8:10 PM EST, February 7, 2013
It wasn't long after Max Nikias became president at Southern Cal in the summer of 2010 that he asked USC athletic director Pat Haden to start a women's lacrosse program.
Haden's first response was to ask with a laugh, "On my budget or yours?"
The next thing Haden did was call Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller to see if she were interested in the job.
"She is the best, and we want to be the best," Haden said.
Amonte Hiller said no thanks, as she has done to several such inquiries while coaching the Wildcats to seven NCAA titles in the last eight years. And then Amonte Hiller told Haden he should look at former NU star and assistant coach Lindsey Munday, then in her first year as head coach at Mount St. Mary's in Maryland.
"My dream was always to be a head coach at a school where I felt we could win a national championship," said Munday, the top attacker on the Wildcats' first two NCAA champions in 2005 and 2006. "Getting the call from USC was definitely a shock."
Haden hired Munday, then 27, in January 2011 and gave her two seasons without official competition to put the program together. Saturday, USC will play its first official game — at the Los Angeles Coliseum against Northwestern and the coach whose recommendation and record were critical in having Munday get the job.
Friday, at USC's campus lacrosse venue, the Wildcats will play their season opener against Massachusetts coached by another of Amonte Hiller's former players, Angela McMahon.
Munday and McMahon are just two of the five former Northwestern players who have become Division I head coaches as branches of the Amonte Hiller coaching tree. It also includes 11 Division I assistants.
That tree has grown out of the Northwestern coach's ability to plant seeds of love for the sport and her desire to help spread it — as well as the stunning success Amonte Hiller's teams have had since she resurrected the Northwestern program from club status 12 years ago.
"The one thing we all have in common with Kelly is passion for the game — passion about making it bigger and more popular and being able to give back to kids what Kelly has given to us," said Shannon Smith, 2011 national player of the year at Northwestern and the rookie head coach at Hofstra.
"In hiring Lindsey, the Northwestern background and the fact Lindsey was there when the program was nothing and became an 800-pound gorilla meant everything to me," Haden said.
It also was a significant factor in Hofstra's decision last July to hire Smith. She had received her Northwestern degree in economics only a month earlier and had no coaching experience beyond the youth team level.
Hofstra had lost its entire women's coaching staff after last season. When Smith went to the university last summer to sign up for courses that would lead to a master's degree in education, she asked one of the Hofstra men's coaches about the possibility of becoming a graduate assistant for the women's team.
One conversation led to another, and it wasn't long before the 22-year-old Smith became the youngest women's head coach in Division I.
"I'm familiar with the Northwestern lacrosse program," said Hofstra athletic director Jeff Hathaway, who had hired McMahon as a head coach and her NU teammate, Sarah Albrecht, as an assistant when Hathaway was athletic director at Connecticut.
"I have watched from afar for a long time at what kind of coach Kelly is," Hathaway said. "When you hire coaches, you look at pedigrees. Shannon was strong in so many ways, and one of the major ways was being part of the Northwestern program and having played for Kelly."
Amonte Hiller got the Northwestern job at 26 after four years as an assistant at three colleges. She is part of the Maryland coaching tree planted by Cindy Timchal, whose teams won eight NCAA titles (two with Amonte Hiller as their superstar) in her 16 seasons as Terrapins' coach. Ten of Timchal's Maryland players are Division I head coaches, and two of those 10 also were Northwestern assistants.
"It is definitely a legacy I am proud of," Amonte Hiller said.
What Amonte Hiller has done for the sport by playing it forward — motivating other young women to become coaches — is of greater significance than the NCAA titles.
"I remember taking my two daughters to the 1999 Women's (soccer) World Cup final and feeling how empowering that was for young girls," Haden said. "Kelly has empowered young women the same way. They think, 'I can be Kelly. I can be a great head coach, too.'''
Amonte Hiller's players-turned-coaches emulate her in another way, defying the axiom that great players rarely make great coaches because they can't relate to those with lesser talent. The NU women coaching in Division I include some of the finest players in not only their era but in women's lacrosse history.
"I started thinking, 'What am I best at?', and the answer always ended up being lacrosse," said Danielle Spencer, an All-America attacker in her first year as a Northwestern assistant. "It becomes such a big part of who you are."
Spencer graduated in 2010 with a degree in social policy and had no intention of coaching. She got a job with a software company in the San Francisco area through one of Amonte Hiller's contacts. Within months, Spencer found herself involved in coaching kids and last year became assistant coach at Stanford.
"I called Kelly and confessed serious thoughts about going into coaching," Spencer said. "I never saw it as a career until now."
Amonte Hiller did not envision Ann Elliott becoming a coach when she was a defensive standout for Northwestern. But Elliott became a Wildcat assistant two years after her 2007 graduation, was associate head coach last season and last March, at 27, became the first head coach at Colorado. Her team will make its competitive debut in 2014.
"Sometimes players are a little intimidated about going into coaching," Amonte Hiller said. "We try to make them understand how rewarding it can be to mentor young people and give back to the game."
Amonte Hiller and her husband, Scott, a volunteer assistant coach as well as a practicing attorney, meet with each player a couple of years before graduation to begin discussing their post-Northwestern plans. Those who express interest in coaching get a chance to do it at her summer lacrosse camps. And they can count on having recommendations from both Hillers when they begin looking for jobs.
"Kelly and Scotty do an incredible job talking to athletic directors and senior women's administrators and putting their names behind their players," Munday said. "Without that, I don't think any of us would be in the positions we are."
Haden said Amonte Hiller told him Munday was "a ferocious competitor and very good evaluator of talent."
"Because Kelly has such a great reputation, those of us beginning programs are willing to take a calculated risk on people she recommends," Haden said. "It's like hiring Bear Bryant's assistants or Bill Belichick's assistants. Kelly has that kind of aura about her and her program."
Given USC's commitment to adding lacrosse to the 23 national titles its women's teams have won in other sports since 1976, Munday already is recruiting against Amonte Hiller. And given how fast Northwestern reached the top, it may not be long before the teams become formidable rivals.
"Kelly tells us we can do things like that," Munday said. "Reaching for the stars is something we were about at Northwestern from the beginning and what we are about at USC now."
Pat Haden may need to add championship rings to that budget soon.
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