Sean Cottle turned 1 last Saturday. The cake and candles haven't come out yet because Sean's father has been busy with his 16-year-old, the Loyola College lacrosse program that could come of age this weekend.
Can Loyola take that final step, and win a national championship? The NCAA thinks so. It made the Greyhounds the No. 1 seed in this year's tournament. Loyola plays Maryland today in the first semifinal; Syracuse meets Princeton in the second game.
Loyola made an NCAA final in 1990, when both Cottle and his Greyhounds were prodigies. He got it near the top with his energy, imagination and will. He was also famous for the kind of tirades that would make Bobby Knight envious, but the approach alters when you're 42 and have seen too much.
"Ever since I've had children, I've become more compassionate," Cottle said. "As a single guy, you get it done, however you decide to. Once you've had a child, you can imagine what a parent feels, and you think twice before you deal with a player and a situation."
In addition to Sean, Cottle and his wife Lynn have two daughters, Taylor, 5, and Tory, 4. He appreciates the pride of parenthood, and the heartache. The past three years brought the death of two of his players. Cottle has steered his program through troubled waters, where the goal was keeping his team together, not winning some NCAA plaque.
"Dave's been through some times," assistant coach Bill Dirrigl said, "that you wouldn't wish on anyone."
On the daily commute between his home in Fallston and Loyola's campus in north Baltimore, Cottle will slide some country music in the CD changer and consider all that has passed his way.
His thoughts are about Jason Foley, a former player who committed suicide in 1995, when he should have been a senior at Loyola. His thoughts are about Gerry Case, an ace freshman who died of a meningitis-related blood infection last March. Cottle might never show his players the pain he has felt over Case.
"I've spent more time thinking about the Gerry Case situation, driving to and from work, than anything else," Cottle said. "I still do. I just felt we needed somebody solid and granite like, rather than someone who would get caught up in his own emotions. I do that in my private time, but not around the guys."
The silent monologues turn to more mundane matters, that is, am I ever going to get another shot at an NCAA title? Some observers thought one final four was all he could get out of Loyola, but Cottle always thought he could wring something more out of the Greyhounds.
"You realize," Syracuse coach Roy Simmons said, "it sure wasn't easy for him at first."
Loyola didn't have a single tournament win to its credit when Cottle arrived after the 1982 season. He was all of 26 at the time, but he was experienced at starting from scratch.
Cottle starred on the first varsity team at Salisbury State. He grew up about 3 miles from Loyola, but didn't try lacrosse until he was a junior at Northern High, and then only because he wanted to score points with coach Lon Russ, who also had the keys to the football team Cottle wanted to quarterback.
Cottle taught and coached at Salisbury State, and was doing the same at Severn School when Loyola decided to upgrade to Division I on a Division II budget.
"They wanted to keep the position part-time, and pay me $3,000," Cottle said. "I said no, but then they came back with a full-time offer of $12,000. I took a pay cut to come from Severn. I didn't teach, but I had something like nine different administrative duties."
Cottle was the academic adviser, and fund-raiser, and an assistant athletic director in charge of game management. Gains were made in 1986, when Tom Brennan, a former Syracuse administrator, became athletic director.
Lacrosse was given as many scholarships as the NCAA allowed, recruits were given preference by the admissions department, and voila , Cottle had Loyola in the NCAA final in just his eighth season.
That year, 1990, the Greyhounds were routed by a Syracuse juggernaut that Simmons considers the best college team ever. He's the only coach in NCAA history with a streak of consecutive tournament appearances greater than Cottle's 11. While the consistency is nice, it has rankled Cottle that he hasn't returned to the final four until now.
"When we made the tournament for the first time, in 1988, we were surprised, just happy to be there," Cottle said. "Once you make the final four, making the playoffs doesn't satisfy what you're looking for."
To that end, Cottle has brought a scientific approach to Loyola lacrosse, looking for edges that will close the gap between the likes of a Jesuit school of 3,100 students with Division III facilities VTC and no football team and an an enormous state university like Maryland.
"Dave assumes nothing," said Dave Pietramala, the Cornell coach who was a Loyola assistant in 1994. "A lot of coaches say, 'This is the way it is,' and never change. Dave was always playing devil's advocate. You had to prove to him that what you were doing was the best thing for the team. He made me think through the consequences."
When Cottle went to coaching conventions, he would pick the brain of one man. How did that New York high school coach get his team so disciplined? How did Dick Edell adapt from a close-to-the-vest style at Army to a more free-wheeling approach at Maryland?
Always, he sought counsel from Bob Scott and the late Henry Ciccarone, the guys down Charles Street, where Johns Hopkins had a century head start on Loyola. The answer kept coming back to recruiting, and Cottle knew he wouldn't consistently catch the likes of Hopkins or Syracuse until his boys were as big and fast and slick as theirs.
This is the most athletic team Cottle has ever had. Defenseman Jamie Hanford is talented enough to take faceoffs with a long stick. Mark Frye's clears trigger a dangerous transition game. Gewas Schindler is a native American from Syracuse who has what Cottle calls "Canadian skills."
Some were won in recruiting wars, others were gambles. All were lured to a program that Cottle has taken beyond its means.
"Dave was able to keep his team focused through some rocky times," said Joe Boylan, Loyola's athletic director the past six years. "You look at where the other teams in the final four are coming from. Somehow we're in with them, and it's all a credit to Dave."
Pub Date: 5/23/98
Lacrosse final four At Rutgers
No. 5 seed Maryland vs. No. 1 Loyola, noon, ESPN2
No. 2 Princeton vs. No. 3 Syracuse, 45 minutes after first game, ESPN2
10: 55 a.m., ESPN
Year W-L Finish
1987 8-3 National rank: 10th
1988 12-2 NCAA quarterfinalist
1989 10-1 NCAA quarterfinalist
1990 11-3 NCAA runner-up
1991 9-4 NCAA quarterfinals
1992 8-4 NCAA first round
1993 8-5 NCAA quarterfinalist
1994 11-2 NCAA quarterfinalist
1995 11-4 NCAA quarterfinalist
1996 7-6 NCAA first round
1997 10-4 NCAA quarterfinalist
1998 13-1 In NCAA semifinals