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After 7 brilliant years with Maryland men’s lacrosse, John Tillman finally has his championship

It’s been a long time coming for the Terps’ head coach, but he’s cemented his legacy in the history books.

NCAA Lacrosse: Men's Championships Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

When John Tillman took the reigns of Maryland men’s lacrosse in 2010, he took over a program that had lost its footing among the college lacrosse elites.

The Terps hadn’t played in a championship game since 1998, and blue-bloods such as Virginia, Johns Hopkins and Syracuse were busy adding multiple national titles to their trophy cases.

Tillman led Maryland to a championship game in his first year at the helm, and would make four title appearances between 2011 and 2016. While the Terps came back empty-handed every time, that’s all part of the process in the eyes of the Cornell alum.

“I don't define how we're doing with winning or losing exclusively,” Tillman said after the 2017 national championship game. “Sure, you want to win games, but we're doing some other good things. Every single one of our seniors just graduated. That is the stuff that's most important to me.

“I feel like if we're doing all of the personal development, and developing young people the right way, it leads to a championship; a winning mentality that carries over on the field.”

That winning mentality developed to its fullest by season’s end, when Maryland beat Ohio State in the 2017 NCAA men’s lacrosse championship to end the program’s 42-year title drought. While it’s the ending Maryland fans had been waiting for since 1975, it’s an ending Tillman didn’t let consume his life.

“I never, for me personally, focus on the end result,” Tillman said. “We really focus on the process. We feel like the outcome is a byproduct of what you do every day.”

NCAA Lacrosse: Men's Championships
Tillman and Ohio State coach Nick Myers after the title game.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

When the seven-year process finally reached its destination, Maryland could once again embody the team’s motto to “Be the Best.” It had been long overdue.

Since Bud Beardmore led Maryland to the mountaintop in 1975, the program saw three different coaches over the span of nearly three decades. Dino Mattessich, Dick Edell and Dave Cottle combined for 24 NCAA Tournament berths, but zero trophies to show for it.

Enter Tillman, a fresh face in the head coaching circles of college lacrosse and relatively unproven to that point. After a successful tenure at Navy as the head assistant coach, Harvard named him the head coach for the 2008 season. He went 6-8 in his first year with the Crimson, but brought in the third-best recruiting class in the country to go 8-5 in 2009. After a 6-6 season in 2010, Tillman finished a three-year span at Harvard with an underwhelming 20-19 record.

Still, the university saw something in Tillman, rolling the dice and luring him away from Harvard with the security of a seven-year head coaching contract.

Tillman had a lot to prove when he first came to College Park. With just three years of head coaching experience and finishing just a game over .500 with a middle-tier Ivy League program, Tillman was now tasked with eventually ending the championship heartache that plagued Maryland.

Since his arrival, the Terps have gone 96-29 with six Final Four appearances and a national championship. Maryland has grown as a program, and it’s been headed by Tillman’s growth as a coach.

NCAA Lacrosse: Men's Championships Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Tillman has developed a moderate style of coaching unique in itself, one that combines the characteristics of two of college football’s best.

The Corning, New York native says his staff does “a lot of Nick Saban-type stuff,” which brings to mind qualities like methodical, regimented and disciplined. But Tillman doesn’t shy away from the lighter side of things either, like making tattoo bets with his players, allowing long jam sessions on bus trips or taking shots at his team’s taste in music.

“Maybe sliding in a little bit more Dabo Swinney-type stuff. He's pretty loose with his guys. I think he lets his hair down,” Tillman said.

Modeling his coaching after the two coaches that led their programs to the 2017 College Football Championship isn’t a bad place to start. From a performance standpoint, this healthy mix between two ends of the spectrum creates a sense of compromise, and established a two-way trust between player and coach.

When he first came in, there were 17 seniors on a roster Tillman had no part in building. Tillman put his moderate approach in motion by altering the language of the team and introducing a containment-type defense instead of bringing in a whole new system with him.

“I think that balancing act of not frustrating the seniors to the point where they didn’t want to play for you and putting in his two cents have really worked out,” fifth-year senior Brian Farrell said.

Patrick Stevens, The Washington Times (2011)

Not only has Tillman’s containment-style defense stood the test of time, his ability to listen and compromise has carried with him through the years, too.

“If Isaiah [Davis-Allen] goes, ‘Coach, we need to back off on practice and go shorter,’ we go shorter. If the guys want to do some different things, then we do it,” Tillman said.

Having the wherewithal to listen to others and adjust accordingly is the mark of leadership, and adjusting is something Tillman made a regular part of his repertoire.

The end product that beat Ohio State for the title was far different than the one at the beginning of the season, and that’s because Tillman was never afraid to switch his game plan. Insanity is said to be doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, so Tillman anticipated when change was needed and executed.

Coming off an impressive freshman campaign, sophomore Austin Henningsen looked like the every-draw starter at the faceoff. When inconsistency struck, Tillman could’ve let Henningsen dig his way out of his slump, but instead went to senior Jon Garino Jr. before the position became a liability for Maryland.

In the earlier portion of the season, Maryland’s offense ran primarily through the senior attack of Matt Rambo, Colin Heacock and Dylan Maltz. But as the season progressed and teams learned how to defend the trio, Tillman changed the dynamic of the scoring.

Junior midfielders Connor Kelly and Tim Rotanz took on a more prominent role down the stretch, eclipsing “Run DMC” to finish first and third on the team with 46 and 33 goals, respectively.

Maryland’s goal production

Players Goals (2016) % Goal-total in 2016 Goals (2017) % Goal-total in 2017
Players Goals (2016) % Goal-total in 2016 Goals (2017) % Goal-total in 2017
Run D.M.C* 114 49-percent 99 41-percent
Kelly and Rotanz 42 18-percent 79 33-percent

Senior midfielder Nick Manis, who’s become known as one of Maryland’s unsung heroes, was utilized as a long-stick midfielder at the beginning of the season. Recognizing a change needed to be made, Tillman switched his stick assignment.

“Right after Villanova, we switched Nick to short-stick and we got so much better defensively, because Nick's been here five years and he's really smart,” Tillman said.

Tillman can adapt in game situations, too. Down a goal to Ohio State in the Big Ten conference title game, he switched the faceoff dynamic by implementing two long poles on a draw in the fourth. Junior defender Bryce Young won a ground ball and scored his first goal of the season, bringing the Terps back in a game they’d eventually win 9-8.

Tillman’s willingness to compromise and change in every aspect of the game made Maryland a constantly evolving machine, as ever-changing as his coaching.

2017 NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Championship Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

While it took him five tries to win it all, Tillman became just the eighth head coach since 1996 to win a national championship. It’s been a long time coming for both Maryland men’s lacrosse and its head coach, but with the weight of the championship off his shoulders, all that’s left to do until next season is appreciate the moment.

“I'm lucky to have the job I have. It's a dream come true,” Tillman said. “I love coaching. I love working with young people. To me, it's about teaching. My mom was a teacher. To be at a storied place like Maryland, I thank my lucky stars every day.”