Legendary Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala says it was a privilege to lead his alma mater for 20 years but thought it was best for him and the school to move on since they didn’t share the same vision for how to move the program forward.
Pietramala, 53, led the Blue Jays to 18 NCAA Tournament appearances, seven Final Fours and two national championships (2005 and 2007) and finished 207-93 as the head coach at Hopkins. Considered one of the best defensemen ever, Pietramala played for the Jays from 1986-1989 and was part of the Jays’ championship squad in 1987. He’s the only person to win Division I lacrosse titles as a player and coach.
But Pietramala’s contract was up at the end of the 2020 season, forcing a decision about the future of the program. Hopkins, having won nine NCAA Tournaments and appeared in 29 Final Fours, faces some of the highest expectations in the sport, and the Jays have been to just one Final Four since 2009.
“In this situation we just felt like our ships weren’t sailing in the exact same direction,” Pietramala said on Glenn Clark Radio April 17. “The way we were moving forward wasn’t in the same direction, and we just felt like it was mutually beneficial and best for the young men in the program to move in our separate directions. I’ve had 20 years as the head coach and I don’t regret one of them. I’ve been blessed. I desperately already miss our guys and love them to death, but they’re going to move on.”
Hopkins was 2-4 when the 2020 season came to an end due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with wins against Towson and Mount St. Mary’s and losses to Loyola, North Carolina, Princeton and Syracuse. The Jays were set to begin Big Ten play against Michigan March 28 and renew its rivalry with Maryland April 25.
Last year, the Jays played their best lacrosse at the end of the season, beating the Terps twice and losing, 18-17, to eventual national runner-up Penn State in the Big Ten tournament title game. Had the 2020 season not been canceled due to the pandemic, could Hopkins have gotten better at the year went on, possibly leading to a different outcome for Pietramala?
The coach said he didn’t have a “crystal ball” to know what would have happened had the season played out, but he stressed the decision was based on multiple factors.
“I caution you not to look at things singularly. You have to look at this holistically. It’s not just about wins and losses,” Pietramala said. “It’s about vision and where you see things going and how you see getting there. As I said, we mutually agreed that we were kind of different places there. I want to make sure I keep saying this because it’s so important to me that people know I always want what’s best for these kids. We decided it was best to move our separate ways.”
Whoever steps in for Pietramala will be trying to recapture the success Hopkins had in the 2000s in a different lacrosse landscape. In Pietramala’s first eight years on the job (2001-2008), the Jays went to the Final Four six times (and were 88-25 overall). During that time, the sport was dominated by Hopkins, Syracuse, Princeton, Virginia and Duke.
Since then, the sport has grown nationally, with more schools seeking to compete at a high level and more recruits choosing to attend non-traditional lacrosse schools like Denver. And for Hopkins, joining the Big Ten ahead of the 2015 season meant that the program was suddenly competing directly with big-time football schools like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State that can pour resources into their lacrosse programs.
The Jays have gone 49-38 since joining the Big Ten ahead of the 2015 season. Pietramala says winning at the highest level is every coach’s expectation, but the realities of the current lacrosse landscape suggest that national title contention is more cyclical than in the past.
“What’s happening in our sport is resources are poured in,” Pietramala said. “When I played, there was no Duke. Georgetown wasn’t who they are now. Princeton wasn’t the same. Now … there’s Notre Dame, there’s Denver, there’s all these other schools. That’s what you’re seeing is you’re seeing growth, and with that growth comes more parity.”
Pietramala, whose head coaching career began at Cornell (1998-2000), says he wants to continue coaching but that his priority right now is to “take a deep breath, be a better dad because I’m around [more], be a better partner for my girlfriend, and then wait and see what unfolds.” Pietramala’s sons, Dominic and Nicholas, attend Boys’ Latin, and the twins were set to begin their sophomore seasons with the Lakers before spring sports were shut down.
Pietramala said his sons will remain at Boys’ Latin regardless of whether he ends up coaching locally or not. Eventually, would Pietramala want to coach at his sons at a yet-to-be-determined college? He joked that it didn’t go well when he helped out at a club practice one time, but the answer is yes.
“It would be my dream to have an opportunity to coach my two sons, but what’s most important is what’s best for them and what they want,” Pietramala said. “We’ll see if they have the good fortune of being able to play at that level and they have those opportunities, but I look forward to being around them a little bit more right now, enjoying them. They’re here with me right now. We’ll see where this thing takes us.”
For more from Pietramala, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Athletics