Coaches Corner: Q&A with University of Denver Head Coach Bill Tierney

In this week’s edition of Coaches Corner, Championship Productions editor Adam Warner sits down with Hall of Fame lacrosse coach Bill Tierney, one of the game’s most influential and successful figures. Tierney provides an inside glimpse into a rising Denver lacrosse program, reveals some of his favorite drills and coaching tips, and explains why he moved west after an unprecedented run at Princeton.

Winter is approaching and the season is still a few months away, but I’m sure there’s plenty of work going on behind the scenes in preparation for the 2011 campaign. Walk me through a typical week in your lacrosse program at this time of year.

We spend three days each week lifting with the help of our strength coaches. This typically consists of bulk lifting, movement exercises and other lacrosse-specific exercises. We do running, conditioning and distance work on Tuesdays, interval training on Thursdays and sprint work on Fridays. Sometimes we even split the team up and play games, have fun and just get some exercise.

Also, two hours a week we’re allowed to do lacrosse-related activity. We usually choose to do individual work where we might bring half the team together or just the attack or defense and do 1-on-1 work and other skill-building things. It’s our hope that the kids continue to progress in the offseason so that when January comes around, they are in good shape and their skills are honed for a Division I season.

Talk about some of the more important things coaches do at this time of the year to prepare for the upcoming season that people may not know about?

November is just about the only month the whole year where we can go out and see recruits play lacrosse. There is a lot of time spent on the road, especially traveling around the east coast to observe tournaments and camps in order to look for kids to recruit.

We will also look at the film from our fall games, make an evaluation of each player in the program and get set for future opponents in general ways. We’re not talking about scouting reports or anything yet, but we do look at film to get reminders so when we come back to start the preseason, we are ready to get started and make adjustments. It’s about doing all the background things to get ready for the season.

After a highly-successful tenure as head coach at Princeton from 1988 to 2009, a run that included six national titles, what prompted you to accept the head coaching job at Denver in ‘09?

I loved Princeton and my time there. My sons Trevor and Brendan went there and won titles. In ‘09, we really bounced back and fell just one game short and I thought we were ready to contend again. Then all of a sudden, this opening at Denver happened and some of the directors at the school called me. And within those discussions, one thing led to another. They asked me, “What would it take for you to come and take a look?” So I came out here and every corner I turned, everything I saw and every person I met convinced me that it would be a good time to make a change and stoke the fire and do it all over again. Coach (Jamie) Munro had done a great job of making Denver a contender up until that point. It’s fun to start anew and it’s been a dream.

Talk about some of the biggest differences between coaching at Denver and Princeton.

No matter which side you are on, the grass is always greener. Denver is a place that’s not in the main stream of eastern lacrosse and we have to use our other strengths to attract young men to not only come and visit, but to play here. We have those things, like a lacrosse-only facility, sunny weather 300 days a year and we don’t get a lot of snow.

We have fantastic financial and emotional support from the chancellor and on down to athletic administrators. They want lacrosse to be great here. Same goes for Princeton, too, one of the best colleges in the world. The campuses are also very different. We are just outside the city so you get that city flavor and the buildings are only 20 years old. Princeton was much more of a country setting.

You played collegiate lacrosse for a formidable Cortland team in the 1970s. Has the game changed much since your playing days?

It has changed a lot, especially with the technology, sticks and high-velocity shots. There’s a big difference in regards to holding on to the ball when your stick is checked compared with decades ago when we had wooden and plastic sticks.

The downside is that you are bringing kids to the college level who have relied on the things that make it easy to catch and throw. Sometimes the equipment enables average players to appear much better than they are and when they get into tough situations, they can’t respond.

The game is fantastic though, and without coaching, it would be up and down with a lot of mistakes. Lacrosse is still a great game and its growth has been phenomenal.

Looking back over your Hall of Fame career, which achievement are you most fond of?

There are two games. Number one was our first national title at Syracuse in 1992. We were kind of the “Bad News Bears” of Princeton and beat Syracuse at Franklin Field. Also, 2001 comes to mind when we won our sixth title and my two sons were key players on the team. Having the boys play for me was such a blessing. Ultimately, my personal achievements are tied to my players and what my family accomplished.

At Denver, winning the ECAC tournament and making our first NCAA tournament appearance were great achievements. I’m also grateful for being inducted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame and the sacrifices my family has made for me in order to be successful in my career. Also, hopefully I’ve had a positive influence on the lives of the hundreds of young men I’ve coached along the way.

You are well known for leading your teams to victories in tight games usually decided by a goal. Can you share some keys to success during pressure situations, particularly when there’s a lot on the line?

