The Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse program is at a crossroads.
If new coach Peter Milliman doesn’t turn the Blue Jays around in four or five years, they could disappear from the major national lacrosse scene, like Washington & Lee did in 1987.
Hopkins athletic director Jen Baker took a major gamble for the university, as well as her own job security, when she officially named Milliman the new head coach Monday.
Compared with some of the other candidates, Milliman, 41, might be considered too young and inexperienced for the job, and the move certainly agitated a lot of the Hopkins’ blue-blood fans who wanted an alumnus in that position.
That’s the major rub: How could Baker have the audacity to hire someone outside the fold?
Former Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow faced a similar situation in 2010 when she fired lacrosse coach Dave Cottle and brought in coach John Tillman. Terps alumni weren’t as adamant about hiring a coach who had previous connections with Maryland, but Cottle had a .625 winning percentage in his nine seasons in College Park.
Since being hired, Tillman has won two Big Ten tournament titles and a national championship in 2017. No one talks about Cottle’s dismissal at Maryland anymore.
The situation at Hopkins is different because Maryland is a major NCAA Division I school in all sports. The Blue Jays have a Division I lacrosse program, but all of their other sports teams play in Division III.
Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, that worked well for Johns Hopkins because lacrosse was such a regional sport. But the boundaries have changed. Universities with big-time football programs such as Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Notre Dame are now playing lacrosse.
Other schools, such as Denver, Albany, Loyola Maryland and Villanova, have emerged as lacrosse contenders. Hopkins still has its tradition and storied history, but the Blue Jays, Syracuse and North Carolina are no longer the only kings of lacrosse.
The sport is experiencing an arms race.
“I think every top program comes with expectations,” Milliman said when he was introduced Monday. “I wouldn’t consider it pressure as much as expectations. But those are the environments where you’re going to build a championship-caliber team, the kind of environments that high-level athletes and really competitive young men want to be a part of.
“It has a lot of scrutiny from the outside, but if you have the right people and you’re bringing the program the right way, it’s going to help build and strengthen the program that you have there."
There is a lot of anger among Hopkins alumni about the hiring of Milliman. They wanted an alumnus like Hobart’s Greg Raymond, Hofstra’s Seth Tierney or Utah’s Brian Holman. The favorite appeared to be Towson University coach Shawn Nadelen, who played under former Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala, who split with the program two weeks ago. Nadelen, though, never got an offer, according to a source close to Nadelen, and didn’t have contact with the school after Friday morning.
A lot of the school alumni feel betrayed and alienated. They’ll gladly forgive Milliman and Baker if he wins, but if he loses, there will be hell to pay.
“I have followed the rumor mill over the past couple of weeks about what that really means, and there have been rumors out there that I would only hire Hopkins alums or I would purposely hire a non-Hopkins alum,” Baker said. “What I said from the outset was I wanted to hire the best possible coach for this program to lead us into the future.
“There are great coaches on both sides of that. There’s nothing that was deliberate about it. It really was about those non-negotiables and identifying who met those as a baseline criterion and then who beyond that did we feel like was the best possible leader for our young men and for the future of the program.”
You can say whatever you want about Pietramala, but he milked everything he could out of the Hopkins program. The Blue Jays made a mistake by going into the Big Ten Conference in 2015, and Pietramala made errors in early recruiting. In the past three years, Hopkins had very little speed and size and even less toughness.
But he still won two national championships, finished with a 207-93 record and was very popular in the community. When you think of Hopkins lacrosse, two names pop up immediately: Bob Scott and Pietramala.
But after 20 years, his message got stale and he had to deal with the expansion of the sport. Hopkins went from a top-shelf program to one of many to be sold.
Maybe Milliman can make a significant difference.
He is considered by many to be an excellent recruiter and built some highly productive offenses at Cornell, where he was the interim coach in 2018 and the head one the past two seasons.
He preaches to his players about being unselfish, and his blue-collar approach allowed him to finish with a 28-10 overall mark during his time with the Beg Red, including 8-4 in the Ivy League.
But when Pietramala was at Hopkins, he had a supportive president, executive vice president and two athletic directors who were 100% invested in the program for most of his tenure.
Those people are gone now.
Some of the alumni think that Hopkins should be able to return to the glory days of the 1960’s and 1970’s, but that won’t happen.
If they are lucky, Milliman might keep the Blue Jays in contention every year for a shot at the conference title, and they might even make a run at a national championship every now and then, which is acceptable at most schools these days.
But if they are unlucky and start losing, the program could slide like little Washington & Lee did when it made seven appearances in the Division I playoffs in the 1970’s before going down to Division III in 1987.