The farewell tour has begun for Bill Tierney, and the Denver men’s lacrosse coach isn’t a fan.
Tierney, 70, isn’t upset about the idea of visiting a lacrosse mecca such as Johns Hopkins’ Homewood Field — as the Pioneers did Saturday for a scrimmage against the Blue Jays — for the final time before he retires at season’s end.
It’s the idea of being the center of attention that rubs him the wrong way.
“That’s the worst part of it all,” said Tierney, who made his decision to retire after his 42nd year as a head coach public on Jan. 5. “That’s the one big reason I didn’t want to do it before the season, but there were so many other compelling reasons to announce it before the season, especially that group of kids. I didn’t want them to hear it from anybody else. So I thought that was really important.”
As modest as Tierney’s perspective is, it would be difficult to not honor the architect of Princeton’s run of six NCAA championships in a 10-year span from 1992 to 2001. It would be unfathomable to not celebrate the trailblazer who left the comforts of lacrosse on the East Coast to build Denver into the first program west of the Appalachian Mountains to capture the national title in 2015. And it would be egregious to not recognize the only coach in Division I history to guide two schools to NCAA crowns.
Tierney’s list of accomplishments is lengthy. After playing attack at Cortland State, he became the head coach at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he led the Tigers to their first NCAA Tournament appearances in 1983 and 1984 and earned the Division III Coach of the Year award in 1983.
After working as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator at Johns Hopkins from 1985 to 1987, Tierney agreed in 1988 to fill the head coaching vacancy at Princeton, which had never won an Ivy League title or qualified for the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers proceeded to capture national championships in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2001 and advance to two more title games and three more Final Fours during his 22-year tenure.
In 2009, Tierney shocked the lacrosse world when he left Princeton to helm the program at Denver. That decision was validated when the Pioneers defeated Maryland, 10-5, on May 25, 2015, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia for Tierney’s seventh NCAA championship.
Tierney owns a 429-147 record for a .745 winning percentage. A 2002 US Lacrosse Hall of Fame inductee, he became the fastest coach in Division I history to rack up 400 wins, doing so in 532 games.
Former Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala described Tierney with two simple words: “the best.” In fact, Pietramala, who spent his freshman and sophomore years under Tierney’s eye as the Blue Jays defensive coordinator en route to becoming perhaps the sport’s greatest defenseman, continues to call Tierney “Coach.”
“He really encompasses an awful lot,” said Pietramala, currently the defensive coordinator at Syracuse. “He’s a way more thoughtful man than people who don’t know him think. He’s just been the best at what he does, and he’s been the best for a long time.”
Loyola Maryland coach Charley Toomey credited Tierney with influencing him to get into coaching after he graduated from the Greyhounds in 1990.
“There was a camp here at Loyola, and it was literally the No. 1 recruiting camp,” Toomey said. “So I had an opportunity as a young volunteer coach to kind of watch Coach Tierney on the field, but more importantly get to know him off the field, and the one thing that Coach Tierney has always said is, ‘You call me if you need anything.’ He’s been a mentor to so many.”
In 15 seasons at Denver, Tierney has compiled a 157-54 record — a mark that would be enviable at many schools. But he acknowledged that the time is right to step down and hand the reins to associate head coach Matt Brown.
“I still feel like I could coach, I still feel like I’ve got energy,” he said. “I just think that with a lot going on like the NCAA stuff and [name, image and likeness] stuff, coaching in college is different than it was. It’s not worse, it’s just different. So I think young men like Matt Brown and some of these great coaches, for them, it’s the norm. For me, I’m used to 48 years ago, washing clothes and lining fields and coaching.”
Tierney’s return to Johns Hopkins — where he also amassed a 35-14-3 record as coach of the men’s soccer team and departed as the program’s record holder for career winning percentage among the coaches — seemed a fitting way to start his final campaign. He recalled he and his wife Helen being greeted by the late Bob Scott, the university’s athletic director, in the summer of 1984 and handing then-6-month-old Brianne, then-2-year-old Courtney and then-4-year-old Brendan to Scott.
Scott jokingly asked the parents, “Are there any more?”
“We said, ‘As a matter of fact, there is,’ and we pulled 6-year-old Trevor out,” Tierney said with a laugh. “Bob was so good to me. … You can’t not look back and have a smile on your face a little bit.”
In spite of his age, Tierney hasn’t mellowed that much. Through the five-quarter, two-and-a-half-hour scrimmage, he held his players accountable for physical and mental errors, questioned the calls of three officials moderating the exhibition and stalked the sideline while wearing his characteristic sun blocker shades.
Tierney, whose team trailed the Blue Jays 10-7 after four quarters and 12-8 after an extra period, vowed to never relinquish his passion during games.
“That’s just not who I am,” he said. “You can’t have this kind of job and not put your heart and soul into it. I’ll apologize for 49 years of my attitude towards referees when I retire. Until then, every Saturday is going to be the same.”