When the PressBox editorial department met to determine its Sportsperson of the Year, it didn’t take long to reach a conclusion. The Maryland men’s lacrosse team had endured a 42-year title drought and nine championship game defeats before head coach John Tillman guided the Terps back to the top, capturing the national title with a 9-6 victory against Ohio State May 29.
PressBox publisher Stan “The Fan” Charles sat down with Tillman to talk about the drought, what the title meant to the lacrosse community, the top-notch talent that surrounds him at Maryland and more.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and content.
PressBox: First of all, congratulations, long overdue. After what the program went through from 1975 to 2016, a 42-year championship drought, when your championship was just about to be finalized, what were you thinking of when you knew you’d won?
John Tillman: It’s funny. You’re so much in the moment, and you are very much coaching to the last second. You’re so involved in the game, it doesn’t hit. A number of people asked me, ‘When does it really hit?’ I don’t know if it’s still really hit. As crazy as it is, as soon as that game is over, everyone is excited. It’s great to see the smiling faces of our kids just celebrating, to look into the stands to see parents crying, alums crying and things like that. To me, that was maybe the most special part of it — the reaction of everybody and just knowing what it meant to so many people. You look at it kind of going full circle, knowing what it meant to so many people, and that’s what drove our guys. Not for themselves, but for everybody else.
… Everything kind of came together and meshed. It wasn’t one team, it was everybody helping us along but us in turn trying to do it, not for ourselves. It kind of became this really healthy approach to things, and to me that was a big part of our success.
PB: That Maryland lacrosse family — I know you have developed a pretty special relationship with former head coaches Dick Edell and Dave Cottle and the alumni players. How did that get transmitted to you, and how important was this to all of them?
JT: You get around this program and you see how much it means to so many people. Sometimes it’s not even, like, what they say, it’s just seeing the relationships.
… It’s very evident how much it means to everybody, what the experience here has meant to the alums, how it shaped them, their friendships, their successes, maybe disappointment, how they learn from it. Certainly, from all of the coaches, it goes deeper than that.
… Then there’s [former head coach] Dino Mattesich and Dick Edell and Coach Cottle. I’ve been very lucky because I’ve been able to meet those guys, learn from them and kind of take the lessons that they learned and were nice enough to offer things that mentor and help me. I really felt like it was the culmination of what they learned, I was able to take. Then we took, instead of the negative aspects of 42 years, we were going to kind of rally around, ‘Hey, it’s been 42 years, we’re going to do it for everybody else,’ so it became this really healthy thing, not this monkey on our back.
… Dick always used to say, ‘I could tell you a lot about how to win Saturday, but, Monday, I can’t talk to you much about that.’ He kind of said that jokingly, but I think everybody wanted the same result, and I think what was awesome, looking in the stands, there were a number of guys that played here and were on the field on Memorial Day when things didn’t go well. Instead of being envious or jealous that they didn’t win, everybody wanted to win it, whether they were playing in the game or not, they wanted it for Maryland. They wanted it for this team. This team wanted it for them. Again, it just became, to me, this awesome, awesome vibe, this feeling, this approach to things that was really healthy and it just kind of kept driving us along.
PB: You were hired by former Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow, but she never saw you coach a single game (she left Maryland to become athletic director at North Carolina State). When you were hired, what was the conversation about?
JT: When I did meet with Debbie, there were some different things that came about. I was obviously flattered, because this is one of the most historic lacrosse programs and a great university in a state where lacrosse is so important. Are you interested? Yes, but it’s almost like if you’re dating somebody you really like, some pretty girl could walk up, but you’re just so focused on one thing that it’s hard to look at another — even though you would definitely merit the fact that, yeah, she’s pretty. My conversations with her were like, ‘Listen, Dave Cottle is one of the best coaches ever and he just got let go. He’s done a lot more than I have.’ It’s hard at a place like Maryland to hire a coach that was [5-6-1] at Harvard. You’re not going to make a lot of people happy. One of the things I mentioned to her was, if this happens, there are certain things that are really important to me. Developing young men to their full potential as people, students and players, that’s something that’s really important to me.
PB: You had to feel a certain comfort level that you could build what you wanted to build.
JT: I heard people saying, ‘Hey, I don’t think Maryland can do it.’ It had been 35 years, maybe the best years are behind them and you can’t do it. That’s probably, for me, the way I’ve always been, if somebody says you can’t do something, that all of a sudden hits your competitive spirit. You’re like, ‘Who says we can’t?’
PB: I wouldn’t wish the frustrations of your first six seasons on anyone, but how did they build the long-term resolve and character that you and your team embody?
