Mile High Sports Sportsperson of the Year: Bill Tierney, University of Denver Lacrosse

This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

Bill Tierney just wanted someone to hurl profanity his way.

It was Feb. 19, 2010 and the University of Denver Pioneers were about to open the Tierney era in the Carrier Dome against defending national champion Syracuse.

It was a monumental task, but also a chance to make a statement as a program right away with a new, but legendary, coach. After all, Tierney had to check his bag when he moved from Princeton to Denver in June of 2009. You can’t exactly fit six national title trophies in a carry-on.

But even with Tierney leading the way, the people of western New York didn’t exactly take Denver very seriously. They went out of their way to provide some extra hospitality, fattening up the turkey before they inevitably killed it.

For Syracuse fans, the DU game was the equivalent of a powerhouse college football team playing a cupcake opponent to pad their record at the beginning of the season.

“When we went to Syracuse we knew we were going to get our brains beat in. But the gist of my pregame speech was ‘I don’t want to come back to Syracuse some day and have the people be so damn nice like they’re being to us now,’” Tierney says nearly five years later from the comfort of Denver’s brand spankin’ new lacrosse locker room.

The Pioneers didn’t get their brains beat in that day, as a 15-9 loss was a respectable outcome on paper. But trailing 14-5 after three quarters, it was clear the team wasn’t going to become a title contender overnight.

And while Tierney’s expectations weren’t to win it all right away, he still couldn’t get over the kindness of the Syracuse fans, who, let’s face it, were only kind because they treated DU like the kid brother they knew they could beat up.

“I wanted one of them to say ‘f*** you, coach,” Tierney says.

No one cursed at him that day, but it didn’t take long for Tierney to take Denver from lacrosse afterthought, to perennial contender, to the national champions they were this past season.

“Back in 2011 when we made our first final four they were looking at us like ‘who are you guys?’ But in 2015 there was no one out there in the lacrosse world saying Denver couldn’t win a title. We were preseason No. 1,” Tierney says. “It goes from ‘aren’t they cute’ to ‘whoa they’re back again’ to ‘alright they finally won it’ to ‘wow we’re sick of these guys.’”

When the clock struck zero and the Pioneers beat Maryland 10-5 to win the national championship in Philadelphia on May 25, the team made history. It was the first time ever a school that hailed from a state not touching the Atlantic Ocean took home the title. It was the culmination of something that felt inevitable. DU had been right there the last several years under Tierney, but just unable to finish it off.

Sealing the deal used to be a custom for Tierney. National championships had become habitual for him. He won six in 10 seasons from 1992-2001 at Princeton.

But then a dry spell hit. Princeton made the final four in 2002, 2003 and 2004 but couldn’t take the trophy. The Tigers were down from 2005 to 2008 before coming up one goal short of the final four in 2009.

After moving to Denver, Tierney got to the final four in 2011, 2013 and 2014 but fell short each year. It was a long time coming for Tierney to win lucky No. 7, but the coach knew he was almost always in the hunt.

“It was broken up into segments. It’s not like I was bemoaning ‘woe is me’ for 14 years. It was still going pretty strong, but it was great to get another,” Tierney says.

So what happened during Tierney’s 14-year title gap? Several things, but the most important of them all might be that lacrosse came to be, like Zoolander’s Hansel, so hot right now in Colorado.

***

It was almost prophetic.

Before the shocking news broke that Tierney was leaving Princeton for Denver, a move that by all accounts shook up the entire landscape of D-I lacrosse, Tierney wanted to let Princeton lacrosse alumni know why he was making the switch.

In a lengthy e-mail to former players, Tierney talked about how he and his wife, Helen, always wanted to retire in Colorado some day, but at 57 years old and being “nowhere near retirement” the move now made sense. He also talked about being able to coach with his son, Trevor, and how the change allowed him to be closer to family.

The most interesting part of the entire Tierney e-mail from 2009 is this:

The lacrosse world, as you know, is taking huge steps out west. The chance for me to be a part of that growth, as an ambassador for the game, as well as for Denver, is very appealing. If we are truly going to make lacrosse a nationwide sport, we need for some programs out there to become great. I think I can help Colorado lacrosse become the launching pad for that movement.

US Lacrosse provides enough statistics about the growth of the sport on their website to make even the nerdiest baseball analytics guy’s head spin, but know this: In 2014, not only was Colorado one of the fastest growing states when it comes to lacrosse participation, so were Texas, California, Washington and Oregon, or, you know, states in the west.

Is the rise in popularity nationwide all because Tierney moved from Princeton to Denver six years ago? Of course not, but here in the homeland one of Tierney’s former star players and now a professional with the Denver Outlaws, Eric Law, is convinced he’s got more to do with it than anyone else.

“So many more people want to be a part of the craze now and as soon as Coach ‘T’ came to Denver is when that buzz started growing. It goes hand-in-hand with having him here. Lacrosse is now one of the biggest sports in Colorado and Coach T is one of the biggest reasons why, if not the only real reason,” Law says.

Tierney is actively involved in the promotion of youth lacrosse. He sits on the board of Denver City Lax, a group for which Law works, and in some sense seems to treat the growth of youth lacrosse in Colorado as a second job.

