Joe Amplo was perfectly content as the men’s lacrosse coach at Marquette. He had built a solid program that had become an annual contender in the Big East Conference and had the complete support of the athletic administration.
Amplo was the first and only head coach in Marquette lacrosse history, having started the program from scratch when the Milwaukee school decided to elevate the sport to varsity status. The Golden Eagles began NCAA competition in 2012 and needed just five seasons to turn the corner.
Amplo led Marquette to consecutive Big East Tournament championships in 2016 and 2017, earning automatic berths into the NCAA Tournament as a result. In his first interview since being named Navy men’s lacrosse coach on June 5, Amplo told The Capital he could have stayed at Marquette for 30 years.
“I’ve been blessed because Marquette was a great opportunity and I worked for an administration that believed in me, surrounded me with great people and provided the resources to compete at the highest level,” Amplo said. “I’ve had two other opportunities to take some pretty good jobs in our sport and chose not to do so because Marquette is such a great place.”
Sitting on a couch in his new office on the third floor of Ricketts Hall on Friday afternoon, Amplo said the Navy job was one of the few in all of Division I he even considered pursuing.
“For me, the Naval Academy was the complete package. From a destination standpoint in our sport, the Navy job has always been right at the top for me. I always looked at this job as a great opportunity for a number of reasons,” Amplo said.
“Just the fact you get to work at one of the world’s greatest institutions, it’s hard to compare anything with that. You factor in the type of student-athlete you’re going to be associated with and that makes it even more attractive,” Amplo added. “On top of all that, the Naval Academy is located in what my wife and I consider one of the best places to live. Annapolis is almost like a resort town. This is a great place to live and raise a family.”
Amplo was hired as the eighth head coach in Navy men’s lacrosse history on Wednesday. He arrived in Annapolis first thing on Thursday to begin the process of taking over a program that boasts a proud tradition, but has enjoyed only moderate success on a national level over the past two decades.
Rick Sowell compiled a 54-56 record and led Navy to a share of three Patriot League regular season championships during an eight-year tenure. Athletic director Chet Gladchuk fired Sowell on May 3 because he felt new leadership was needed to lift the Midshipmen to the next level.
The Mids went 0-for-5 in the Patriot League Tournament during Sowell’s tenure. Navy’s lone NCAA Tournament appearance under Sowell came in 2016 when it upset Yale in the first round then narrowly lost to Brown (11-10) in the quarterfinals.
Amplo said he was not hired with any sort of mandate, but recognizes the level Navy lacrosse aspires to achieve.
“Mr. Gladchuk didn’t put specific expectations on me, but I do understand there is an expectation to compete at the highest level, to compete for championships and be a player on the national scene,” he said. “I welcome and embrace those types of expectations.”
Navy was once one of the powerhouse programs of the sport, famously capturing eight consecutive national championships during what became known as the “Decade of Dominance.” Those were the days when the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association bestowed the national title on the team it deemed most deserving. Things changed when the NCAA began sanctioning Division I men’s lacrosse and conducted a tournament.
Navy has made 27 NCAA Tournament appearances since 1971, but has never captured a national championship. The Midshipmen have reached the semifinals just once since 1981.
That happened in 2004 when head coach Richie Meade led Navy into the NCAA final, a heartbreaking 14-13 loss to Syracuse.
Amplo has already been apprised of the fact there are former lacrosse players from the era of legendary head coach Willis Bilderback who believe Navy should be a consistent contender for the national championship.
“That passionate and loyal alumni base is not something I have dealt with as a head coach. I will say this: It does not make me nervous, it excites me,” Amplo said. “I’m coming from a place that had a very short-lived alumni experience. I think going into this season we only had 52 lacrosse alums from Marquette. So I welcome having such a huge alumni base.”
