The Johns Hopkins players knew that the 2020 season would be important to the school’s lacrosse legacy, but not the end of one.
The Dave Pietramala era came to an end Tuesday when the university announced that the coach of the Blue Jays for the past 20 years and school officials had mutually agreed to part ways. Pietramala was in the final season of a four-year contract.
Some Blue Jays players and opposing coaches were in disbelief, and some thought that the timing was poor, especially with the coronavirus pandemic causing devastation throughout the country.
But there is no perfect time for a legend to leave.
Unless the Blue Jays were going to have a major turnaround in 2020, the dismissal of Pietramala was inevitable. Hopkins’ last appearance in the Final Four was 2015. Since then, the Blue Jays have gone 36-27.
That might be good enough at UMBC or Marist, but some of the old guard at Hopkins still believe that the Blue Jays can be nearly as dominant as they were in the 1960s and 1970s.
Sorry, that’s not going to happen.
And the way the Blue Jays were playing this year was ugly. They were 2-4 with blowout losses to North Carolina, Princeton and Syracuse. Hopkins even had to struggle for a 13-12 overtime win against Mount St. Mary’s.
When you watched Hopkins play during the past two or three years, the difference in talent between the Blue Jays and top teams was noticeable. There were no Paul Rabils or Kyle Harrisons in the lineup. The Blue Jays didn’t have a lot of speed, and even rivals like Towson were physically superior.
If you want to point fingers at Pietramala for poor recruiting, go ahead. That’s fair. He is a hard-nosed coach and very demanding. There are some who believe that his demeanor burns out players and doesn’t work for modern day athletes.
But this is so much deeper than just Pietramala.
A lot of Blue Jays fans thought the move to the Big Ten Conference in 2015 was good because it gave an independent school like Hopkins a better chance to make the playoff field if it won the tournament title.
But the Big Ten is an arms race. If a blue-chip recruit visits for a weekend, will he be more buzzed about watching Penn State play Michigan in football on a fall afternoon in the Big House or Hopkins play McDaniel in a Division III game?
If it’s basketball season, does he prefer being caught up in the hoopla of Maryland versus Ohio State or Hopkins versus Gettysburg?
Throw in the weight rooms, the millions of dollars invested in athletics and it’s hard for small schools like Hopkins to play in such large conferences.
“The game has changed a bit,” said ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich, a former Blue Jays teammate of Pietramala. “Joining the Big Ten, I’ve always felt, was not a positive for the program, but they’re in the Big Ten now … Things have changed and made it more difficult to have success.”
Hopkins also failed in the early recruiting race. But so did Virginia and North Carolina, as these teams were eager to beat each other out for those ninth graders who were physically still filling out their baggy lacrosse shorts.
Pietramala might have survived another year or two if his old support system was in place, but they retired. First it was Jerry Schnydman as executive assistant to the president in 2012, and then athletic director Tom Calder in 2016. He no longer had a buffer or security blanket.
Hopkins will have a hard time replacing Pietramala. His teams made 18 NCAA tournament appearances and seven trips to the Final Four. He played in four national championship games and won two. He is the only person to win a national title as a player and coach.
But let’s put the record aside for a moment.
Pietramala and Hopkins were synonymous. That school might never find a player or coach more loyal to the program. He was not only the best defenseman to ever play the game but the winningest coach in the school’s history.
Was he a hothead?
Absolutely, but that’s just the way he coached and played the game. A lot of coaches talk about being dedicated to players, but that’s usually just lip service. Pietramala was real. He’d get in a players’ face one minute and then hug him the next.
He treated his players like they were one of his own sons. His dedication to his school, his players and his sport was genuine. Even during this pandemic, he stayed in daily contact with his players and met with them via video-conferencing service Zoom once a week.
Hopkins will interview a lot of candidates soon, possibly Scott Marr from Albany, Drexel’s Brian Voelker, Hofstra’s Seth Tierney, Hobart’s Greg Raymond and Towson’s Shawn Nadelen, who is considered the favorite.
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But it’s going to be hard to replace Pietramala. A big man left a big hole in the program.