The Washington Times - May 14, 2008, 07:01PM
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\ I had dinner recently with a friend from the West Coast, a place where until very recently virtually no one would have been able to identify a lacrosse stick in a lineup even if there was only one other item to choose from.\ \ \ As I needlessly prattled on about how Princeton, Syracuse, Virginia and Johns Hopkins have taken turns winning every title since 1992, he wondered aloud about Maryland.\ \ \ To paraphrase his observation: It must tick them off to have not won a title in so long.\ \ \ In some quarters, the Terrapins‘ national title drought – since 1975 – becomes more irksome by the day. Maryland is, after all, located in one of the sport’s hotbeds. And there are only 57 Division I teams, and not nearly all of them take it as seriously as the folks in College Park.\ \ \ So, given the proclivities of Maryland fans to melt down like butter in a microwave, it’s not surprising a little frustration boils to the surface at the end of each season.\ \ \ What is slightly more interesting is the steady drip-drip-drip of disdain directed at coach Dave Cottle on fan message boards. It isn’t a torrent. But it’s still curious.\ \ \ Not every fan is consumed enough to post their thoughts anonymously on an Internet site. But unlike the Gary-bashing or Ralph-bashing or Debbie-bashing on some boards that are usually accompanied from some quarter with a defense – or simply a Gestapo-like removal of the critical posts and the scolding and/or permanent silencing of those behind them – it seems no one provides any sort of cover for Cottle.\ \ \ This is a guy, after all, who is 77-33 in seven seasons at Maryland. That’s better than Princeton in that span (62-34) and nearly as good as Syracuse (75-30). Just two schools – Johns Hopkins and Virginia – have won more games in that span.\ \ \ He’s also reached three final fours (2003, 2005 and 2006), won a pair of ACC titles (2004 and 2005) and is behind the second-longest active streak of NCAA tournament appearances (six; only Johns Hopkins has more).\ \ \ Of course, Cottle is also coaching in his 20th NCAA tournament. Between his time at Loyola and Maryland, he has yet to win a title; the 20 appearances are the most for any coach without a championship and tied for the most of any coach, period.\ \ \ It’s safe to say he’ll have sole possession of that ignominious mark at some point this month, one appearance ahead of his buddy Tony Seaman at Towson. This year’s Terps are simply not a team built to win now. Too many streaky offensive players. Too little help from the first midfield. OK faceoff play. \ \ \ It’s a good group, not a great one. While one postseason upset is possible, the two or three needed to win a championship will not materialize. And so in the next couple weeks, Maryland will be handed a certificate of participation and perhaps even a shiny runner-up or third-place trophy and be sent on its merry way to prepare for next year. Again.\ \ \ And some folks wonder why that’s ever the case. Why a program that won a dozen national titles sprinkled over six decades hasn’t captured one since the days Jimmy Carter was a humble peanut farmer from Plains. Since the days Steven Spielberg was just hitting it big for the first time with Jaws. Since the days when O.J. Simpson was a slashing running back rather than a … well, you get the idea.\ \ \ It’s the same sort of burden Navy must endure from its alums for being dominant in the 1960s, and Johns Hopkins must carry for being Johns Hopkins. Crusty old Navy fans still wonder why the Midshipmen can’t win a national title every year. A special subset of haughty alums grumble when Hopkins does not emphatically respond to their demands of “We want more” and the Blue Jays “only” win 10-8.\ \ \ But Hopkins fans have not shown the appetite to devour one of their own, especially when he’s won a couple titles (as Dave Pietramala has in 2005 and 2007). And most folks supporting Navy know they won’t find a much better fit than Richie Meade, the blunt, emotional, plain-spoken son of a New York City cop who both looks and lives the part of the scrappy leader of a scrappy team.\ \ \ It’s different at Maryland, and it’s tough to figure out precisely why. Maybe some people will never forget the circus in September 2001, when Cottle was plucked from Loyola over men’s assistant Dave Slafkosky and women’s assistant Gary Gait to take over for the retired Dick Edell. Players swore they would never suit up for Cottle, attempted to engage in a power play when they had little leverage and wound up skipping only one practice before order was restored.\ \ \ Edell was the lovable cuss who rolled up a similar winning percentage as Cottle (.692 to Cottle’s .700) over 18 years. There were six final fours and three national title games in there, too, but no national championships.\ \ \ I can’t claim to know for sure how much frustration there was with that record. Maryland probably was the nation’s best team in 1987, when it ran the table in the regular season only to lose in the semifinals to Hopkins. Of course, Hopkins probably was the nation’s best team in 1995 before it encountered an emotionally charged Maryland team in the semifinals.\ \ \ Either way, I can’t recall such eagerness to commence a coaching search during the Edell era, in part because the Big Man was so widely respected as a person.\ \ \ Cottle, though, never seemed to be fully embraced by fans. It’s more like a tolerance, which is odd because his results are very, very similar to his gregarious predecessor.\ \ \ Personality could be a factor. Cottle is an unabashed schemer, always looking for the slightest advantage he can put to use at some juncture. His desk might be cluttered, but his remote control is always at the ready and he perpetually squints at the grainy game film playing on a TV in his office.