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Stories/Op-Ed

Paul Day has been learning how to be the best coach he can be for over 53 years

After 24 years since his first head coaching win in the National Lacrosse League back in 1998 with the Rochester Knighthawks, Day has become only the 5th coach in NLL history to reach 100 head coaching wins. He set the mark in a dominating fashion, winning 12-8 against the new Knighthawks in Rochester. Although, he had no idea that he had just won his 100th regular season game until his father texted him the news.

He joins Derek Keenan, Darris Kilgour, Troy Cordingly, and Ed Comeau as the only NLL head coaches to achieve that feat in the league’s 35-year existence.

Since he was a young boy, Day has absorbed the lessons taught to him by his parents, coaches, mentors, colleagues, and friends in the pursuit of one day passing that knowledge down to the men he leads on the floor.

Day credited early influencers such as his parents and his boyhood lacrosse coaches in Peterborough, Ontario, John Martin, and Dan Dunn, for instilling the character and drive to become a knowledgeable, thoughtful, and personable leader of men.

In the National Lacrosse League, Day got his initial chance to lead from the bench in 1998 with a young Knighthawks team he had been with since their inaugural season in 1995 when he was an Assistant Coach. He had a taste of early victory, winning a championship with Rochester in 1997 as an Assistant Coach.

At the time, Day was only 29-years-old, a similar age to most of the men that he was instructing from the sidelines. Day, believed he would be a teacher during his collegiate years, understood that one of the best ways to get the most out of his players was to listen and learn from his men.

One of his earliest students was Curt Malawsky, who played under Day for six seasons with the Knighthawks. Malawsky, the current Calgary Roughnecks Head Coach, credited Day’s ability to listen and learn from his players as some of his most endearing and impactful traits.

“His patience, understanding, and willingness – and I’ve learned this as I’ve gone along in my coaching career – to listen and learn from his players,” Malawsky said. “He’d always be like, ‘guys, what do you think,’ – when I was younger, I was always a ‘my way or the highway kind of guy’- but guys like Paul gave you that trust. He always trusted his players.”

This mentality has allowed Day to have success with his players, both personally and professionally. During his tenure in Rochester from 1998 to 2005, Day amassed 75 regular season wins and had a winning percentage of .658. He also led the Knighthawks to three NLL Finals, although he and his men were never abler to hoist the coveted hardware.

Immediately following his time with the Knighthawks, Day moved into new roles with the upstart Edmonton Rush. Much like when he joined the Knighthawks as an Assistant Coach, Day, the Rush were starting their franchise. However, this time, Day was appointed Head Coach and General Manager out of the gate.

It was a unique balancing act for the experienced coach, but from 2006 to 2008, Day did his best to win the approval of his players and the fan base of Edmonton despite accumulating seven wins in two and a half seasons.

During that time, one of his star players, Chris Gill, who is the current coach of the Vancouver Warriors, mentioned that despite the team’s record, Day managed to remain level-headed, all while trying to find solutions for more victories.

“He was a very calming voice in the dressing room or at practices,” Gill said. “He never got overly excited or hyped up in the wins and losses, knowing that we probably weren’t the best team at the time. As a player, it was good to be working under a guy like that, and it goes a long way in the dressing room. It builds team comradery and makes the veteran players feel like they have a say.”

Gill added that Day’s ability to coach while attempting to craft a winning roster for a brand new organization was commendable, to say the least.

“There’s a fine line you have to walk [to be a coach and GM simultaneously],” Gill said. “Knowing players, knowing talent, negotiating contracts with different teams and then having to be able to coach them, there’s a fine line to be able to do that, and he seems to get the best out of the players he has. I don’t know if he’s a better GM or a better coach; I think he’s a good combo of both.”

Unfortunately for Day, after picking up only seven wins in 37 games from 2006-2008 and starting the 2008 NLL season 0-5, Day was fired from the Rush. It turns out that losing his job at age 39 was one of the most influential moments of his life.

Before being fired, Day had thought that he would hang it up as a coach by 40-years-old. However, his exit in Edmonton reinvigorated him, and Day was poised to become an even more well-versed student of the game.

Day took advantage of his newfound freedom for the remainder of that 2008 and spent time watching practices of colleagues and friends around the NLL. He was able to finesse that because he has always tried to remain friends with former players and coaches. The fact that he is still part of multiple text groups that include some of the great lacrosse minds of past and present speaks volumes about his ability to maintain relationships.

What Day imagined would be the end of his coaching career-ending became the beginning of his comeback tour. During stints as an assistant coach with the Orlando Titans (2010) under Ed Comeau and then a handful of seasons back with the Knighthawks under Mike Hasen, Day realized that he was having more fun coaching since being fired, letting loose more. It helps to do that when your time (in this case, the Knighthawks) were stringing together back-to-back-to-back championship runs in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Nevertheless, with a refueled wealth of knowledge in his back pocket, in 2018, Day accepted his latest role(s) with yet another new team, the expansion Philadelphia Wings, becoming their GM and Head Coach.

Even though he was starting these new positions more than 20 years after his first coaching seasons, Day had a fresh set of strategies and ideas that were more suited to today’s quicker game. He has understood that to be at your best, you have to understand what works and what doesn’t by weeding out the less successful strategies.

Kevin Crowley is a skilled veteran of this league and a member of the Wings since Day and the organization entered the NLL in 2019. He believes that his coaches’ high lacrosse IQ enables him to be adaptable and find new ways to win.

“I think he looks at the game from a different perspective than the norm and is just a brilliant lacrosse mind,” Crowley said. “His lacrosse IQ is just through the roof.”

Crowley added that Day has shared his past experiences (both his success and failures) with his current players, which keeps their perspectives grounded.

“He’s explained to us that you can still have a, let’s call it, an underwhelming season and still win the championship,” Crowley said. “That instills confidence in us as players to know that he’s been here before, and our season isn’t over because we are 6-7 right now.”

It’s always been a running theme for Day to try and tap into the most effective ways to make his players comfortable and confident. That is why he is so well-liked and well-respected. But, his strategies for connection and leadership have also had a profound impact on the countless players, coaches, and assistant coaches around the game.

A few of the players he’s coached over the years aside from Gill and Malawsky include Mike Accursi, Rob Williams, Steve Dietrich, Josh Sanderson, Regy Thorpe, and Dan Teat. The list could go on and on.

Malawsky believes that so many of Day’s former players have become coaches or have earned spots in the front offices because of his incredible gift to teach while also embodying what it means to be a good human.

“I think it’s a testament to Paul’s character,” Malawsky said. “The way he lives his life and the belief that he has, the core values that he has; he tried to instill those in all of his players. He did things the right way, and his decisions were always well thought out and were always made with everyone’s best interest in mind.”

When Day finally retires from the NLL, he won’t look at the wins and losses he’s collected in the NLL; he’ll be thinking about the lives he’s impacted and the relationships he’s built. That’s what he hopes you’ll learn from him too.

“The most important thing about sports or life is relationship building,” Day said. “How you treat people and how I want to be treated by people is important to me. After that, I’m really more concerned with my next win than my last win.”

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