It was just before 4 p.m. when I got a text message that initially stunned me.
Princeton lacrosse coach Bill Tierney was heading to Denver.
As Inside Lacrosse’s Christian Swezey confirmed, the guy who built Princeton from pretty much nothing to a six-time national champ in a 10-year span is heading westward.
Now, Princeton hasn’t been quite the same since it’s 2002 runner-up, with just a single final four appearance (2004) in the last seven years. And Denver isn’t a complete nonfactor; it has a new lacrosse-only stadium and made brief NCAA tournament appearances in 2006 and 2008.
But this is still a substantial coaching move, and completely out of the blue.
If you want a football analogy, imagine Urban Meyer bolting Florida for Southern Mississippi. Basketball-wise, think Mike Krzyzewski leaving Duke for, say, Wichita State.
Those would not happen, of course, so just the process of writing those two sentences required a bit of thought because of the pure wackiness of the possibility.
So, yeah, active Hall of Famer leaving a place he collected a half-dozen titles for a school with precisely zero NCAA tournament victories comes off as easily the story of the offseason.
The fact Tierney turned Princeton into a power in five years makes it very tempting to believe this move alone could create a seismic shift in the sport.
Except for one thing: It isn’t 1988 anymore.
Even though the NCAA tournament field has doubled in the last quarter-century, the number of new schools collecting their first national title in that span is one – Tierney’s Princeton team of 1992.
So the Champions Club isn’t growing. But there are burgeoning programs elsewhere that have bubbled up for nice runs or high-quality seasons.
You know, like Massachusetts and Delaware, Hofstra and Albany. And how long, exactly, can those programs maintain a presence among the best before fading some? Of late, those stays haven’t lasted long, in part because there’s another really-good-but-not-great challenger waiting out there.
And that’s the step that’s been added since Tierney’s last building project. It is difficult to envision anyone suddenly transforming from mediocre to consistently elite overnight, if only because so many more programs are legitimately trying and treating lacrosse as a more valuable entity.
So, yes, Tierney has seized a late-career opportunity, and he brings instant credibility to the outdoor game in Denver – a city that has emerged as a candidate as an eventual final four site down the line.
There’s no question this is a good storyline for the Tierney family, what with the ties to the west Swezey delineated so well (three of Tierney’s four children live in that part of the country). And it obviously throws Princeton for a loop, since it isn’t easy to replace a guy who went 238-86 over 22 seasons.
But will it work out in the Mile High City like it did at Princeton? That’s a tough sell, simply because of the changes in the sport Tierney is heavily responsible for.
The fiery, intense sideline personas prevalent today? Tierney was at the forefront of that.
The suffocating emphasis on miserly defenses? Tierney played a big part in that.
The evolution of the sport from casual (in some corners) to cutthroat? Tierney wasn’t just part of the vanguard. He was the vanguard.
In short, the game is different now simply because Tierney made it different. While not everyone adopted his methodical approach, a lot of people did. And that’s a lot of people to overcome when you’re in a hodgepodge league (hello, “rivalries” with Fairfield, Hobart and Loyola) and far from a recruiting epicenter.
What is not worth questioning is whether Tierney is as competitive in his late 50s as he was in his mid-30s. Don’t sell that argument here, because it’s silly.
It is interesting is that Tierney is only the fourth coach to win a national title to take a gig elsewhere later in his career – and the first in 30 years to have a head coaching job lined up when he left his championship school.
Here’s a look at how the other three fared:
GLENN THIEL (1972 title)
At Virginia: 63-30, 2 NCAA appearances (1970-77)
At Penn State: 234-175, 2 NCAA appearances (1978-present)
Thiel has plugged away at his alma mater for more than three decades, but the Nittany Lions have a pair of first-round ousters (2003 and 2005) in that span.
DON ZIMMERMAN (1984, 1985, 1987 titles)
At Johns Hopkins: 73-15, 7 NCAA appearances (1984-90)
At UMBC: 125-99, 6 NCAA appearances (1994-present)
Zimmerman resigned at Hopkins after a 6-5 season, but resurfaced after three seasons at UMBC. The Retrievers have made four straight NCAA appearances – and flustered an ACC team on the road in the last three (defeating Maryland in 2007). Still, Zimmerman hasn’t made it back to the final four in his second gig.
DAVE KLARMANN (1991 title)
At North Carolina: 100-52, 7 NCAA appearances (1991-2000)
At Radford: 4-9, 0 NCAA appearances (2001)
Klarmann was 42-5 in his first three seasons in Chapel Hill, then 58-47 the rest of the way. While the Tar Heels faded under his watch, you can’t blame him for producing a sub-.500 record for a program that ceased to exist after his one season in southwestern Virginia.
That’s some interesting history to work against, and few are better prepared than Tierney to do it.
But at the same time, not even the best coach the game has seen is a lock to change the face of the sport with this move. One thing, though, is certain: It’ll be fun to find out whether he can.