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Washington and Lee: A General History of the Generals

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Keeley sent me an email yesterday that basically said the following:

  • I was looking through the history of the NCAA Tournament and found that Washington and Lee went to three Final Fours in the 1970's. What's up with that?

My knowledge of Washington and Lee is kind of limited:

  • I knew that they had put together some nice years in Division III, but I had no idea how they ended up in that NCAA competition bracket after competing in Division I.
  • I knew that Tom Wolfe went there after getting tired of Princeton.
  • I also knew about The Armadillo*.

Outside of that, I was stumped.  So I did a little digging to find out what went on with the little powerhouse from Virginia and how it faded from the national consciousness into the relative obscurity of Division III.


Back in the 1970's, the Generals were a bit of a powerhouse.  During that ten-year period, Washington and Lee went 108-35 and received an invitation to the NCAA Tournament seven of the eight years that the post-season tournament existed.  That isn't just getting by in the NCAA's toughest division; that's making hay.

Under the direction of Hall of Famer Jack Emmer, the Generals were national semifinalists from 1973 through 1975.  Washington and Lee never advanced to the championship game in that period, but did manage to lose to only the eventual national champion in the play-offs.  That's a hell of an effort, people.

The Generals proceeded to make the tournament field in '76, '77, '78, and '80, but never advanced past the first round.  Washington and Lee then fell on hard times, failing to register a winning season from 1983 to 1986.

Now, in 1971, the NCAA revised its division classifications which included the construction of Division III. Schools that had been playing at the highest level of the sport prior to the classification system were given "grandfather" status -- a permission to "play-up" in a particular sport while moving the rest of their athletic program to Division III.  Johns Hopkins was one of the schools that took advantage of this clause.

Washington and Lee, however, decided that prior to the 1987 season, it would move its men's lacrosse program down to Division III from Division I. 

The move made sense for the academically-oriented university. Washington and Lee had not offered athletic scholarships in the past and it did not plan to offer them in the future; with the growth of Division I and the inherent disadvantage in playing in a category in which all of your competitors provide scholarships, the Generals believed that it would make competitive sense to move down to Division III.

The move ultimately benefited Washington and Lee immediately: The Generals were quickly competitive in Division III and under Jim Stagnitta in the 1990's and forward, Washington and Lee returned to the national tournament and once again found itself nationally ranked.

It's been an odd journey to and from prominence for the Generals, and yet, their fingerprints are all over the NCAA's record books.

A big thanks to the Washington and Lee Athletic Department for all this information.


Everyone loves The Armadillo, son. 

Wait, you don't know what The Armadillo is?

Alright, here's some quick background: Washington and Lee coach Jack Emmer was staring down a huge task in trying to figure out how to beat North Carolina back in 1982; the Tarheels were arguably the best team in the country and the Generals were really out-matched on the field at just about every position.

Rather than try and stand toe-to-toe with the Tarheels, Emmer devised something called The Armadillo that would serve as a stall technique while also providing some elements of deception:

The Armadillo, as we called it, wound up consisting of five players locking arms with one player in the middle with the ball. We gave that player in the middle a sawed-off goalie stick with a very deep pocket so the ball could not be dislodged. Since you could only have one goalie stick in the game at one time, the fellow that was playing in the goal had a regular offensive stick. But we didn’t expect him to have to make many saves. We learned that you couldn’t move the Armadillo because that would be a moving pick and you had to set up the Armadillo inside the attack or goal area so as not to be called for stalling. So the trick was that you needed to shoot the ball, miss the goal and when the ball came back into play, have your ball-carrier step into the Armadillo and have everybody close arms around him.

In short, the idea was that the Generals would do nothing until North Carolina got pissed off and committed penalties.  And that's what the Tarheels did.  So, when Carolina would go man-down, Washington and Lee would break out of The Armadillo, run its man-up offense, and then go back to The Armadillo where they would just hold the ball until Carolina did something stupid again.

Here's the thing: It freaking worked (at least for a while).  Washington and Lee had a 3-0 lead before eventually falling to Carolina 11-8.

The NCAA wasn't too pleased with Emmer's ingenuity, though.  Immediately after the game the authority outlawed use of The Armadillo.  All that remains is the picture above.