Photo Courtesy of the University of Denver Athletics
Legendary University of Denver Pioneers coach Bill Tierney and the NLL go way back, way back to 1974 and the original National Lacrosse League.
That’s when Tierney brought his emerging lacrosse-style midas touch as a rookie to the Rochester Griffins. A year earlier, Tierney had won the USILA championship as an NCAA player at Cortland State.
“I love box,” says Tierney, “but I’ve made a living on field lacrosse.”
Bringing field skills indoors, Tierney was one of the early American pioneers fitting into the largely Canadian box game. On the Rochester roster that year were players from established boxla hotbeds north of the border like Toronto, Peterborough and Victoria.
Tierney had three goals and three assists in eight games for the Griffins as they went 22-17-1 during the regular season and 8-4 in the playoffs, capturing the old-school NLL championship.
“It’s definitely easier for a box player to switch to field [rather than a field player making the jump to box],” Tierney says.
“From my perspective, being able to shoot and score, playing in tight spaces, individual defense, playing with a quick shot clock, fast substitutions, the toughness of playing through contact and the stick skills are all really important skills learned from the box.”
Tierney would play one more season in the NLL with relocated Rochester on Long Island, netting two goals and two assists in 14 games for the Tomahawks. Tierney’s career NLL numbers: five goals, five assists, 10 points, six penalty minutes and an amazing 45.5 shooting percentage.
Tierney would take that early box lacrosse experience with him to head coaching, starting in 1982 at the Rochester Institute of Technology and ending in Denver after the 2023 NCAA season. In-between Tierney won seven Division I titles: six with Princeton between 1992 and 2001 and one with Denver in 2015, becoming the first coach to win championships at two different schools.
But as Tierney announced his retirement plans for the end of the season earlier this month, his lacrosse legacy is not limited to the NCAA. It also extends to the NLL in 2023, and will continue well beyond.
There are 10 Tierney-coached #ProPios currently in the NLL: Mark Matthews of the Saskatchewan Rush, Wes Berg and Danny Logan of the San Diego Seals, Tyler Pace of the Calgary Roughnecks, Trevor Baptiste of the Philadelphia Wings, Brendan Bomberry and Zach Miller of the Georgia Swarm, Ethan Walker of the Albany FireWolves, TD Ierlan of the Toronto Rock and Jack Hannah of the Las Vegas Desert Dogs.
Five of those 10 were on Denver’s 2015 NCAA-winning team: Berg, Pace, Baptiste, Bomberry and Miller.
“Much of our success in NCAA lacrosse has come from the fact that we recognize the skills gained from box lacrosse,” says Tierney. “In recruiting them, we can’t take all the credit for them having the abilities to be pro box lacrosse players, but because of their box experience they had a great experience playing at a high level here at DU.
“Having [current associate head coach] Matt Brown, who grew up playing box and had a great field career as well, on our staff has prepared all the great box players that have come through our program to be great field players and to go on to have these great careers in the NLL.”
And it’s not just at Denver. Several Princeton players, including Josh Sims, Tierney’s son Trevor, Jesse Hubbard and Ryan Boyle, went on to play in the NLL.
“They were all American guys fitting into the box game as I did back in 1974 in the original NLL,” Tierney says.
Saskatchewan’s Matthews, now a 10-year NLL veteran with three league titles and both a former Finals and league MVP, attributes much of his success to coaches Tierney and Brown.
“The Pioneers program is run by some of the smartest minds in the game of lacrosse,” says Matthews, who played under Tierney from 2010-12. “They teach a lot of professionalism on and off the field, which helped me be prepared for the pro game and lifestyle.”
Part of that prep for the pros was Brown’s box-style concepts.
“I think we’ve been successful because we play a box-type of offense,” Brown says. “It’s not all two-man games, but a lot of ball movement and a lot of [player] movement. We talk a lot about ball swings on the offensive end and when you get to the NLL ball swings from boards to boards are what open up opportunities. We focus a ton on catching and finishing the ball in tight spaces. We hone in on those skills.”
Matthews and those before him (like the Gajics, Cliff Smith and Jamie Lincoln) helped pave the way for players like Berg and Pace on Denver’s 2015 NCAA championship team.
“I followed a lot of great players leaving DU to the NLL,” says Matthews, and now “seeing those guys [Berg and Pace] excel in the game after a great career at DU is great for them and the program. Wes is one of the best players in the world and being able to play with him and Pacer was awesome. They pioneered the championship run that put DU on the map.”
San Diego’s Berg, the 2015 NCAA tournament MVP, also credits Tierney and Brown’s Denver program for catapulting him to the pros.
“Playing for a successful team at DU where you learned good habits on and off the field translates well into professional lacrosse,” Berg says. “Coach T is a big advocate for team camaraderie and chemistry. He believes in the player’s unique talents and personalities rather than a cookie-cutter approach to the game.
“He coaches guys differently based on the way they would react and how they would need to be motivated. We had a lot of fun that year [in 2015] and winning the championship was the cherry on top.”
Coach Brown himself was a standout at Denver and then played in the NLL from 2006-09, recording 35 goals and 77 points in 39 career games with Arizona, Colorado and Portland.
“Going to college here at DU and being able to play a season for the Mammoth was great,” says Brown. “Being able to play professionally in a place I call my home was really special. There’s nothing like being at Ball Arena for a Mammoth game.”
Tierney and Brown’s influence can be also be seen in Las Vegas’s American rookie Hannah, who played in USBOXLA’s National Collegiate Box Series as did Baptiste before him.
“The main skill from field to box and in the pro game is the ability to catch the ball inside and finish consistently,” Hannah says. “There are lots of decisions in a small amount of time in box.”
But perhaps it’s Berg who best sums up the DU to NLL experience.
“It’s fun playing with and against players you grew up playing college with,” says Berg. “You always wish for former teammates’ success, just not against your team.”
The Pioneers begin their 2023 season on January 28 with an exhibition game at Johns Hopkins.