Joe Breschi’s name played prominently in the news of the lacrosse world this summer as he left Columbus, Ohio for Chapel Hill, N.C. After 11 years at the helm of Ohio State, Breschi built the Buckeyes into a formidable Great Western power and a presence on the national level. He now returns to the University of North Carolina, where he played from 1986-1990. Breschi also launched his coaching career with the Tar Heels, serving as an assistant for the 1991 national championship and 1992 teams. We talked to him about his departure from Ohio State, and his task of returning Carolina to greatness.
What was it like leaving Ohio State? You were a very well liked guy in Columbus, and you had that team right on the cusp of being consistently competitive.
How long do you think it will take Ohio State to be consistently competitive, and fully step up to that next level of consistently making the tournament and advancing to later rounds?
I think Nick Myers is a terrific coach. I think the world of him. We coached together for three years, and I think he’s going to do a tremendous job of bringing in solid student athletes who are going to compete like heck on the playing field. I don’t think it’s going to take too long. I think Nick’s a great coach, and he surrounded himself with a terrific staff, and so I think from his perspective, and certainly from the guys who are within the program, the bar has always been set high at Ohio State since we arrived 11 years ago. It shouldn’t take long.
What did it mean to wear the jersey and now the coaches shirt for UNC?
Well I think it’s awesome. I couldn’t be more thrilled for the opportunity, and for Dick Baddour [the athletic director] to hire me and have faith in what my coaching staff and myself would bring to the table. One thing everyone can be assured of is we’re going to be prepared each week, and we’re going to compete like hell, and we respect and understand the opportunity we have as a coaching staff, and our players respect and understand the opportunity they have to be a student athlete here and to be part of this UNC lacrosse family. It’s an extremely special place, it’s extraordinary in so many ways to be a part of this Carolina family, and we are not taking that for granted. Everybody who steps on this campus as a Tar Heel lacrosse member will think family first, academic second, lacrosse third, and will have that mentality across the board. It’s exciting to lead the team in 2009 and build relationships with these kids that will last a lifetime.
What’s it like to be back at your alma mater?
It’s great. It’s been terrific. It’s been a relatively smooth transition for my family I think from a standpoint of the administration and the alumni that are still in town here and have been terrific in helping us make the transition to Chapel Hill pretty smoothly. The players have really embraced the coaching staff and the changes that have been made. I think that’s the big thing. We as a coaching staff, certainly myself, Coach [Pat] Myers, our voluntary assistant staff Brian Holman, and Greg Paradine who’s been here, and I…the players have been terrific with embracing our style of play. But more importantly the idea of building the relationships with them and getting to know them off the field has been terrific. They’re great kids, and they really have understood the direction we’re going, and the approach we’re taking. I think the transition overall has been terrific, and we had an enjoyable fall in many ways, and now we’re in the offseason conditioning mode.
When you first took over the Tar Heels, when did you first meet with the team, and what did you say to them as the new man in charge?
Basically when I got the job I called all my kids at Ohio State to let them know I was going. Then I followed that up and called all the kids from North Carolina and spoke to them all individually on the phone. I wanted to introduce myself…So it was a lot of individual conversations that propelled to what we were going to do, and when we were first going to meet on campus, because I obviously wanted to speak to them all together. We met with the freshmen over the weekend, and then had our first team meeting as a group in the film room, which was great. I had a chance to introduce the coaching staff and just talk to the guys about the passion that I have for UNC and the lacrosse program, and the experiences I had here as a player, the family atmosphere that was such a huge part of why I came to North Carolina. I said, “It’s not going to be about the jersey number. It’s going to be about the guy next to you.” I just made the thought process or the philosophy based on teamwork, based on family, based on the guy who’s going to go to battle with you, and encouraging that guy, and pushing that guy to be as good as he can be. I think a lot of the things were conversational. We went over our approach right away. On Day One it’s going to be focused; it’s going to be disciplined; it’s going to be fun. I think if all those other things come into play, that the experience is going to be a great one, from an academic standpoint to a lacrosse standpoint, and they are really going to get the feel of the Carolina family that has always been so special. It was a great first meeting. It actually lasted two days, about six total hours of meetings. It was very interactive. I wanted to find out why they chose North Carolina. I wanted to get back to the grass roots of why they picked Chapel Hill, whether it was a freshman or a senior, and to really understand the importance of why they chose Carolina, and to get back to that joy of having fun, and working hard, and representing the athletic department and all the alumni and the friends of the program, to really work hard for each other and have that great experience on the field.
