Commentary

Tradition breeds success at Syracuse

Originally Published: April 6, 2011
By Roy Simmons as told to Lauren Reynolds | ESPN.com

Editor's note: The Simmons family is synonymous with Syracuse lacrosse. Roy Simmons Sr. first played for the Orange before becoming the school's second coach in the sport's history in 1931. He turned over the reigns to his former player and son, Roy Simmons Jr., in 1970. In his 28 years as Syracuse's head coach, Simmons Jr. amassed a 290-96 record, coached 130 All-Americans and led the Orange to six national championships. He shares his story with ESPN.com as part of our ongoing series, Inside The Program.

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Syracuse Athletics Roy Simmons Sr., left, got to see his son and grandsons don the Syracuse jersey.

I was born and raised in the shadow of Syracuse University. My father played at Syracuse and, after graduation, coached three sports -- football, boxing and lacrosse. As a boy, I was the mascot for a lot of the teams he coached. I would be in the locker room before the game, listening to the pregame rhetoric and philosophy, and at halftime to hear fire-and-brimstone speeches, and after the game -- win or lose. It was my life. My playground was Syracuse University athletic fields. That's how I grew up. I was always on the sideline, when all my friends were in the stands. Many kids would dream of something like that, but it's very unique. My childhood was spectacular.

Syracuse lacrosse is a family affair. Every little kid is just thrilled to be involved with the athletes. And they made a big deal out of me because I was the coach's son. They would play catch with me or tease me or give me rides on their shoulders. When my sons were young, they would shag balls at practice. My son now is the assistant coach, and his sons have been involved also. Coach John Desko's son, who now plays for him, was a ball boy when he was young. We've always had young kids on the bench, on the bus, in the locker room, in the hotel -- we've always been surrounded by youth.

It was always understood that I would play for my father. My parents decided it was best for me to go away for high school; otherwise I would never have time away from family. I came back to Syracuse to play for my father, which was an interesting experience. Then I became the freshman coach, and he was still the boss. When I became the head coach, in 1970, he sat in the stands. I coached with my dad looking over my shoulder. But he never meddled. He never came to practice; only came to games. I have two boys who sat with him in the stands when they were young and who grew to play for me also. So we had a grandfather in the stands, the ex-coach; a father on the sidelines, the head coach; and the boys on the field playing for their father, for his alma mater, with their grandfather looking down. It's a lot of pressure to play for your father, even more to play for your father with your grandfather looking down -- a man who was a legend here in town.

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Syracuse Athletics Simmons' successful career as a player and coach yielded national championships and an induction into the Hall of Fame.

I often joke about the situation when I'm asked to speak. When your family has been coaching at a school for more than 85 years, people will say it's a tradition. And I'll say, "Yes, it's a tradition, until you lose, then it's nepotism."

I was fortunate enough to play with the great Jim Brown. I was part of the undefeated team in 1957, my junior year, which featured Brown and a few other notable athletes. It was an experience only a few people were privy to. To play on an undefeated team, for your father, for an institution you love, and with the great Jim Brown. The combination of things is unsurpassable, you know?

I've coached some of game's great players. It was my privilege and it's my great memory. Six or seven are already in the Hall of Fame, many more were All-Americans. My first All-American, Brad Kotz, was one of the most coachable, brightest kids I've ever encountered in the sport. His teammate in high school, Todd Curry, was one of my favorites, and he's in the Hall of Fame also. A recent Hall of Famer, Pat McCabe, was a defensive player of the year for me and will go down as one of the greatest ever in the pro ranks.

The three Canadians -- Paul and Gary Gait and Tom Marechek -- changed the attitude of lacrosse. Their style of play, and the things they did on the field, were so unique. All three are in the Hall of Fame and are well remembered because after school, they were as important for Team Canada and in box lacrosse. They're so visible. Gary now coaches the women's team at Syracuse. Tom coaches high school lacrosse in Baltimore. Paul is a great lacrosse equipment designer. To this day, kids follow my Canadian connection. They are still revered and admired.

But the Powell brothers are every bit as important as the Gaits. Casey, Ryan and Mike followed one another, were all All-Americans and NCAA champions. And they're all still involved in the game through demonstrations and camps.

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Syracuse AthleticsSimmons' first title as head coach, in 1983, was his favorite.

I learned early on that part of the job is public relations. I remember one game, the team didn't play great, and I got some ballyhoos and comments from the crowd that weren't flattering. Some things were thrown at me and I got some criticism in the paper, and I was angry about it. I had tried my very best. Success in college sports hinges on 18-, 19-year-olds. I couldn't step on the field and I couldn't make that split-decision for them. I tried to coach them and teach them to make that decision. I was angry at the crowd, a few people who got on my case, and I fought back. Someone said to me afterward, when you step into the arena, you belong to the public. They bought that ticket, and they think they know all there is to know. And they get angry if you don't come up as a winner.

My favorite championship was my first (1983). We were down seven goals and people were leaving the stadium, saying we didn't have a chance. And we came roaring back to beat Johns Hopkins, the No. 1 team in the nation. It was very surprising, the come-from-behind finish, an upset -- and it was my first. But all six were exciting; a battle and a reward.

It's not just my family that has a tradition at Syracuse. As a coach, when I met my freshman class, I would say, "Thank you for coming to Syracuse. I'm your new coach for the next four years. And if you want to play for me, you owe me your first-born male child." And people would think "Yeah, yeah, listen to him." Do you know how many sons of players I've had come play for me? And they're still coming back, even though I'm not there. I'll see my former players in the stands, and I'll ask them what they're doing here, and they'll say "Look, there's my son with an Orange jersey on, like you said." When we won the national title in 2009, four of the 10 starters were sons of people who played for me. It comes back. Kids want to come back and play where their dad played, because their dad played for a damn good program.

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Syracuse Athletics Roy Simmons III, left, with his father, is Syracuse's director of operations and a former player and assistant coach.

Lacrosse is a game of love. The sport doesn't have the pressures of college basketball or football, where players are looking to sign million-dollar professional contracts and where careers hinge on one loss. It's just fun to play, there's no fortune to be made in it. People play it because they love it. The only pressure is self-imposed.

The game has treated me well my whole life. I witnessed my father go into the Hall of Fame. I followed him in there with my son at one side and my father at my other. I feel very privileged that my father lived long enough to see me win championships and be inducted into the Hall of Fame with him.

The Simmons tradition at Syracuse will end with this generation. My grandson is called Roy Simmons IV, and that's heavy, to have a legendary great-grandfather, a grandfather who is in the Hall of Fame, and a father who is a coach. I think it's about time to break the cycle. Roy Simmons IV will be going to Hartwick College in the fall. I think he'll be very successful.

Lauren Reynolds is a college sports editor for ESPN.com. She can be reached at lauren.k.reynolds@espn.com.

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