It’s about practicing under pressure. Those situations don’t overwhelm guys in games when you practice for it. We won four of six titles at Syracuse in overtime. We always try to make things hard in practice so it’s easy in the game.

For example, we like to put players in particular situations with defensive drills, man-down drills, full-field drills and scoreboard drills, such as one side is down by three goals and there’s ten minutes left in the game. When the guys learn how to respond, they stay fresh. Over time, the mindset becomes you know you will win and not that you hope you will win.

Besides having talented players, what are the key ingredients needed in order to have a championship-caliber team?

Our teams have won before despite not having the most talent. Of our six titles at Syracuse, I think we had the best talent in 1997. But in the other years, we lost some big games earlier in the season. With that in mind, some of the most important things are team chemistry, discipline, guys that enjoy playing together, and that the players know what they are doing in situations before they happen. Camaraderie and chemistry can also overcome a particular matchup or talent that isn’t favorable.

What do you look for in an ideal lacrosse player?

The game has become easy to be pretty good at. Some kids can probably shoot or catch the ball pretty well, but the great ones can pass as well as they can shoot. Typically, every one shot you take you have to make eight or ten passes.

Also, players have to do things hard. Sometimes I see passes out there that are like lob passes — and that won’t get it done in college. Hard passes are key and you have to move and be accurate. No matter what you are doing, doing it at game-speed is very important. If you can do everything at a quick speed and at a higher level, you can keep up with everyone.

The most frequent thing my freshman players comment on is that the speed of the game is so much different between high school and college. The speed of the ball, shots, skill of the goalies, general athleticism and size all come into play. But the beauty of lacrosse is that we have a stick. If a kid works on his stick skills tirelessly, even if he is 5-7 and 125 pounds, he can make it in this game. It’s a great game because the little guy can play.

What’s some of the best advice you can give to a new coach, whether its at the youth, high school or college level?

I have respect for the last players on the team. These players make us better even if they don’t play. Any time you can, get those players in the game when your team is ahead by a lot. You know you’re doing the right thing by stressing the importance of the entire team. We try very hard to do that and it makes everyone feel better.

The bottom line is that the job of a coach is to win games. But you also have to make sure you are trying to improve player and team skills. Don’t put yourself ahead of the team. If you love and cherish the game, you will be good coach. Also, enjoy the game and reach out to college or other high school coaches. One of the great things about lacrosse is that everyone is willing to help out one another. That was true 35 years ago, and still remains true today.

What’s a favorite drill among your players?

The guys love drills that go up and down the field and create scoring or defensive opportunities. One of their favorites starts out with a 2-on-1 from the midline and the players run in on goal. As soon as a shot is taken, we blow the whistle and new players jump in, and we make the drill a 3-on-2, and then a 4-on-3, 5-on-4, and 6-on-5.

The players will get into it emotionally and the offense will challenge the defense. The guys get excited, especially if they score a few goals in a row. I believe these kinds of things make you a better team and brings enthusiasm to practice. There’s nothing worse than boredom, repetition and standing around. It’s important to their keep heads in it and make sure they are enjoying what they are doing.

What is your all-time favorite drill to run in practice?

Well it goes back to the concept that defense wins titles. My favorite drills are ones that put the offense at an advantage and the defense at a disadvantage. One is a 7 vs. 6 drill where we insert another player into it after a 6 vs. 6 situation and we work on slides and rotations. There’s also the 656 drill, too, where the offense is out-manning the defense 6 vs. 5 until the defender gets back into play, and this simulates a slide technique.

Then there’s the red-white drill. We go up and down 5 vs. 4 and can add a man and make it 6 vs. 5 drill. It’s great for transition play, ball movement and skill development for offensive players. There’s also survival drills like 2-on-2 perimeter drills where we force the ball inside so two defenders have to communicate and switch. The bottom line is that we like to run drills that will simulate what we do in the game.

In 2010, your squad finished with an impressive 12-5 record and earned a berth into the NCAA tournament. Now flash forward to the conclusion of the 2011 season. Where do you see Denver lacrosse?

Hopefully, the games we won by a goal last year won’t come back to haunt us. We lost Dillon Roy to graduation and he was our captain and emotional leader. But we return a lot of talent and a great recruiting class. We’re keeping our fingers crossed to see if someone can step in where Dillon left off.

We went 7-0 last year in a tough league. If things go the way they could go, then we will have a good team. I expect we’ll compete for the conference title, hopefully win a tourney game, which would be our first, and get to final four. Our schedule has Syracuse, Duke and Ohio State on it, among others, so it’s going to be a tough year. If we stay healthy, and we grow, I can definitely see us playing in the NCAA tournament.

Bill Tierney has partnered with Championship Productions and has produced five instructional lacrosse videos. Click here to see more DVDs featuring the Hall of Fame coach.

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