Coach rules

 

by Glenn Brownstein

So the Saints have a new coach, former Collingwood assistant Scott Watters. By all accounts, he’s a little more of a players’ coach, and a little more marketing- and community-minded, all necessary qualities. If he can just keep the Saints out of the police blotter until NAB Cup time, that alone would be great. But how will he do next year? Who knows? I do know that the right coach, inserted into even the most seemingly hopeless situation, can work wonders. And I know this from personal experience.

 

It was my sophomore year at MIT. And before us on that wintry night stood our new lacrosse coach. He wasn’t much older than us; maybe mid-20s. And he has no idea what he’s getting into, we all agreed.

 

Walt Alessi had been a star lacrosse player in the late 1960s for the University of Massachusetts, one of the top small-college teams in the USA, and then a successful coach at a couple of New England high schools. And so what drew him to MIT, a school known for its brains and never its brawn?

 

Worse, we had lost 29 games in a row over nearly three seasons, coached by a gruff, old-school martinet who conducted drills and practices with little emotion and seemingly far less enthusiasm.

 

Our school had a lot of serious jocks, too, maybe trying to disprove all the stereotypes about nerdly scientists and engineers. We didn’t have a football (gridiron) team, so we drew from high school football players who loved the contact and all-around athletic types to go with about a dozen or so with actual lacrosse experience. And a handful of those had actually been stars for their high school teams.

 

My freshman year, the mood was dismal. Our schedule was way too ambitious – we were blown out by the major-college teams and competitive but undermanned against the smaller schools. Any adversity quickly mushroomed into disaster, with the old coach chewing out players for mistakes or withdrawing into sullen silence. Confidence was in short supply. Our best chance to win came against Amherst, a game played in a monsoon rain with gusty winds when no one could see straight or keep their footing. That soggy, sloshy 4-1 loss was the highlight of the season.

 

By midseason, though, the word had gotten out that the old coach was retiring. And that kept everyone going – wait until next year. And now it was next year, and there stood coach Alessi. He promised a more dynamic offense and defense, more fun, more camaraderie. He told us we could win and we would win – right away (!): “The (losing) streak ends here,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “No more talk of that. We’ll turn this around together.” We didn’t really believe him, but just one meeting with this animated, friendly, wisecracking, unshakeably upbeat guy cracked our pessimism just a little.

 

The next week I was hanging around the athletic office and stumbled onto the plan. Coach Alessi had a Lacrosse Guide in his hand, paging through the directory of teams, talking to our business manager. “Kean, they were 2-10 last year…can we get them up here from New Jersey? Probably too far. How about Swarthmore? They won one game. Philly? Nope. Norwich? Close enough in Vermont, but a military school. Not for an opener, but maybe later in the season. Anybody starting a new program?”

 

His goal was to find a win. First he found a wonderful motivator – a spring trip to Miami – but he also installed a fast-moving, crossing attack and stressed physical defense. And a ton of conditioning. And a ready smile, a ton of optimism and good-natured wisecracks, all delivered in a thick Boston brogue.

 

And he seemed completely at ease with the unusual requirements of an MIT education – classes ALWAYS came first. So some players would arrive an hour late some days because of a lab or a research project or exam. Or miss practice altogether.

 

Coach had two rules. And only two rules: When you come to work out or practice or play, you give 100 percent. And you respect your teammate like a brother, also 100 percent.

 

Most everyone bought in; who wouldn’t? And everyone who bought in stayed on the roster. So instead of having 20-25 players, we had 40. The team bonded in Florida and even got an unofficial 10-7 win over Miami as our sophomore goaltender made a zillion saves. And then came the opener. The opponent was Rochester, playing their second game in their first varsity season. The research had paid off. It was 4-1 after a quarter, 9-4 at the half, 12-8 at the end. The streak was over. And we were his. The first miracle, as it were.

 

That first season wasn’t great – we had too many games against major-college teams way out of our league, but we always played hard. If you were dogging it, you came out and never came back in; and woe be to you at practice the next day and beyond (rule #1). Only a couple people chose to test him – including one of our best players, who sat almost an entire game after not hustling after a loose ball. That got the point across.

