When Bill Tierney helmed Princeton to all six of its national championships during his tenure there, the Tigers were renowned for a suffocating defensive scheme that at times strangled opponents into offensive futility. When John Desko replaced Syracuse Hall of Famer Roy Simmons Jr. prior to the 1999 season, the Orange maintained their run-and-gun roots and outsprinted opposing teams en route to five NCAA titles.
Tierney left Princeton to take a similar position at Denver for the 2010 campaign, while Desko still heads Syracuse. But both coaches have proven that they can evolve with the times.
Tierney has shed his image as a defensive guru and allowed offensive coordinator Matt Brown to reshape the fourth-seeded Pioneers as an explosive offense. Denver (14-4) enters Saturday’s NCAA tournament semifinal against Syracuse ranked in the top 10 in Division I in several offensive categories, including shooting percentage (third at 34.1 percent), scoring (fifth at 12.7 goals per game) and points per game (seventh at 19.8).
Desko said the Pioneers’ offensive versatility is a challenge for many teams.
“They’re a difficult team to prepare for, especially with their offense,” Desko said. “He’s got a few Canadians running out there, box-style players. You can talk to your defenders about the style and how they carry their stick and how they’re good off the ball, and how they catch and shoot with quick releases. But until you experience it, it’s a different type of player to cover, and it’s a different team than his Princeton teams as far as the style of defense that they play. It’s a little different than what I’m used to with a Bill Tierney team, but he’s been there long enough. I credit him and his staff with how well he’s adjusted to a different style of lacrosse and maybe some different type players than he has had in the past. My hat is off to him, especially with all the success he’s had in Denver.”
The Orange (15-3) will run if given the opportunity, but they have been fortified by a solid defense coordinated by assistant coach Lelan Rogers. Opponents have averaged just 8.6 goals against Syracuse, which also ranks third in the country in scoring margin (3.1 goals).
The Orange’s makeover is a testament to Desko, according to Tierney.
“To me, what I’ve always believed is the great coaches change with their personnel and change with their team,” Tierney said. “What John has done with this team is one of the best. Fifteen or 20 years ago, if I would have said that they were a patient, intelligent, sharp-shooting team that plays the defense in the country and plays tight and relies on their defense in situations like they had in the last two games, it would have been almost blasphemous. But that is what John has done, and his staff, they’re the same guys. Lelan does a great job with the defense, and what whose guys do with their kids and that talent just shows you. You come to a Final Four and you’re looking at a Syracuse team that just plays a different style, but – guess what? – they’re in the Final Four, and that’s really important. They’ve beaten a lot of good teams this year, they’ve been in nine one-goal games, they know what it takes to persevere through ups and downs.”
Tierney and Desko are part of the wave of coaches who have adjusted their coaching styles. Last year, Loyola’s Charley Toomey suppressed his defensive tenor in favor of a prolific scoring machine based on a quick-strike transition unit. In 2011, Virginia’s Dom Starsia cracked down on a few star players and bit his lip while switching the team’s defense from its traditional man-to-man system to a zone scheme. And in 2010, Duke’s John Danowski demanded more accountability from his standouts.
The common thread between those three examples? Each ended up holding the national championship on Memorial Day. Perhaps Tierney or Desko could be the next in line to do the same.