A reluctant spotlight shines on Bill Tierney during Denver's title run

PHILADELPHIA -- In an epic moment for his sport, for his program and for his own career, Denver lacrosse coach Bill Tierney did not make like Jim Valvano, seeking out someone to hug. He didn't, in fact, really move.

Instead as the final seconds counted down on the Pioneers' 10-5 win over Maryland and first lacrosse national championship, Tierney simply unfurled himself from his customary sideline crouch as his assistant coaches swept him up in a euphoric hug.

And then, as his Denver players spent the next 40 minutes dancing around the Lincoln Financial Field, giddily celebrating the Pioneers' pioneering title, Tierney deflected more shots than his stand-on-his-head goalkeeper, Ryan LaPlante.

When photographers asked him to pose with the national championship trophy, he called over a player to pose alongside him.

When someone handed him a pair of scissors to clip the net out of the cage, he quickly passed them off to his co-captains, instructing them to get the job started.

When the team gathered on the dais to pose for a picture, he reluctantly joined in only after his players called him over, sneaking in on the side as if he were an assistant towel boy.

And when one of his players embraced him in a bear hug, whispering, 'Love you, Coach. You did it,' Tierney quickly corrected him.

"No, we did it."

He was so insistent that none of Denver's title be about him that when asked about the whirlwind Final Four weekend, his first response was to explain how his eldest daughter, Courtney, got engaged in the parking lot following the semifinal win over Notre Dame on Saturday afternoon.

"Her fiancé wanted to do it at halftime [of the semifinal], but my wife wouldn't let him," he said. "The game was too close."

And so perhaps what follows ought to come with an apology to the coach, because though he will hate to read it, and will never believe it, let alone admit it, this is all about him.

Denver lacrosse, the Pioneers' national title, lacrosse's official move out of its East Coast comfort zone, it is all about Bill Tierney.

Wesley Berg, who scored five goals in the title game, officially earned most outstanding player in the title game. But Tierney is the MVP.

He is the first man to win a lacrosse title at two Division I schools, and the first coach to collect seven championship rings.

And that's not even the half of it.

Two weeks ago, he coached his first NCAA tournament game in snow -- because, until Tierney, lacrosse made about as much sense in Colorado as a bobsled team in Jamaica.

There are no deep recruiting roots to cull from, no established regional rivalries. The Pioneers compete in the Big East, which even by the geographical marvels of the latest conference alignment world challenges the imagination.

The team, either as a club or varsity sport, has been around for 40-plus years, but didn't go Division I until 1999.

And that's why Tierney left Princeton, and its six national championship banners, behind.

A stunning decision? More like lunacy, it seemed. But Tierney is more tightly wound than the innards of a Super Ball. He thrives on challenges (the notion that the 63-year-old would retire after this title is downright laughable to anyone who knows him even a little bit), and even more he feels a deep commitment and responsibility to the game of lacrosse.

This was a chance to not just make a mark on a school, but also maybe change the face of the game.

"I hope this gives some athletic directors the courage, instead of hiding behind cost and Title IX, saying that this is a sport that's here to stay," Tierney said. "I'm hoping that other people finally say, 'You know what? Let's do this thing.'"

The real pull to Denver, though, was family. Tierney and his wife, Helen, have four kids. At the time of the move, his oldest son, Trevor, was living and playing in Colorado, trying to do his own bit to grow the game. His second son, Brendan, was working with Nike in Oregon.

It was Trevor who first came to him with the crazy notion to move to Denver and coach the team.

The two had partnered for a national championship at Princeton, Trevor winning All-America honors as the Tigers' goalie, but this would be a different sideline partnership.

"Having him with me, it just makes it that much more special," Bill Tierney said of his son.

Tierney met with Denver athletic director Peg Bradley-Doppes and later with Dan Ritchie, the school's former chancellor and longtime beneficiary.

"Dan helped me recruit Bill. He met with me and took me out for a cup of coffee," Bradley-Doppes said. "And then he took Bill out for a cup of coffee."

It was some strong brew.

Lacrosse's growth has been chronicled for years now, but the idea that it could really fly -- not just exist, but succeed -- westward took more than just blind faith; it took an investment.

As much as Tierney had to be willing to take the risk, Denver had to be willing to make the commitment. The school did, turning Tierney into the highest-paid coach in his profession, trusting him to be the architect of the impossible.

"It's not a risk when you have Coach T as your coach," Bradley-Doppes said. "He's the best coach in the game.

"And now look at all this," she added, motioning to the fans behind her. "Now we've got believers."

Tierney was always a believer, a Pioneer coach with a pioneering mindset even before he got to Denver.

Princeton wasn't Princeton before he arrived. The Ivy League team had no real lacrosse history, either. And then four years after he was hired, the Tigers were lofting their first national title in, of all places, Philadelphia -- down the road from Lincoln Financial Field at Franklin Field.

Another came in 1994, and then there was a three-peat from 1996 to 1998, following by a last title, in 2001.

The 1997 team, a squad that finished 15-0 and routed Maryland 19-7 in the championship game (still the largest margin of victory in a title game) was in stands on Monday. Fans elected that Princeton team the "Champions of Champions," earning 55 percent of an online vote.

The real champion of champions, though, is the reluctant center of attention, Bill Tierney.

As the celebration ended, he lined up behind Trevor to shake hands with the Terrapins, then turned to answer a few brief questions.

"Surreal, this is surreal," he said. "These players and these fans -- look at them -- who came from god knows where to be here. They believed we could do this. It's about them."

Sorry, coach. No, it's not.

This one is about you.