 

And he was always looking for an edge for a team that didn’t have many. One memorable Saturday morning we awakened to three inches of snow covering the lacrosse field. I assumed a postponement, but when I stopped by the athletic office, I was handed a shovel and a box of corner flags by Coach Alessi.

 

“Oh, we’re playing,” he announced. “But we’ve got to find the sidelines and the field markings and then the corners to put in the flags. And then sweep off the field and clear off the benches.” Anyone who came by that morning with even a remote connection to the team was deputized to make the field playable. And Coach was out there with us – all three hours — planting corner flags and shoveling lines and driving a lawn truck with a board attached to sweep off the snow.

 

The opponent was Boston College, a local powerhouse, and the thought was we’d have a better chance on a slippery, frozen field – we had practiced many times in the snow already as we had no indoor facility. And then 10 minutes before game time it started to snow and sleet again. Alas, BC took a 7-0 lead in a quarter and a half en route to a 12-5 win. Coach, as always, put the best face on the effort: “Guys, if we’d played them on a nice day, it’d have been 20-3. This was our best chance.” And we’d all pitched in – and that was his point.

 

We had no such advantage in most of our other games and finished 3-9. But the next year the schedule was more realistic, and we went 4-8 and kept it close in just about every loss. The following year we beat major-college William & Mary, lost a close one to nationally ranked North Carolina State and went 8-4. Our goaltender was an All-American. Coach was regional coach of the year.

 

Better yet, everyone hung out together. Went to lunch between classes, went to games and parties, formed study and project groups together, worked out together, shared activities. Every season started with a spring trip – one year to New Jersey and New York, the next to Virginia and North Carolina. The postseason banquet was always at Coach’s house. During the season, Coach’s door was always open for a problem or a question, or a suggestion on how to do things better. Except that Coach was never in his office – he’d be roaming the athletic building, schmoozing with secretaries and equipment guys, or walking around campus greeting everyone in his path.

 

The year after I graduated MIT went to the NCAA small-college tournament. Two years later he was a finalist for national coach of the year.

 

Next spring will be his 38th season. We all keep up with the team’s exploits through a chatty, narrative newsletter – he emails more than 200 former players and managers before the season, after every game (for 35 years!) and occasionally otherwise through the year. The annual alumni game – started my senior year – usually draws 25-30 players, some from the earliest days. A dinner to celebrate his 25th year drew more than 150 former players and managers. We still trade emails about all sorts of stuff; we meet for lunch whenever I’m in town; it’s like old times in an instant.

 

He’s still got just two rules. If he’s ever had a bad day, no one has seen it. He’s got a kind word for everyone. And those of us around at the beginning tell people he hasn’t changed in all those years.

 

So good luck to Scott Watters and all of us who barrack for the Saints. It may be too much to expect a dramatic turnaround of all that has gone wrong, but I’ve seen it happen in the most unlikely places. And I’m ready to find out if it can happen again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Glenn Brownstein

I'm a red, white and blue supporter of the red, white and black who became a footy fan through ESPN telecasts in the 1980s and a buddy who founded the American version of the game. Yup, I chose the Saints, but I'd like to think they chose me, too.

Comments

  1. Great story and good life messages, Glenn.
    But for the Saints – snow would be a good start. Rig the draw to play only bad teams (Eagles got that one to work in 2011) – just not sure who next year’s bad teams will be.
    Move back to Moorabin and turn the sprinklers on every Friday might be the go.

  2. Andrew Fithall says:

    A wonderful story beautifully told Glenn. While interested in the coaching aspect, I am very interested to get your perspective on lacrosse in the US. Apparently it has always been strong in the East, but I understand there is significant growth elsewhere, particularly the West coast, at high school level, which is flowing through to college and professional. Do you still have any connection to the sport?

    Andrew

  3. Hi Glenn, great story and a great read. I love that you’re all still in contact and he’s still there. He sounds an amazing coach. I have been feeling very hopeful with Scotty as a Coach. I like that he’s totally different and he’s got something to prove for himself as well as the club, and the Club, for once, made a thoughtful, considered decision and didn’t jump with the heart. I am sad to see Robert Harvey go, but the experience will make him more ready for the next round. If you look on the Saints Website, there’s an “interview” with Nick Reiwoldt and Scotty Watters. Very cute.

