John Tillman will arrive Friday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium as he has on so many other spring days in his coaching career. He'll make his way through an entrance in the closed end zone.
The tough part might be remembering to turn right toward the visitors' locker room rather than left and walk into Navy's.
Tillman, who was a Navy assistant for 12 years, returns to Annapolis as Maryland's head coach. He left for Harvard in September 2007 and then took over the Terrapins in June.
Friday, though, will be the first time he'll face the Midshipmen in a regular-season game.
"Having spent 12 years there, that's a lot of time," Tillman said. "I get the human interest part of it. I don't have any problem with it. For me, I can get distracted by that. I still have a job to do. I owe it to my kids to put them in the best position to win. That's been my focus."
Tillman said he did not think about the Terrapins' annual date with the Mids (4-6) until this week. There were games against Georgetown, Duke, North Carolina and Virginia (among others) to prepare Maryland (7-2) for in the first two months of the season.
Yet there are undeniable connections. Tillman was the offensive coordinator when Navy reached the national title game in 2004 and spent his formative years as a coach at the academy.
"Because of the nature of the recruiting thing, he had some input in the recruiting process through our sophomore class," Navy coach Richie Meade said. "It's probably going to be kind of an interesting thing. All of our ex-players, all the guys he coached here, some of them are lieutenants in the Navy stationed here. I'm sure it'll be a little different."
There are personal ties between the coaches, too. In the years since he left Navy, Tillman made it a point to text Meade before each game to wish him luck and Meade reciprocated. The two once lived in the same Annapolis neighborhood, and Meade remembers how Tillman always gave his daughters giant candy bars ("Nimitz-class Kit Kats," Meade noted with a nod to Naval history) at Halloween.
Tillman continued sending those goodies after a lengthy experience at Navy, a dozen years to pick up on how to lead, how to manage people, how to identify and recruit quality people into an organization. He said he discovered asking more of himself was a more effective means of achieving results than simply yelling and screaming.
"John went from a growing into his box to growing out of his box," Meade said. "I was fortunate he did that here."
Tillman's Navy ties remain strong. He remains in touch with former stars Ben Bailey, Billy Looney, Nick Mirabito and Chris Pieczonka, and he mourned the death of Looney's brother Brendan (a Navy SEAL who was also a former Mids lacrosse player) in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan last year. Tillman also attended the last 15 Army-Navy football games, though he happens to wear a lot more red these days.
"I get a lot of ribbing for being a Maryland guy," Tillman said. "The experience there for me at that point in my life, I couldn't ask for anything more for my development personally and as a coach."
In the long run, it helped land him the Maryland job. In his first season, he has a veteran roster and a chance to make a deep push in May.
But on Friday, he'll simply be concerned with beating Navy - and making sure he takes the right turn when he enters the stadium. That by itself ensures it will be a very different night.
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