one step ahead of everybody else.”
Tierney is known for his intensity at practice. “The games felt easy after the practices we went through,” said former DU star and reigning Premier Lacrosse League MVP Trevor Baptiste. He’s infamous for riding the refs to gain an advantage.
“He started off by arguing every single call that he thinks the ref missed, but he’s even evolved from that,” Cottle quipped. “Now, he yells at the ref even when he gets the calls, because they should’ve called it earlier.”
That intensity is mirrored in Tierney’s relationships with his players. It’s a tough-love approach that pays dividends in the moment on the field, and later in life, too.
Baptiste said his relationship with Tierney “helped me remain true to myself” over the course of his rise to professional stardom. And Murrow, the last defenseman to win national player of the year, said Tierney’s refusal to let him quit the team after a tough start to his freshman year paved the way for Murrow to become a successful lacrosse entrepreneur.
Before he emerged as a college star, and before he founded Warrior Sports and co-founded Major League Lacrosse, Murrow stopped showing up to practice. Tierney called him into his office for a meeting. In an intense confrontation, he refused to let Murrow quit.
“He unlocked me to be the player I became,” Murrow said. “And that, after achieving success beyond my wildest dreams in a team and an individual sense, led to me unlocking my life… That really is what gave me the courage to start Warrior. My exposure to him transformed my life, just like it did for thousands of other players at Princeton and DU (and beforehand).”
Along the way, Tierney also coached Team USA to a world title in 1998 and invented numerous defensive schemes that revolutionized the sport.
“He’s innovated so much in the game,” said Trevor Tierney, Bill’s son, goalie on two title teams at Princeton and assistant coach at DU. “When he was at Johns Hopkins, no one used to play a sliding defense in lacrosse until he put that in. He really brought to fruition the whole concept of sliding, helping and recovering that you see on every lacrosse field now.”
DU heads into the Big East tournament May 4-6 in Milwaukee. The NCAA tournament and Tierney’s final sendoff begin the weekend after that. The No. 10 Pioneers (9-4) featured a balanced offensive attack led by senior JJ Sillstrop, who has 29 goals and 34 points, while looking equal parts strong and suspect during a roller-coaster regular season.
“We’ve shown at times that we can be the best team in the country when we’re focused,” senior faceoff Alec Stathakis said. “And other times, we let teams get to us. If we keep the focus, we should go on a run, and that’s what we all want to send Coach T off with — the deepest run we’ve got.”
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