Commentary

Father-son duo enjoy Pioneers' success

Originally Published: May 25, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The man whose grand life plan was to become a high school football coach and a phys ed teacher instead has hoisted six NCAA championship trophies, won a world championship and landed himself in his sport's hall of fame.

Yet, for all of that glory, the moment that stands out to Bill Tierney came Saturday afternoon at Hofstra. Only a few miles away from Levittown N.Y., where he grew up, Tierney celebrated his Denver team's 14-9 win over Johns Hopkins and berth in the NCAA lacrosse Final Four.

Bill Tierney
John Babb/DU AthleticsBill Tierney won five national championships at Princeton before taking over at upstart Denver.

Right before total chaos broke out, in those waning few minutes as the clock ticked down, Tierney took a minute to look over at his assistant coach.

"When we knew the game was somewhat over, I looked over at Trevor and said, 'You know, this is really cool,''' Tierney said. "It was an incredibly special moment.''

That would be Trevor as in Trevor Tierney, the man in charge of Denver's defense and Bill Tierney's oldest child.

To say Bill Tierney moved clear across the country, ditching the safety net of an established program at Princeton for the start-up opportunity at Denver, simply to coach with his son would be too simplistic. The high-energy Papa Tierney needed a new windmill to tilt, a new challenge to master and the Pioneers, with their tricked-out facilities and statewide passion for the game, offered the perfect opportunity.

But certainly having a chance to reunite with Trevor, who was then working with the Denver Outlaws, the professional team in town, was more than an added bonus. Father and son combined for two national championships at Princeton, and Trevor was named the 2001 goalie of the year.

Except a funny thing happened on the way to the twilight of Bill Tierney's career: He changed. The man who is cemented in his ways, who averages a popped gasket a quarter, took a step back and reconsidered.

And he has his son to thank for it.

"The best thing about being with Trevor is he singlehandedly changed me coaching-wise,'' Bill Tierney said. "I'm still a raving maniac but he's helped me see the big picture, to understand what I can control and what I can't control.''

Asked about the new, mellower version of his father, Trevor laughs. "Has he mellowed? No. No, he hasn't mellowed, but he's open to new ideas.''

Those new ideas -- using yoga for stretching and centering -- aren't necessarily new to most present-day athletes, but they are borderline New Age hippie to a man who has been in coaching for more than two decades.

But while he hasn't entirely immersed himself -- "No, no yoga for me. My body would fall apart,'' he said -- Bill has turned over the keys to such additional training and conditioning to Trevor.

The oldest of his four children, Trevor always has been a thinker. An academic All-American at Princeton, he majored in psychology and wrote his senior thesis on athletes thinking in the zone. Mixing that knowledge with his own experiences as a professional, Trevor carved out a sort of Zen approach to coaching. He set up regular yoga courses for the Pioneers and, before games, told them to concentrate on winning scenarios.

"My dad calls it visualization, but it's really more focus work,'' Trevor said. "It's just a quick sit down, breathe and really get focused as a group.''

Not even the greatest soothsayer could envision what Denver has done under the Tierneys in two seasons. Though the geographical boundaries of the game have stretched well beyond the traditional Northeast reach, Colorado remained something of the Wild Wild West for lacrosse. The Pioneers joined the Division I ranks in 1999 and remain just one of two teams west of the Mississippi.

They enjoyed moderate success for a start-up team, making two NCAA appearances under previous coach Jamie Munro, but they lost both of those first-round games.

[+] EnlargeDenver lacrosse
AP Photo/Kathy KmonicekHaving reached the Final Four, Tierney's efforts at Denver could have a bigger impact on the sport.

Then along comes Bill Tierney, who more or less birthed the lacrosse tradition at Princeton. In the four seasons before he arrived, the Tigers were 12-46. Four years later, Princeton elbowed its way into the game's elite, winning the national championship in 1992. Title No. 2 followed in 1994 and then Princeton ran off three in a row, in 1996, 1997 and 1998, with another coming in 2001.

The turnaround came a lot quicker at Denver. In his first season, the Pioneers went 12-5, earning their third NCAA bid in program history and now in Year 2 the school that previously had only one sport reach a Final Four (ice hockey) has its second.

And along the way, Bill has relearned just how much fun this winning thing is. Lofting the trophies never got old but certainly the pressure to keep hoisting them did. He remembered returning to his home after his first title in 1992 to find a magnum of champagne sitting on his front step courtesy of the Princeton president.

"And then with the next one it was a really nice bottle of wine and then a smaller bottle of wine and then after the fifth, I'm not sure there was anything,'' he said. "And that's OK. You understand how that happens. It becomes expected when you're in a situation of such high quality, the best of the best. But here, everyone is so excited. Part of me never wants this na´vetÚ to go away and another part of me wants us to be disappointed, to be upset when we don't achieve.''

That na´vetÚ could quickly turn to greed this Memorial Day weekend, the novelty of making the Final Four quickly replaced by the desire to win the whole thing and then do it all over again.

The good news, win or lose, pressure or freedom, Bill Tierney won't have to go it alone.

He's brought his son along to enjoy the ride.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

Dana O'Neil | email

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