\ \ \ The mental gears operate nonstop, and every possible edge is accounted for. No hand should ever be tipped. In that way, he would fit in nicely in the world of the guy in charge of the primary tenant of Byrd Stadium.\ \ \ Indeed, Cottle would probably receive Machiavelli’s seal of approval, if Machiavelli ever tried to transfer his principles for, say, a power-hungry 16th-century Italian oligarch to a coach in a stick-and-ball game invented an ocean away and played half a millennium later.\ \ \ And yet despite his craftiness, not a loss goes by without the start of yet another online rant about the man’s worthiness to coach a program that has spent precisely zero days under .500 during his tenure.\ \ \ There are certainly instances where Cottle should shoulder some blame. The 2006 national semifinal loss to Massachusetts, for example, featured an unimaginative game plan, too much control over most offensive situations and ultimately a needless 8-5 loss to a plucky though less talented team. It was not Cottle’s finest hour, even if his muted four senior stars merited some responsibility as well.\ \ \ What’s usually forgotten about that aggravating loss: Unbeaten Virginia would have waxed the Terps for a third time that season two days later.\ \ \ There are a couple other puzzlers interspersed in the CV (hello losses to unranked Dartmouth and Bucknell in 2005 and 2006, respectively), and there are some numbers that provide a subtle insight:\ \ \ * Maryland is 14-25 under Cottle against Duke, Hopkins, Navy and Virginia, though 63-8 against everybody else.\ \ \ * Maryland is 24-24 against top-10 teams under Cottle, though 53-9 against everybody else.\ \ \ It is tempting to dwell on the first number in both of those pairs, and ardent fans would understandably like to see an improvement on the 1-6 record against Hopkins in particular. But the second halves of those statistical couplets are also important.\ \ \ They say Cottle’s teams have generally taken care of business against who they were supposed to beat. And in 21st century college lacrosse, that’s absolutely critical.\ \ \ Only five other schools have checked in at .500 or better in every season of Cottle’s tenure: Hopkins, Georgetown, Cornell, Albany and Colgate. That leaves a lot of bluebloods to endure severe (if usually short-lived) down times.\ \ \ Navy scuffled a bit earlier this decade. Virginia and Duke had 2004. Princeton had 2005. Syracuse had 2007. North Carolina has had, except for a few glimmers of hope, the last dozen years.\ \ \ Heck, even Johns Hopkins has endured spells in the middle of the last two seasons that had people wondering whether it would survive to see the postseason (which it did, sparked both years by mid-April victories over Maryland).\ \ \ That sort of swoon hasn’t happened to the Terps, who have played home games in the first round of the tournament for six straight years (only Hopkins can say the same) and were one bad decision in the final minute of the fourth quarter in the 2004 quarterfinals away from reaching four straight final fours.\ \ \ That HAS to count for something. Quite a bit, actually. Because even though some fans harbor the delusion college lacrosse is the closest thing in sports to a hereditary monarchy, it simply isn’t so anymore. \ \ \ It isn’t so because more schools take the game seriously than ever before.\ \ \ It isn’t so because there is more talent to diffuse throughout Division I than ever before.\ \ \ It isn’t so because on paper, the chance to graduate – and the chance to quickly become independently affluent shortly thereafter – from not just Johns Hopkins, but Duke or Princeton or Georgetown or Notre Dame looks better to many a 17-year-old and his parents than Maryland. \ \ \ (Please don’t cite school rankings or easy degree programs or whatever to argue this point. Perception is perception, and anyone who wants to argue any of those schools are perceived to be lesser institutions than Maryland needs to drop me a line inquiring about purchasing some oceanside property in Iowa.)\ \ \ Toss in competition from somewhat comparable public schools like Virginia and North Carolina that have the benefit of more aesthetically pleasing environs, and the landscape simply does not permit Maryland to cruise to national titles with the ease that armies historically have rolled from east to west across the Great European Plain.\ \ \ This brings the discussion back to Cottle, who arrived in 2001 amid fanfare with the ever-dreaded “offensive genius” label. His craftiness – and, to be fair, probably his ego, too – would not permit him to protest the designation.\ \ \ And guess what? Under Edell, Maryland was a staunch defensive program that could entertain final four dreams when it concocted a deep and balanced offense. Under Cottle, Maryland is a staunch defensive program that can entertain final four dreams when it concocts a deep and balanced offense.\ \ \ The 2008 Terps have balance but not great depth, which is why a quarterfinal appearance this year should constitute a pretty successful year. But don’t tell that to the baying hounds in the Maryland fan base, whatever their number, who very well might be fruitlessly calling for Cottle’s head once more around 2 p.m. on Saturday even though even a comparable replacement will be difficult to uncover.\ \ \ The title drought will continue. The sniping from a handful of loud and delusional fans will continue. The winning at a roughly 70 percent clip will continue. The regular trips to the postseason will continue.\ \ \ And when spring makes its annual arrival, the same old song will be reprised once more, the often inexplicable and seemingly never-ending ballad of Dave Cottle unfolding anew yet again until either a championship or a coaching change is delivered.\

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\ Photo by J.M. Eddins Jr. / The Washington Times\ \ \ – Patrick Stevens