“We had 500 kids playing ‘box’ lacrosse on a Sunday in December in Colorado. The growth is just jumping off the board,” Tierney says.

Tierney is the Sportsperson of the Year because he led Denver to its first lacrosse national championship, there’s no doubt about that. But his contributions to lacrosse’s development in this state have to be commended as well. Yes, him just being here is huge, but so is his commitment to the growth of the game.

And while anyone you talk with just raves about Tierney, there’s still a segment of the population that judges him based on what they have seen on TV. Tierney can, at times, go into maniac mode on the sidelines. That guy couldn’t be further from who he really is.

*** 

Mile High Sports put Tierney through the car wash.

His morning started with a photo shoot, then a 20-minute print interview, then another photo shoot where he had to put on his coaching hat, drawing up plays on a pane of glass, followed, finally, by another 15-minute television interview.

He couldn’t have been in a better mood the whole time.

Tierney barely even says hello before he’s cracking jokes. When a cameraman hands him a lacrosse stick as a prop, he quips, “sticks would be flying!” if he had a stick in his hand on the sideline. Someone asks if he’s seen the Clint Eastwood Esquire cover, a possible look for a Tierney pose; “no” he deadpans and then cracks a smile.

When some of the photos are done Tierney takes a peek and let’s out a long “Beauuutiful!” in approval of the shots. His demeanor is essentially the exact opposite of the guy who barks violently at referees during games.

“The only time he’s ever that crazy person you see on television is just the two hours during the game. He wants everyone to be at their best and he’s a perfectionist. He wants everything to go the way it should,” Law says.

Tierney, thoughtful throughout the interview, gives one of his best answers while explaining the way he is sometimes on the sidelines.

“I liked coaching football because the coach called every play. Clearly, I think the best coaches are Type A control freaks. What happens on a Saturday is, if you’ve done your job and all your preparation, all of the sudden I’ve got nothing to do. So, boom, the focus goes somewhere else. I try to protect my guys. I think it just shows your players you’re behind them,” Tierney says.

No one can ever accuse Tierney of not caring. In fact, he cares so much sometimes that passion comes out in a fit of rage. But the energy is there, in part, because as Tierney mentioned, he doesn’t do much coaching during the game. He says he learned long ago the best coaches let their assistants coach on game day. The result?

“I hate game day. I literally hate it. I don’t have much input there. I guess I decide when to call a timeout. Game day is a little fear of the unknown. You know what’s going to happen in practice, but game day I can’t control,” Tierney says.

Tierney likes control. It’s almost like he’s the Bill Belichick of college lacrosse. He’s the best at what he does of anyone in the world, partially because he’s brilliant, but partially because he’s almost always in control.

And that comparison works even better because of this little known fact: Tierney and Belichick are good friends.

***

Eric Law recalls it was his junior year in Annapolis, and DU was about to play in the second game of a doubleheader. Up first was Johns Hopkins against Maryland.

One of the perks of being the second game was the DU players and coaches could either hang in the locker room or watch the first tilt from the sideline. Law decided to do the latter and found himself standing next to Tierney.

Law could tell Tierney was getting in his “serious mood” right before the game. The sort of don’t-mess-with-me mood Tierney can bristle on game days. Law says out of nowhere a man wearing a Hopkins shirt and a Hopkins hat pulled low approached Tierney. Law wondered what in the world this guy – sporting the colors of the enemy – was doing trying to talk to Tierney at that moment.

“All of the sudden this guy goes, ‘Hey Bill, why didn’t you text me back?’ And I look up and it’s Bill Belichick. And I’m just thinking ‘no way.’ I was standing there wide-eyed just kind of shocked this happened, but being the huge Broncos fan I am I had to go back to the locker room because I didn’t want to get psyched out,” Law says.

To be a fly on the turf for that chat would have been fascinating. That’s 11 combined titles (nine at the time) in their respective sports just catching up before a game. One has to wonder what coaching royalty even talks about during a casual conversation.

“I have great respect for Coach Tierney and his championship programs at Princeton and Denver,” says Belichick, who first met Tierney when his son was being recruited to play college lacrosse in 2006. “He was instrumental in changing the game defensively when he was at Princeton.

“I would like to have seven championships.”

And even though Tierney spurned Belichick with no text back that time, Hoodie still fires texts Tierney’s way. The DU coach says Belichick actually wanted him to sit in the Patriots’ box when The Deflators rolled in to Denver in late November, extending the invitation via text message.

Tierney declined, saying he had far too many good friends with the Broncos to do that.

He would have won the award regardless, but it’s not like the Colorado Sportsperson of the Year sitting in the Patriots’ luxury suite at a Broncos home game would have been the most ideal scenario.

But that’s who Tierney is now. His east coast roots will always be a massive part of his story, but he’s here now – for good. He’s a Colorado and Denver guy through and through. Tierney recently signed a seven-year contract extension at DU that will expire when he’s 70. He jokes if he’s in good health maybe he’ll be an assistant coach with the Pioneers from that point on.

For now the focus is on winning more championships. Seven years is a long time to add to that cupboard full of trophies and build a new dynasty. And who knows, maybe along the way some ticked off Syracuse fan – mad Denver now controls the lacrosse world – will hurl a bunch of four-letter insults his way.

Bill Tierney would be just fine with that.

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