Editor’s Note: This is #9 in our ten-part series on “What if’s” that could have happened in the Terps athletic history over the past ten years.
Maryland is know for having a great lacrosse program, both men’s and women’s. There long standing rivalries, a deep tradition of winning. I didn’t grow up in Maryland, and didn’t know much about lacrosse until I got to Maryland in the Fall of 2006. Quickly, I began hearing about Maryland’s great lacrosse program, and how it always competitive every year.
Lacrosse isn’t a nation wide support, and many schools don’t have a lacrosse program. The Big Ten had to add one more program (Johns Hopkins) to gain an automatic NCAA bid even after adding Maryland and Rutgers. The lacrosse footprint is the east coast, evident by the top programs and areas they recruit. But this doesn’t take way from how competitive lacrosse is with the schools who do have programs.
While I kept hearing about how great the Maryland program was, and the support they had, I was shocked to learn that the last National Championship was in 1975. Since then Maryland’s biggest rivals (Johns Hopkins, Duke, and Virginia) have won a combined 14 National Championships.
While they haven’t been winning National Championships, Maryland has still been competitive. Maryland made the Final Four in 2003, 2005, and 2006 before losing in the Semi-Finals. In 2004, Maryland won the ACC Regular Season and ACC Tournament championship. While for most programs, these would be great accomplishments, for Maryland it was not enough. After the 2010 season, coach David Cottle resigned, by some accounts it was a mutual split between Maryland and Cottle. The expectations were for a deep NCAA run, he didn’t deliver, and was asked to step down.
Following David Cottle’s resignation, Maryland hired John Tillman. The former Harvard coach, signed a 7 year deal to be the Terrapins head coach. While his 20-19 record at Harvard may alarm some, his recruiting ability was a major selling point. He was able to get the #3 recruiting class to Harvard in his first season as the coach. The record, I believe is misleading since he was not there for an extended period of time. I do not believe that Tillman got time with his strong recruiting classes to fully build the program he envisioned. He did led Harvard to their first win over Princeton since 1990 during the 2010 season.
Coach Tillman knew that coming to Maryland presented a lot more pressure than at Harvard. But a relentless recruiter with top facilities, a tradition rich program, and the ACC at his disposal was tough to turn down. Even with bigger expectations, the job provides the right coach with enough material to succeed.
Tillman experienced immediate success in his first season at Maryland. He went 8-3 in the regular season, losing to Duke and Hopkins in overtime and to North Carolina. However, the first year coach got the last laugh. In the ACC Tournament, Maryland beat North Carolina and then Duke to win their first ACC Tournament since 2005. The success continued against the two North Carolina schools. Maryland defeated UNC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, followed by Syracuse to advance to the Final Four. The Baltimore held Final Four pitted Maryland vs Duke, another win for the Terrapins over the Blue Devils. An amazing run came to an end with a 9-7 loss to Virginia in the championship game. The end result wasn’t what we hoped for as fans, but a promising start for the first year coach nonetheless.
The following season also featured a 3 loss regular season, as the Terps finished 7-3. They did continue the success over their rival Blue Devils, and also beat Georgetown. In the regular season finale, Tillman notched his first victory in the Maryland-Johns Hopkins Rivalry. The Blue Devils rebounded in the ACC Tournament and knocked off Tillman’s Terps 6-5 in the first round. But as is the theme, the Terps got their revenge in the NCAA Tournament. Maryland beat Lehigh and Johns Hopkins (in Annapolis) to advance to their second straight Final Four. In the Semi-Finals they defeated Duke 16-10 and advanced to face #1 Loyola. But for the second year in a row Maryland came up short in the Championship game, losing 9-3 to Loyola.
While this was a great start to Coach Tillmans career at Maryland, there is still the thought of what if John Tillman broke the National Championship drought in his first or second season. The expectations for Maryland lacrosse are high, but winning National Championship eases many of those expectations.
Remember how untouchable Gary Williams became after he won a national championship, Tillman would have reached that level, and done so at the beginning of his career. This past season, Maryland was ranked preseason #1 and undefeated until March 23 when they lost to North Carolina. This started a downward fall for the Terps. What was once a promising season ended with a first round NCAA Tournament loss to Cornell.
Despite the failure of this previous season, Tillman remains in good shape at Maryland. But with 4 years left on his deal and the hot start he got off too, things could get sticky for the promising lacrosse coach. The expectations are too win a title, and Tillman almost did that twice in his first two seasons, but if he fails to reach the title game in the next 4 years, I’m not sure how much longer his time in College Park will be.
Now in this scenario, Maryland has won one of these National Championship games. Let say its the first one against Virginia. Tillman would find himself with not the just the tradition, facilities, and Under Armour to sell to recruits, but he would have a title and the love of the fan base. Tillman would have elevated himself into the upper level of Maryland Athletics. Even with the uncertainty of the move to the Big Ten, Tillman would have firmly cemented himself not only at the University of Maryland, but in the state as well. Victories over Johns Hopkins and Virginia are huge, doing them in Annapolis and Baltimore are icing on the cake.
Coach Tillman, and his staff still have a lot to sell to recruits even without the National Championship. Maryland has shown a commitment to lacrosse despite tough times financially. The move to Big Ten takes away some of the lure of Maryland lacrosse, but with the money it brings, the lacrosse program is sure to benefit. Having the title under his belt though, creates more urgency to help the lacrosse program. Everyone wants more, and winning one title despite how long of a drought it has been, would leave people wanting another one soon. But with the additional revenue of a National Championship and more alumni support, Tillman would be able to add more visibility to his program with upgraded facilities.
Yes, Tillman still has the full backing of the Athletic Department, alumni, and Under Armour. However, everything would have increased if he had won a National Championship in 2011. The drought would have ended at 36 years, and not only would he have the title, he would also have the ACC Tournament championship as well. Tillman would be in class of his own in Maryland men’s lacrosse. With the new athletic department having just taken over, there would be the potential of extending his contract right away, just to ensure that Maryland couldn’t lose Tillman to anyone else.
As it stands now, Tillman has accomplished a lot in only three years. Two National Championship games, an ACC Tournament, and a #1 ranking are all major accomplishments. But winning the National Championship changes it all. Tillman has a lot of time left and has been great on the recruiting trail, but for Maryland lacrosse, everything comes back to the 1975 National Title. Without that piece of hardware, John Tillman is just another Maryland lacrosse coach chasing after lofty goals.