For now, Amplo is focused on making sure Navy is an annual contender for the Patriot League Tournament championship, which comes with an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
“While the standard some of the older Navy alums expect might be a bit unrealistic because the sport has changed so much since those days, it’s my job to engage them and educate them as to the nature of Division I lacrosse now,” he said.
One thing Amplo is certain about is that injecting Navy back into the national conversation begins with creating a culture in which everyone involved with the program feels respected and valued.
“Building a rock-solid program starts with developing a really deep interpersonal relationship with every individual currently in this program and everyone who has worn the Navy jersey previously,” he said. “I believe that is the number one most important thing in the short term, to love all the student-athletes in this program, to love the incoming recruits and make them all understand this is going to be a community-based initiative.”
“It’s not going to be just about lacrosse, it’s going to be about the whole Naval Academy experience,” Amplo added. “As I told all the alums that I have spoken to over the past 24 hours: I want that bandwagon that I watched from afar in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I want to see that bandwagon back again. I want to get everyone on board with moving this program in the right direction.”
On Friday, Amplo went out to breakfast at the Iron Rooster in downtown Annapolis with Navy Director of Lacrosse Operations Mark Goers and former All-American midfielder Adam Borcz (1998-2001). Amplo intends to immerse himself in all things Naval Academy and Navy lacrosse for the foreseeable future.
“I would be a fool to think I’m going to learn everything right away. As I told Mark Goers today over breakfast, ‘I am going to act and be the most ignorant person on the yard.’ I want to learn absolutely everything I can,” Amplo said. “I want to know everything about what these midshipmen do from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to sleep and everything in between.”
For example, Amplo asked Borcz to describe the level of anxiety a Navy lacrosse recruit experiences six weeks before showing up for plebe summer.
“That’s the mentality I need to understand in order to help those young men navigate that process before July 1 comes around,” he said. “It’s my job to surround myself with people who I believe in who can help me learn about the Naval Academy.”
Coaching at the Naval Academy is completely different from doing so at a civilian institution. Academic and military responsibilities always come first and it can often be frustrating trying to work lacrosse activities into the jam-packed schedules of 40-plus midshipmen.
“Some of what people perceive to be negatives here at the academy, I consider them challenges. It’s how you confront those challenges and navigate them that matter. You have to find ways to make things work,” Amplo said.
Amplo pointed out that during the early years of his Marquette tenure, the men’s lacrosse team had nowhere to practice if the Wisconsin weather conditions prevented going outside during the months of January, February and March – something that happened routinely.
“We would get on a bus and go to an indoor hockey rink 20 minutes away and make the best of it without complaint. You make that type of stuff part of the experience and team-building aspect of the program,” he said. “The quicker I can learn that type of stuff and understand it as it relates to the Naval Academy, the sooner I can put a culture in place in which those challenges are accepted.”
Amplo landed at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport at 6 a.m. on Thursday and was walking through the terminal when he realized he needed to call his most important mentor. Amplo played lacrosse at Hofstra University for John Danowski then served as his assistant for a total of 10 years over two stints at the Long Island school.
Danowski left Hofstra to become head coach at Duke, which he has led to a 193-59 record and three national championships.
“My first phone call was to Coach Danowski to say ‘thanks for everything you have done for me.’ John taught me, most importantly, to be an educator first,” Amplo said.
“John also showed me the power of love in an organization. You have to love your people, care about them as human beings and get to know them on the deepest interpersonal level that you possibly can. If you do that, the Xs and Ox will take care of themselves.”
Amplo announced that Goers, who also holds the title of Director of Physical Education Operations at the Naval Academy, will remain part of the men’s lacrosse staff.
Ryan Wellner, who served as defensive coordinator under Sowell and was a candidate to succeed his former boss, is currently pursuing some head coaching opportunities. If those do not pan out, Amplo hopes to have Wellner stay on as defensive coordinator.
That leaves one full-time assistant coaching position and Amplo is obviously looking for an offensive coordinator. “I’m taking my time to make the right hire that fits this place and fits my personality,” he said.