    Moreso, I look forward to playing more younger players, letting the older ones compete for their spots with no guarantees, that Nick R and Brendon G have both had successful surgeries, we get Lenny Hayes back and we get the very good James Gwilt back, so who knows what Scotty can make of this lot. It will be fun to wait and see and I am feeling more excited at the possibility of a much more attacking game. Keep the defensive structure, but attackl, attack attack….I think that next year will be exciting for a whole lot of reasons, all the new coaches but also, Reiwoldt is right when he said that Geelong came back for another premiership with a new coach and some tweeking, so lets all hope that the Saints bring some of what you guys bought to lacrosse, a different attitude tothe work.

    Keep well and happy off season.

    BTW, I’m planning a trip to the states at the end of next year and I’d love to pop by and see some local sports. I’m going to write and paint and draw my way around the States for as long as I can…..Give us a hoy if you are heading this way too

    Yvette

  4. Andrew, lacrosse has grown quite a bit over here. When I was in school it was just a regional sport, from roughly New England to Washington, DC, but now high school lacrosse is played in about 40 states. At last count there were about 3,200 boys and 2,500 girls high school teams, and about 280 men’s and 360 women’s university teams. That it’s fairly inexpensive is attractive to a lot of schools, too.

    Here in the Louisville, KY, area (we’re about the same size as Adelaide), we have a dozen boys and a dozen girls’ teams. The University of Louisville has a women’s team and Bellarmine University a men’s team, and several smaller universities field men’s or women’s teams, too. So we have a small but growing lacrosse community.

    I should put in a plug for my other alma mater, Northwestern U. (master’s, journalism), which has won six of the last seven NCAA women’s titles. For two years, their best player was Hannah Nielsen (from Adelaide), twice named best women’s player in the nation.

    My connection these days is as an active spectator when I can, catching games on TV, religiously reading (and sometimes commenting on) all of the newsletters from our coach and keeping in touch with some old teammates (primarily our star goaltender, who at 56 still plays in a masters league in the Baltimore area!). Somewhere in a closet is my old stick, probably twice as heavy as the ones now. I bet with a little practice I could still throw and catch OK.

    Look forward to reading about more lacrosse down your way.

    Glenn

  5. Yvette,
    Sometimes players just tune out a coach after awhile. And I’ve got to think that the two near-misses had an effect, but the Saints have always struck me as a team that thrived on belief more than talent — that their structure and style would pull them through, that they would succeed by sheer force of will and effort. And for two years that worked, just not for a premiership.
    But combine an unpleasant offseason, slow start and key injuries, and there’s not enough belief to go around. And the coach’s words start to ring a little hollow. I thought losing Lenny Hayes was a killer, because he’s a team leader whose effort and drive is unquestioned. And I don’t know that anyone ever filled that void.
    So maybe a new regime and a new plan will invigorate everyone, including the supporter base. No one wants a repeat of this past season. This seems a good way to ensure that.
    Oh, and as for your trip, you should try to spend some time in the middle as well as on the coasts. If you’ve got Kentucky on your itinerary, make sure it’s when the horse racing tracks Churchill Downs (Louisville) or Keeneland (Lexington) are running. Churchill is open late April-early July and in November; Keeneland in April and October. The horse country is as beautiful as advertised. If you plan to be anywhere near us, let us know. We hope to revisit Australia in early 2013. Certainly we’ll keep everyone posted.
    And thanks for your artistic contributions to this site. Great fun. It’s wonderful to find all these passionate footy (and cricket, rugby, horse racing, lacrosse, etc.) fans here.

    Glenn

  6. Medium Dazza says:

    “Better yet, everyone hung out together. Went to lunch between classes, went to games and parties, formed study and project groups together, worked out together, shared activities”

    You can’t accuse the Saints of not participating in ‘shared activities’ – that might be part of their problem.

  7. Stephanie Holt says:

    wonderful story and great insights into the college system and coaching mindset.

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