- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2011

Go back a generation, and college lacrosse aficionados could only dream of seeing more than just the final four on television.

Just a decade ago, the sport’s championship weekend still was played on a college campus.

The game was growing, supporters insisted all along. And they were right.

A team west of the Mississippi will play in Saturday’s NCAA semifinals before a crowd that could surpass 50,000 at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium. It comes the same week Michigan formally announced it will establish a varsity men’s lacrosse program next year.

Many of the sport’s dreams already are realized. But there are unintended consequences, too.

Navy coach Richie Meade, who took the Midshipmen to six straight NCAA tournaments between 2004 and 2009, was nudged aside this month after consecutive losing seasons. It came a year after Maryland ousted Dave Cottle following three consecutive losses in the NCAA quarterfinals.

“Like many industries, times change and times evolve,” said Duke coach John Danowski, whose Blue Devils earned their fifth straight semifinal appearance. “There are things we may not agree with or like, but new bosses take over and have different perspectives at looking at the athletic experience. When we started in this business, most of us began as educators. The bottom line is it’s their shop.”

Obviously, win-or-else isn’t unprecedented in the college landscape. Football and men’s basketball long were bastions of such coaching crucibles. Lacrosse, a sport played in regional pockets for much of its existence, wasn’t particularly vulnerable to such forces so long as it didn’t generate a large profile.

Not anymore. Maryland will make its 11th television appearance in 17 games Saturday (three other contests were broadcast on the Internet). Both the semifinals and the title game have drawn crowds of at least 35,000 for the past eight years. Every tournament game is televised, meaning there’s opportunity for great exposure in May for more than a quarter of the 61 schools that sponsor the sport.

“I think that’s what we wanted,” said Meade, the president of the Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association. “You want Michigan to start up lacrosse because it’s a nice story, but somebody has to be the coach at Michigan and Michigan wants to win. I don’t think it’s something we didn’t comprehend. We wanted the sport to grow and wanted to create opportunities for guys.”

But it does raise the question of what the correct equilibrium is for a sport not generating much revenue during the regular season (Virginia’s average home attendance of 3,365 was the largest of the four semifinalists).

Another issue: What are realistic benchmarks for a program as more schools invest in the sport?

“I don’t begrudge Towson or Hofstra or Rutgers from being the best they can be,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “But Towson is not going to become the University of North Carolina all the sudden because they pay some guy $300,000 and make his life miserable. … We’ve lost any sense of patience and perspective in sports in general. It’s more characteristic of life these days.”

ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich, who will call his 17th straight final four this weekend, considers the overall health of a program - notably, whether players are graduating and not running afoul of the law — an important barometer in determining success. Yet he posits the escalation in coaching salaries invariably led to greater pressure.

“It seems like salaries have gone through the roof, and with it expectations,” Kessenich said. “Now, people are upset because a bunch of coaches have lost their jobs. Does that not go along with the territory? It just seems that way.”

While veterans have borne the brunt of such competitive tensions, three of the four coaches in the semifinals — Danowski, Starsia and Denver’s Bill Tierney - each have more than 25 years of Division I experience.

Maryland’s John Tillman is this year’s age outlier, but the first-year coach’s contract reflects the new age in the sport. Tillman signed a seven-year deal in June, and a season was added to the contract when the Terrapins advanced to the final four.

Meade maintains a global perspective of the situation. He said increased competitive pressures influence the already difficult decisions athletic directors must make for their schools.

“Everybody wants to be in the big dance and the final four, and schools are putting resources into their lacrosse programs and they want results,” said Meade, who was 142-97 at Navy. “I think, generally, it’s just kind of what we wanted and this is what we’ve got. Expectations are going to be high. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I think it becomes your preference. Nothing is right or wrong in things like this.”

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