Did You See That?!: Breaking Through Into the Elite

USA TODAY Sports

It's still not easy, but it's easier than when Syracuse did it in 1983.

Do you read this site's fancy pants links post every day -- "Lacrosse the Internet"? You should; it's kind of the most important thing ever written on the Internet. There are all kinds of good stuff in that daily piece, and rather than watch it exist on the periphery, I'm going to make it even more important than it already is: Every day I'll pull out a story from the links post and expand a little upon it. It's called "Did You See That?!" and it'll happen as long as I remember to write it.

Link Post: June 19, 2013
Story: "'My Teams are Collages'," Sports Illustrated

Before Syracuse won the 1983 NCAA championship, just five schools -- Cornell (1971, 1976, 1977), Virginia (1972), Maryland (1973, 1975), Johns Hopkins (1974, 1978, 1979, 1980), and North Carolina (1981, 1982) -- had sat atop the college lacrosse hierarchy as the nation's best. That's an incredible concentration of championship-caliber teams over the NCAA era's first dozen years, and while that pool has only expanded to nine teams since 1971 (Princeton first joined the party in 1992; Duke won its first in 2010; and Loyola took home its lone title in 2012), the game feels like it's moving away from only a handful of teams having a lock on taking a victory lap on Memorial Monday. This is evident in the number of teams that have made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament title game -- prior to 1983, only six teams (the five titlists and Navy (1975)) played in college game's biggest moment; since then, five other teams (Princeton, Loyola, Massachusetts, Towson, and Notre Dame) have extended their seasons to college lacrosse's apex -- but it's most evident in the fact that the depth of competitiveness in Division I is much more prominent than even a decade ago. I'm not sure that Division I lacrosse is wrapped in parity yet, but the game is moving in that direction.

What's holding Division I back from seeing further competitive depth and a truer illustration of parity is that programs still aren't playing on reasonably level planes. There is still an inherent inequity in Division I lacrosse, but it isn't as notable as it once was. The story of Syracuse's rise in 1983 to the top of the mountain is instructive on what it takes to compete at the highest levels of Division I lacrosse:

Roy Jr. inherited the job of coaching Syracuse lacrosse from his father in 1971, at a time when the school was de-emphasizing non-revenue sports. In his early years as coach, he sometimes had to comb the campus before games for volunteers to fill out his squad. He raised money for road trips by having his players sell raffle tickets and bottles of musk oil door to door. There was so little money for equipment that the team once had to borrow a goalie's stick from Cornell, its opponent that day.

And the lack of funding showed. By Roy Jr.'s fourth season, Syracuse's record had fallen to 2-9, and it was losing to Division III teams by as many as 22 goals. One day, a Division I team, Cornell, thrashed the Orange so badly that he put two players in the goal. "That's something I'd never do again," he says. "I was as much as admitting we couldn't win. I should've been fired for that."

* * * * *

With a little scholarship aid, Roy Jr. built a team. Last year's championship squad was assembled with transfers from four different schools, a second-string Indian goalie, and 10 guys from a local high school, West Genesee; Simmons had two full scholarships at his disposal last year, which he spread among eight players.

"Roy's an enigma," says Phillip Booth, Syracuse's poet in residence and an avid Orange lacrosse fan. He says Simmons' handling of the team makes for "a very interesting psychodrama. Keats called it a 'negative capability': Not to appear as an executive officer or a John Wayne leading the troops into Iowa, to make them meld and want something they didn't quite know they wanted."

You see the pieces, right? It's a delicate balance: Finding the right coach; getting the proper support and resources from institutional administrators; finding and developing the right players; and bringing it all together. What Syracuse was able to accomplish in an era of concentrated dominance is noteworthy; using the Orange's history as a guide, programs today have the chance to follow Syracuse's lead in a more fluid fashion and at an accelerated rate. To wit:

  • Better coaching depth: Pursuing a profession as a lacrosse coach is something that people can do these days and still keep the lights on and bills paid. With the advent of film and greater access to information, coaches have a greater understanding of the game and this knowledge is spread around the country to a wide swath of individuals. There is greater potential for truly elite coaches to emerge throughout the country, and with decades of experience and knowledge passed down from whistleblower to whistleblowe, coaches are better prepared to bring their teams to the national front. Just look around the nation: Andy Copelan at Fairfield, Kevin Warne at Georgetown, Mike Pressler at Bryant, Frank Fedorjaka at Bucknell -- these are all highly-qualified coaches at schools that haven't won national titles but are making an impact on the game and changing the competitive nature of Division I lacrosse. The depth in college coaching has drastically impacted the onset of parity in the game.
  • Better depth in preparatory talent: Slugger constructed his '83 team with a heavy influence of Central New York lacrosse flavor, an area of the country that the game has thrived for a long time. Now, with the game stretching from ocean to ocean and from the Canadian to Mexican border, there is talent all over the place for programs to mine and develop. With a deeper talent pool, the opportunity for college programs in non-traditional areas to explode on the scene is more likely than it was 30 years ago.
  • Greater opportunity to play at the game's highest level: Only eight teams were invited to the NCAA Tournament in 1983. Since then, The Big Barbecue grew to 10 teams in 1986, 12 teams in 1987, and 16 teams in 2003. With the advent of the automatic qualifier, the NCAA Tournament could conceivably feature a 20-team field -- with half constituted through auto-bid participants. There are more paths to greatness now than there was in the past, and programs are jumping at these important opportunities to grow their footprint. Things are less restrictive than they were in the era of stupid looking telephones and skinny ties; the American Dream is ratcheted up to insane levels in an era of greater access.
  • Schools are identifying the importance of sport and are investing in programs: Athletics matter for institutions, and it's not just football and basketball that schools are dumping resources into -- Richmond went Division I partly because it recognized the growth of the game and that it wanted to attract applicants from regions in which the game is prominent; Massachusetts-Lowell is going to have a Division I program to stand with their peers in the America East, recognizing the game as an important aspect of the athletic-academic alliances; programs that haven't traditionally funded the full 12.6 scholarships available are moving in that direction to stay competitive with their rivals and grab attention in a relatively quiet period on the college sports calendar; Denver noted the attention it received after reaching its first Championship Weekend in 2011 and the value it received -- as a school -- from making the appearance. Sports are a kind of advertising, and schools aren't wasting the opportunity to utilize them in that manner. More resources are being funneled through lacrosse because of the opportunity inherent in the game and what schools can get as a return on the investment. It's more than gas money and toll fare rolling through the budget these days, and that evens the playing field fairly significantly (although there are still wide gaps in what some schools spend and what others are able to pull together).

It was really hard for Syracuse to earn its first title in '83, but the circumstances are in place now where other schools -- following the Orange's lead -- can more rapidly achieve total victory. The depth of competitive balance in Division I is indicia of that, but now it's a matter of seeing everything come into focus.

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