DENVER — Rocking in his office chair, Hall of Fame lacrosse coach Bill Tierney quickly scanned the list of nominees for the Tewaaraton Trophy, the sport’s equivalent of the Heisman.
He was a little bewildered, a little taken aback that none of his Denver Pioneers were even in the running.
With an “Oh, well” kind of shrug, Tierney was quickly over the slight.
The longtime coach was used to this. His team has been largely overlooked most of the season.
But now, off to the program’s best start (10-2) and with a win over reigning NCAA champion Duke on their resume, the Pioneers are starting to gain more notoriety.
They’ve joined the ranks of the elite, ascending to the fifth spot in the Nike/Inside Lacrosse media poll, even if few know what to make of their success: Are they for real or simply a mirage out West?
In truth, Tierney’s hoping his team remains disregarded. It makes for a nice motivational tool.
“I get it. I get why. We’re just Denver,” Tierney said. “But we know we’re good and as long as we know that, if no one else cares, so be it. We’ll keep surprising people.”
This degree of success was hardly what Tierney envisioned when he left the security of Princeton nearly two summers ago.
Maybe down the road, just not this soon.
Tierney figured it would take some time to reshape the program, institute his ideas. But the Pioneers have quickly grasped his winning formula, a system— or lack thereof, since he adapts his style to the players—that made him an icon while spending more than two decades with Princeton.
The Pioneers took a big step last season, finishing 12-5 and earning a trip to the NCAA tournament.
This spring, they’ve reeled off seven straight wins since losing a one-goal game to top-ranked Notre Dame on March 12.
And just like that, a school known more for hockey has put itself on the lacrosse map.
Asked if his squad was a possible Final Four contender, Tierney didn’t hesitate, responding with an authoritative, “It is.”
He knows the look of an elite squad, too, having led Princeton to 10 Final Four appearances and six NCAA championships.
This squad, in his estimation, has that kind of feel, that kind of talent.
“We’ve proven we can play with some big boys,” Tierney said. “We feel like we’re in that category.”
The success of the Pioneers has created a buzz around campus, students showing up at home games in droves, even tailgating before they start. The Pioneers are averaging nearly 1,900 fans a game, an improvement over a few years ago when the team averaged just under 900 spectators.
On Saturday, they have a chance to put the finishing touches on a perfect league mark when they host Fairfield. Denver has already wrapped up a second straight Eastern College Athletic Conference title.
“What I keep trying to say to them, is, ‘Fellas, enjoy this, appreciate this, do the right thing, do everything correctly, but understand that you’re going through something very special right now,”’ said Tierney, whose team will host the first-ever ECAC tournament next week, with the winner receiving an automatic NCAA tournament bid. “Their heads are definitely spinning.”
Here’s a reality check: Denver has never won an NCAA tournament game. It’s a trend the Pioneers are eager to snap.
“We have Final Four talent across the board,” said attacker Todd Baxter, a native of Eden Prairie, Minn., who spent one season at Fairfield before transferring to DU. “We, as seniors, want to be known as the team that made it the farthest, that accomplished all they could and left a legacy.”
The Pioneers are certainly on the right path, maybe even a little ahead of schedule—at least according to Tierney’s timeline with the Tigers.
When Tierney landed at Princeton, he told his inaugural recruiting class that by the time they were seniors, they’d win a national title.
Bold talk for a program that was 12-46 in the four years prior to his arrival.
Spot on, too, as the Tigers backed up Tierney’s words.
Tierney didn’t offer a similar proposition when he arrived in Denver.
Instead, his message centered on rebuilding confidence and establishing a tradition.
“The guys just bought in,” said Tierney, whose son, Trevor, oversees the defense. “We’re still a work in progress. But I’m still pretty amazed where we are right now.”
The transformation of the program has rejuvenated the 58-year-old Tierney. Maybe once considered on the back nine of his coaching career, he’s now contemplating sticking around for perhaps as long as another decade.
“When I took the job, people said, ‘Why would you do this?’ The reality of it is I just wanted a new challenge,” Tierney explained. “This was a new place with new expectations—to build it and do your own thing.
“With coaching in the twilight of your career, you just want to have fun.”
And he certainly is doing that.