JT: It’s always tough when you go on a journey and you get really, really far. You go the distance or you go a pretty long way and you get to a place where a lot of people aren’t able to go, you feel very blessed to get there. You realize the kids are doing a lot of things right and your staff has done a really good job, so you’re kind of close to where you want to be, but all of us are competitors; you’re never going to be satisfied coming in second or third or fourth or anywhere like that. The closer you get sometimes, the harder it is to swallow when you get there. I think all of us can relate to that.
… We try to help them along the way, but there was a lot to be excited about and, like anything, as the leader, if I’m disappointed, I’m feeling sorry for myself, the kids will basically play off of that, so you have to really grit your teeth and basically go, ‘Listen. It’s over, it’s done. We can’t change it. What can we learn? What can we do better? How can we change things?’
PB: You were an assistant at the Naval Academy, and after your first year here at Maryland, Navy kind of came after you openly and tried to hire you away, but you stayed committed to Maryland. Do you now feel after being here seven years this is your dream job and you’ll be here pretty much for the remainder of your college career?
JT: Yeah, everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve always felt like that was the last place I’d be. To me, it just immerses yourself in the place and all your focus goes there.
… What I loved about Maryland seven years ago, I still feel the same way if not stronger that it is a special place. Now, with what they’re doing, like the school just academically is even stronger than it was seven years ago. What they’re doing in the town, the academic buildings that they’re building, the athletic facilities that they’re building, the future is even stronger. Now, knowing that we are working on a culture that we are excited about, I think people are excited about what we are doing. It does feel like home and it is truly a special place and unique to itself.
PB: Women’s lacrosse head coach Cathy Reese’s office is next door. She’s had tremendous success. That must keep the bar tremendously high.
JT: I don’t know if they get enough credit for what they’ve done. You look at some of just the records that they put together and obviously all the championships speak for themselves. Their consistent excellence is, you look at what they’ve done in not only lacrosse, you look at what they’ve done relative to other athletic programs in any sport, it’s phenomenal. I look at some of the stats, her record at home, at Maryland, is absurd.
… I learn a lot from Cathy and there’s a lot of respect I have for her, her staff, how they do things. It makes it even cooler that she’s married to Brian Reese, who is a Terp. There’s a lot of support where I think sometimes there’s a jealousy between the programs. I couldn’t be happier for their success. Not only do I know how hard they work and how much they invest, I just love them to death. They’re just really good people, so you’re going to pull for them. Then you’ve got [field hockey head coach] Missy [Meharg] next door who is phenomenal. [Men’s soccer head coach] Sasho [Cirovski] is fantastic. Men’s basketball head coach [Mark Turgeon] is awesome, and you look at the amazing job [women’s volleyball coach] Steve Aird has done. I could go on and on and on. We have so many great coaches here that every day you can walk in and talk to somebody, pick up something new and get better. That’s part of the humility of all this. Missy and Cathy have won a lot of titles. We’ve done OK, they’ve done even better. I think we joked it took us 42 years to do it, Cathy’s won [11, as a player, assistant and head coach], but it’s like if I lived another 400 some-odd years, and they didn’t win one, which probably wouldn’t happen anyway, I’d have a chance to catch her. She’s done a lot more than I have. She’s running out of fingers. She’s going to have to start putting rings on her toes.
PB: Now that you’ve won a title, how different is it for you heading into 2018? With the burden of winning one out of the way, does it free you up some?
JT: … I think not having to hear that it’s been 42 years, because that’s just a distraction — and I get why people would ask it, I’m not critical of that — it’s just nice not to have to answer that question anymore.
PB: Recruiting is the lifeline of your success. You’ve never had a tough time getting good players here. But how has it changed since winning the championship?
JT: When you’re at the Final Four year after year, and with TV, we’re on the TV so much and our social media people do a great job, I think there’s a generation of kids that are seeing Maryland a lot more.
… There are a lot of kids that have always wanted to go to Maryland. We’ve been very blessed that we’ve had a national brand. We haven’t limited ourselves to only recruiting Maryland kids. We want to find the right kids in Maryland to be Terps, kids that take pride in playing for their state, guys that want to run behind that flag. Also, it is a national sport, it’s an international sport, it’s really just finding the right guys that really know what it means to be a Terp, that are going to be willing to do the things that we ask.
PB: You inherited a real solid fan base. How have you seen that grow throughout the seven-year period?
JT: I think that’s part of what you love about a place like this. It is important to our state, it’s important to Terp Nation. … What I think is really cool is, you’ll drive through a neighborhood and not only will you see an American flag, you’ll see the Maryland flag and you’ll see a goal in the backyard. To me, it’s just cool. What’s been important for us is to play a style but also have guys that people would want to support. We talk about that a lot. We want to be a group that people want to support because of the way we’re doing our business.
Issue 241: January / February 2018