An unfamiliar time has gotten even stranger for Dave Pietramala.
Thirty-four days after the 2020 campaign for the Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse team was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, the university elected not to renew its relationship with Pietramala, who had helmed the program for the past 20 years and was in the final season of a four-year contract extension.
So for the first time in decades, the 52-year-old Pietramala is a coaching free agent with few professional responsibilities and lots of personal time on his plate.
“I’m not sure what to do with myself right now,” he said half-jokingly Thursday afternoon.
Tuesday morning’s announcement by athletic director Jennifer S. Baker surprised many in the college lacrosse arena. Pietramala, who graduated from the school in 1990, was the program’s all-time winningest coach with 207 victories, which is 49 more than the late Bob Scott.
He guided the Blue Jays to NCAA Division I championships in 2005 and 2007, two more title game appearances in 2003 and 2008, and three more Final Four berths in 2002, 2004 and 2015. Widely regarded as the best defenseman to play college lacrosse, Pietramala is the only player in college lacrosse history to win a national title as a player in 1987 and as a coach.
But Pietramala said the decision to part ways was a joint agreement by both sides.
“My goal has always been to do what’s best for the Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse program and the players,” he said. “We just mutually agreed that moving in a different direction for both parties was in the best interest of the program. So we had that discussion, and that’s the decision we came to.”
Pietramala disputed any notion that he was angered by the university’s decision.
“I’m very thankful for my 20 years as head coach at Johns Hopkins,” he said. “I don’t regret a day of it. I don’t regret my time. I’ve been a part of it for basically 29 years. The most important thing to me is the relationships that I developed there, and as I step away and move onto the next chapter of my life, all of those relationships come with me. I still have those relationships, and while wins and losses and championships were great and important, the most important and best part of my job every day was being on the field and being in the locker room with those guys.”
Success though had been more difficult to enjoy lately for the Blue Jays. In the last four seasons, the program had exited the first round of the NCAA tournament three times and advanced to the postseason with identical 7-7 records in 2016 and 2017. The 2020 team had dropped four in a row before rallying from a four-goal deficit to edge Mount St. Mary’s in overtime on March 10 before the rest of the season was wiped out by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Some observers questioned the timing of the news, implying that Pietramala was not allowed an opportunity to audition for a chance to earn another extension. That, however, was not a point of contention for Pietramala.
“Is there ever a good time to part ways?” he asked rhetorically. “Maybe this provides the next coach with an opportunity over time to get to know the young men he’s going to coach. It gives the guys on the team time to adjust and move forward. … We’re both provided with an opportunity to move in the directions we choose to move in.”
Tributes from former and current players, coaching rivals, and fans flooded social media. Former attackman Wells Stanwick was one of many former players who said they learned valuable life lessons from Pietramala.
“We would have 6:15 a.m. practices in the fall, and you were like, ‘Why are we waking up this early? It doesn’t make sense,’” said the 28-year-old former Baltimore resident and Boys’ Latin graduate who is working in commercial real estate in Boston. “It wasn’t about just waking up, but more of a discipline. You’re a college kid, and you’re being told to wake up at 5 to get to practice, and there’s an accountability. You no longer have your parents. It’s on you. So that accountability has carried over because in the professional world, you’ve got to be accountable.”
Former goalkeeper Brock Turnbaugh, 23, said his relationship with Pietramala strengthened despite the addition of transfer Gerald Logan from Michigan for the 2017 season.
“It was because of how upfront and open we were about it,” said the former Phoenix resident and Hereford graduate who is pursuing a master’s in clinical professional counseling at Loyola Maryland and is an assistant goalie coach for the Loyola Blakefield boys lacrosse team. “When something like that happens, it’s not ideal for anybody. But we worked through it, and we came out stronger on the other end because of it. Even though it wasn’t ideal, I’m grateful, and I think we learned a lot about each other.”
Pietramala said that he has spent eight hours in his home office in each of the past three days fielding phone calls from players, peers and supporters. He said he has been surprised by the public appreciation.
“I’ve been really touched, moved, humbled, and surprised by the outpouring of support and the kind words and memories,” he said. “I’ve been taken aback. I think those things are one of the few things that has brought out a lot of emotion. I’m overwhelmed by it, and I really don’t know how to take it.”
Pietramala said his greatest sorrow stems from not being able to return to the current group of players.
“I will no longer be in the locker room with a group of young men that we recruited and brought in,” he said. “I’m sad. I already miss them. I missed them when the season was ended abruptly, and I will miss them terribly.”
Pietramala said he intends to return to coaching preferably in the college ranks. But he said he plans to spend some time with his twin sons Nicholas and Dominic who are sophomores at Boys’ Latin and girlfriend Tina.
“If the right situation doesn’t come about – and it’s important to pick the right one – I’m going to take some time here,” he said. “I’m going to take a deep breath, I’m going to do some personal growth and professional development and be with my kids and my girlfriend and just take a deep breath and get a little bit of a reset and get back at it.”