Throughout 11 years of competing in one of the most intense rivalries in lacrosse, Maryland men’s lacrosse head coach John Tillman and former Johns Hopkins offensive coordinator Bobby Benson had developed great respect for each other. If they could blend their styles and egos in 2021, the Terps were bound to make another strong run for a national championship.
And here they are.
Maryland (9-0) is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the country. During Tillman’s tenure without Benson, the Terps appeared in seven NCAA Final Fours and five title games, including capturing the national championship in 2017. But at times, their offense became predictable and stagnant.
This year, with Benson joining Tillman’s staff, the Terps are just as good as previous years but stronger on offense, averaging 16.89 goals a game, good for a No. 2 ranking nationally, and No. 1 in the country with a shooting percentage of 40.8. Benson and Tillman are careful publicly speaking about each other because neither wants too much credit or to offend the other, but the addition of Benson to Maryland’s staff in mid-January was brilliant.
“He’s brought a lot. A really smart guy,” Maryland senior midfielder Anthony DeMario (16 goals, nine assists) said of Benson. “He knows his stuff, he’s good on Xs and Os. He’s been super relatable to all of us. He’s done a great job. Just day in and day out, he’s always focused and always has new ideas for us. It’s definitely been something we look forward to every day.”
It can be a little difficult to pick up the differences Benson has made, because the Terps are doing a lot of the same things. But once you break down the video from this season compared to previous years, you see better off-ball movement and Maryland attacking more from behind the goal.
There are a few more pick and isolation plays, and the offense is more free-flowing, which causes defenses to spread out. Maryland scores goals in bunches. The Terps have had 10 runs of six or more goals this season and scored 16 straight in an 18-12 win against Michigan. If they win faceoffs, they are nearly unbeatable.
The fact that Benson coached at Hopkins for 14 seasons and competed against fellow Big Ten schools has helped in his transition.
“Knowing the Big Ten makes it easier on game day definitely helps, especially since coach Tillman knows the Big Ten and has already noted and explored some of the weaknesses,” Benson said. “I’ve just added a few wrinkles.”
Benson is being modest, and the best of his work may still come later this season, according to Tillman.
“As we’ve gone on, he’s kind of like, ‘What about this? Hey, what do you think about trying this?’ A lot of times, it’s with the coaches, but it’s also with the players. ‘Are you guys comfortable with this? Let’s try this,’ ” Tillman said. “It’s not, ‘Do this because I told you.’ We were averaging 16 goals a game last year, and the kids felt good about what we were doing. Most of the things we were doing last year are still in place, but now the hope is that we’ve added some new things, some new wrinkles, some new calls, and now we have more than what we were doing last year.
“As the season goes, you start doing one thing too much, and everyone starts keying on that,” Tillman added. “Now having some new things to do on top of what you’ve done and maybe staying ahead of the curve and having some adjustments that maybe we haven’t done in the past are invaluable, and I think we’re going to see more and more the benefits of that. I just love his demeanor, his approach.”
It’s always questionable if a coaching staff will mesh, especially with two who have been as successful as Benson and Tillman. Benson had his own impressive resume working at UMBC and Loyola before moving on to Hopkins. He had worked with such dynamic players as Brendan Mundorf and Drew Westervelt at UMBC and the Blue Jays’ Paul Rabil.
While Benson was at Hopkins, the Blue Jays appeared in 11 NCAA tournaments, eight quarterfinals, three Final Fours and two national championships while winning the 2007 title.
Benson, though, has worked with successful college coaches in the past like UMBC’s Don Zimmerman and Hopkins’ Dave Pietramala. The key to coaching at Maryland, according to Benson, was to enter the Terps locker room quietly.
“They already had things rolling,” said Benson, a former All-America midfielder at Hopkins. “They were already doing a great job and I didn’t want to do anything to screw things up, to ruin their chemistry or take them offline. So, I spent the first few days being quiet, I tried to be a bit of sponge, take everything in.
“I managed to do some Zoom calls in small groups like four guys at a time,” he said. “I wanted to get to know them, the terminology, what they were comfortable with and see where I could help in a couple of areas. I wanted to throw out some ideas and recommendations, but wanted to ease in, not come in with guns blazing.”
Benson understands players and relates to them well. He has always been more willing to listen than dictate before making a decision. He has a great sense of humor and is a complement for head coaches who can get too uptight before big games.
The Terps were fortunate to get Benson. When previous Terps offensive coordinator J.L. Reppert was named the head coach at Holy Cross in January, Benson and his wife, Taylor, had already moved to Atlanta with their two children, Tucker and Griffin. Taylor already had a secure job and Bobby Benson was flirting with several part-time positions in a club program and with a sports psychologist.
He had inquired about the head job at Air Force, but once that didn’t come through, he assumed it would be a while before he got back into college coaching. He was wrong.
“I was to the point where I was going to let my wife take off with her career and kind of take a back seat,” said Benson. “My wife and I had talked about the idea of this happening, but we didn’t know for sure. Then Coach Tillman called and I sat down and asked my wife how we could work this out? The next morning, I was on a plane back to Maryland.
“I don’t know if my wife was excited to push me out of the house or excited for me,” said Benson, laughing. “I’m up here coaching, and she is back in Atlanta working full time, taking care of two kids, and doing everything so I can work up here. God bless her. There are only one or two jobs in the county I would come back for, and Maryland was too good of an opportunity to turn down.”
Benson is making some sacrifices, too. He is still driving around a four-month rental car and living in his dad’s basement in Washington. He considers himself fortunate not only because he is coaching again, but it’s at Maryland, which always has a tremendous amount of talent.
Besides DeMario, the Terps have Bubba Fairman (10 goals, 5 assists) and Kyle Long (10, 9) on the starting midfield along with Logan Wisnauskas (23, 21) and Daniel Maltz (31, 6) on attackman. Benson also has the best player in college lacrosse in senior attackman Jared Bernhardt (39, 19).
“I’ve been fortunate to have good players, and fortunate to have this group” said Benson. “The years I don’t do well is when I try to coach too much.”
That’s not the case this year. It wasn’t at Hopkins, either, where Benson and the Terps play Saturday at Homewood Field.
“It’s been great. He’s easy to get along with,” Tillman said. “He doesn’t make it about himself. I think he just loves coaching and loves people, that’s very clear. “It’s been a lot of fun in the office with him. I really appreciate how many sacrifices he’s made given where his family is right now.
“We haven’t brought it up this week,” said Tillman of Benson’s return to Hopkins. “We’ve obviously made it ‘Maryland versus Hopkins,’ but we know it’s kind of a tough week for him emotionally. I totally understand that. So we’ve kind of kept the focus on, ‘Let’s be the best version of us, and let’s prepare as well as we can.’ He’s not going to make it about anything else other than two teams playing. He’s a pro that way.”
Saturday, 2 p.m.