How long do you think it will take to get UNC consistently competitive? They are always projected to be good, but often they start out hot and fade off, or they can’t seem to get it together for a full season and show flashes of greatness, but also disappointment.
That’s a good question. I think we have a terrific bunch of young men on the team right now. We raised the bar. We stepped in the locker room and part of Day One was raising the bar as a program overall. That’s on the field, off the field, every aspect of what we do we’re representing UNC, so I think it’s a work in progress this season. It’s hard to kind of say how long it’s going to be, to when it’s going to happen. I know that this particular team has raised the bar of their own expectations, and our expectations as a coaching staff have raised that bar. I think the sky is the limit for any group that you put together and again it’s going to come down to working hard, preparing, and executing on game day because there are a lot of great teams out there, so we’re going to take each game as it comes, and just keep hammering away at the preparation aspect of things, and this way, game day, on Saturday we’re having fun.
You say stuff like “raising the bar”, and that seems to be on par with phrases like “changing the culture” of a program. Is that what you have to do at UNC, come in and change the culture, perhaps instill a different mindset within the program?
I think it was more the change in the faces and the approach of our new coaching staff. I think any time it’s new, just like it’s new at Ohio State, it’s a different approach for a coaching staff, and I think for our purposes we kind of laid the ground work right away of our own expectations and this is how we’re going to do things. This is going to be our approach. We expect you in 100%, and we expect to compete like heck in everything that we do. I don’t know if that is changing the culture, it’s more this is going to be our approach based on the fact that there’s a coaching change.
Taking over a new program, obviously you want to be competitive, to play for the ACC title, to play for the national title. But do you have more specific ideas as to what would be considered a successful first year at the helm of the program?
I think as a program and as a team you set goals for what you can do. From our standpoint, it’s hard for me to say we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that. I think we have the ability, and the reason I say that is because our coaching staff has spent the entire fall evaluating where we feel guys fit into our system. It’s a whole new system offensively, defensively, rides, clears, the whole thing, so I think from our standpoint, I think we as a program and as a coaching staff will set goals for ourselves, and the bar will be very high, from an ACC standpoint, to a national championship standpoint.
Looking at the season and the task you have ahead of you, is this going to be considered rebuilding a program, or is more like retooling a little, making a few changes, and getting the program back to the level it always seemed capable of accomplishing?
From the way the coaching staff has approached things, and the way the student athletes, our players, have embraced what we’re doing, I think the sky’s the limit for this team, and I think that these guys can continue to improve and can continue to get used to the system that we’re implementing on the field, and can understand why we do things, and what way we’re doing them, that we can achieve great things. I don’t think it’s rebuilding. I think we have to stay healthy. You have to be a little lucky. You have to execute. With these guys and the way they are thinking, the way they are approaching everything that we’re asking them to do, I’m thrilled. I could not be happier with their focus and their attention to detail. They are working hard. We’re asking a lot of them, and they are working hard, and they are hungry.
Since you came to Chapel Hill, a lot of speculating has emerged about Carolina returning to the run-and-gun style of its glory days. Can we expect to see something like that on the field this season?
I think everybody would like to see that. I think our approach is going to be aggressive, so when we do run it’s certainly going to be an aggressive style. I think you can’t go into each game thinking you’re going to run and gun…or maybe you can go into each game thinking you’re going to run and gun, but as coaches, you have to be prepared to make adjustments during the course of the game to teams that do slow it down or play a half court game. So from our standpoint, we’re going to try to impose our style and dictate a little bit if we can, but you also have to kind of react to how the flow of the game is going, and how we have to react and make adjustments accordingly.
Was the 2009 schedule already made when you took the new position, or did you get to come in and set most of it?
You know 90% of it was scheduled already. We’ve made some subtle adjustments.
You open the season with a four-game home stand. Do you think that will be a good way to ease into the season, or do you worry it will create problems when you have to travel later?
We actually went on the road this fall, and we handled it pretty good. I think being at home, the nature of being in the South, you’re going to attract teams in February and early March who want to come south, whether it’s for Spring Break, or just in February to play games. I’m not sure if it’s a bad thing. I think it’s kind of good. It’s home court advantage if you will. Regardless of where you play, you just have to be as prepared as you possibly can on Saturday. I think it’s great to be home. You’ve got that home field, home cooking, from a preparation standpoint. We can get into a rhythm at home and get ready to go on the road at the end of February, beginning of March.
UNC hasn’t won an ACC game since April of 2004 (an 11-9 victory over Virginia). You guys play your first ACC game against Duke on March 14. Is that a long time to wait? What do you think will surround that game, adding in all the Duke-UNC tension, and the pressure to finally win an ACC game?
I don’t know…I know the ACC is extremely competitive. You have Duke, Maryland, Virginia are perennial Top Five teams every year, and competing for national championships every year, and that’s what we want to do at North Carolina. So the fact that it’s Duke, and it’s kind of mid-season, I think it’s exciting…It will come down to how well we prepare for that game. I don’t want the guys to think about what’s happened in the past. I want them to think forward, and think about how we can get ourselves better prepared for Duke, and Maryland, and how we can prepare the first half of the season to get ourselves ready for conference play.
Speaking of the ACC Championship, you guys are hosting the tourney this year. Is it good to have home field advantage, or, with UNC’s recent ACC history, does it add extra pressure to finally beat some teams and defend that home turf?
I don’t know. I haven’t been involved in an ACC game in 17 years. From our standpoint, we as a coaching staff, we are going to have fun, prepare the guys each week, and give it everything we have on game day. I’m thrilled that we’re home on Kenan Stadium. We’re going to play on our football stadium, play the ACC Tournament home. I think that’s a great thing. There’s going to be a huge crowd here; they’re going to be cheering on Carolina. I think that’s a huge benefit to us to play it hear at Kenan Stadium. So I don’t see that as pressure, I see it as one heck of an opportunity to play with three other terrific programs in Chapel Hill for the ACC crown.
What do you think your contest against Ohio State (April 11, at Calvert Hall school in Maryland) is going to be like, coaching against guys who you coached for several years and all the different emotions that might come into play that day?
I think it’s going to be an opportunity for two very good teams to get out on the field and get after it. I have all the respect in the world for the Ohio State players, their coaching staff, their university. I love them. I think they’re terrific, terrific people, terrific guys, and it’s a great school. We can say it’s going to be just another game, but I think both teams are going to work even harder to compete that particular day. I know that Ohio State and North Carolina are going to very prepared to go at it. Now at North Carolina, they [OSU] beat us [UNC] pretty bad (14-11) [last season]. I think we’re going to prepare as hard as we can to get out there. We’re going to be the underdog going in.
Is that a game you look forward to because you see your old players, or are you not excited about coaching against your old team and playing a very talented Ohio State group?
I think our schedule is so demanding as it is…so I think every game is going to be big. Maybe talk to me the week of that game in preparing for it, to see how I feel that particular week. It’s going to be a great game. There’s no question, it’s going to be a great game, and it’s going to be an exciting one, and it always has been with the Ohio State-UNC game.
North Carolina is a school with a great athletic tradition and some very good teams. From when you played at UNC, to talking to your players now, where does lacrosse fit into that athletic hierarchy or the campus community?
I think it’s terrific. One thing that we’ve seen is that all the sports support one and other very well. We’ve gone out and supported some of the programs around here, football Saturdays, basketball weekends, so I think the athletes support the athletes. But also, lacrosse is growing in leaps and bounds, and I think tons of schools have lacrosse here in the state of North Carolina, so it’s become an attraction now. When I was here 17 years ago, you may have had 500 people [in the stands] and half of them were parents. Now, they have 5,000, and the interest level in the sport has risen greatly over the last two decades. I think it’s just been terrific. The support that football has given us, and basketball, with our recruiting efforts and so forth, they’ve more than embraced our program, much as I had it out in Columbus for many years, and built relationships with the football staff and the basketball staff. It’s very similar here with Coach [Butch] Davis and Coach [Roy] Williams. They’ve opened their arms to our program, and they support our program, and they want us to be as successful as they are, so that’s an exciting thing for us to know that we’re getting the support from the guys who are real dominant programs here.