Perhaps the biggest story from the summer was Bill Tierney departing Princeton to take over the lacrosse program at the University of Denver. After some surprises and speculation, Chris Bates emerged as the new man at the helm of the Tigers.
Bates takes over one of the preeminent programs in the country after building a strong coaching resume in the Philadelphia area. He began coaching in 1992 at Archbishop Ryan, a private high school, before joining the staff at Drexel in 1995. For the past ten years he has served as the Dragons’ head coach, a stint highlighted by two Colonial Athletic Association Championships, an upset of defending champion Virginia in the 2007 season-opener, and a 31-17 record over the past three seasons.
Lax.com gave Bates a call to talk about the short move geographically, the big move institutionally, and old coaches helping new coaches who replace them.
LAX.COM : Can you take me through the events of the summer, from finding out Bill Tierney left Princeton, to eventually taking the job, and the ups and downs in between?
Chris Bates: Well it was a little bit of a surprise obviously when Coach Tierney left. Even that being said, with Dave Metzbower here as the associate head coach, I don’t think that anyone thought it would be a job that would really open up. When that changed, and I was contacted, it was certainly not something I was looking for. I was very happy and content with the situation at Drexel, but when I was contacted, I realized it was something I needed to pursue. I needed to see, and learn more about…You know it’s very tough to leave some where that you’ve been for really 16 years, but the excitement about starting at a place like Princeton and taking over for guys that I have a lot of respect for and a program that I have a lot of respect for, and just a unique university, just was an exciting time.
That all being said, once it gets going and you take over a program, there’s just a lot to do in terms of transition and learning a new place, and just figuring out what’s next, and planning your days according….July and August, I didn’t really spend a lot of time in the office, it was really just out on the road recruiting, trying to keep the guys that had committed, committed, and then we had a couple of decisions to make so we wanted to make good decisions. Most of August was just kind of transitioning into the office literally and figuring your way around Princeton…The fall went well, we’re very happy with that. The summer was charged up with a lot of, with the transition, with a lot of new learning and new energy, so it was fun.
How hard was it to leave Drexel? How did you address your team and tell them you were leaving?
Honestly I had tears in my eyes. It was emotional for me because I put my heart and soul into that place, to really help do my part in creating a lacrosse program, within a developing athletic department, to compete at the highest level, and we accomplished a lot of that, but it wasn’t done without blood, sweat, and tears, and really just a lot of emotion…The fact that it was Princeton helped [the players] understand that this was a unique opportunity for me having been there 10 years as a head coach, and then five out of six as an assistant, you got a lot of roots.
It was difficult. I couldn’t care more for my guys there and couldn’t be rooting any harder for them, but for me as a professional, it just was a move that I couldn’t turn down, that it made a lot of sense at this juncture in my career. Doesn’t make it any easier that’s for sure.
Since Drexel (in Philadelphia, Pa.) and Princeton (in Princeton, N.J.) are about 50 miles apart, has that aided the transition at all? You don’t have to fully relocate to a very different place, and you will be around the same geographic areas to potentially recruit from.
To a certain degree. I think the biggest thing for my family is that my kid can still be a Phillies fan. (laughter) He’s a diehard baseball guy and loves the Phillies…I had been in Philadelphia for 18 years, and consider this area home, and Princeton being up the block a little bit, it’s close enough where it’s still very comfortable…It’s just a good area, and being close to good lacrosse in Philadelphia, not too far from Long Island, and Baltimore, and Upstate [N.Y.], and Virginia. From a family standpoint, and a coaching standpoint it’s been pretty seamless.
Was it a challenge for you over the summer to go out and contact or sit with the incoming recruits and reassure they were still going to commit to Princeton? Did you get to keep most of that group intact?
We did, and I think that’s a credit to how Coach Tierney recruited here. He recruited good solid people, and people that really wanted to be at Princeton. Obviously there’s an attraction to playing for a successful staff and a successful program, but at the end of the day, I think the fact that Princeton is the caliber of school that it is, and the lacrosse program is what it is, people would be crazy to leave in a lot of ways. It’s a special place in many ways. Yeah, we were able to fend off some folks that wanted to change some of our guys’ ideas, and we’re pleased that everybody remained true, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their decisions.
When you got the job at Princeton, how did you make your first address to the team? Did you call everyone over the summer and introduce yourself first?
Throughout the summer I made a point to call each and every kid on the team and just introduce myself…so that the first time I saw them wouldn’t be the first time I had a conversation with them. I thought that was important just for them to put a voice to the name, and just have some dialogue.
The other thing that helped in transition was Greg Raymond had been an assistant here for three years, so they knew him, and I think that helped just in terms of he either coached or recruited pretty much everyone on the team, so there was a comfort level within our staff which I think was helpful.
When they got back, the first meeting was pretty unique. You’re standing in front of a team that essentially you inherit. Aside from a few brief phone calls and sitting down with the guys, you don’t know those guys, and that’s just a hard dynamic. Most coaches feed off the knowledge they have of individuals and units, and to not have that kind of background was hard. I talked to the previous staff and watched film and new some things in general terms, and essentially just laid out what the expectations were, what the visions that we had a as a staff coming in, and just get some basic things communicated as a staff coming in. A lot of the fall was really getting to know guys and doing a lot of evaluation. But that first meeting was a little bit interesting, just not really knowing anybody. But you’ve got to set the tone and let them know what you stand for, and that’s kind of the foundation that you start to build.
Did you get any tension or reluctance from the players? Was everyone ready just to move on to the next chapter?
The history here, and I think everybody’s got respect for that, I certainly do, but I was asked often, ‘what’s it going to be like to follow in basically a hall of famer’s footsteps?’ and I said, ‘the only way I know how to do that is in my own shoes.’
My sense is that guys kind of welcomed a new voice and just embraced the fact that Princeton University and Princeton lacrosse are pretty special, not withstanding the contributions of Coach Tierney and Coach Metz[bower] and the history of the program, but I think [the players] have something to prove in terms of there own merits, without a pretty legendary head coach.
You said you talked with the old staff, so how much of an exchange as happened between you and Coach Tierney as you transition in?
Absolutely. I couldn’t be more thankful and appreciative of how he’s helped my transition. He’s somebody that I’ve looked up to throughout my coaching career, not only the success on the field, but how he treated people, and what he stood for. To have him really reach out and help me through the transition has been very important. He’s been great, and Coach Metzbower has been a friend of mine for years. He’s been great and extremely helpful as well.
Have you extended that same kind of help to Brian Voelker as he takes over Drexel after leaving Penn?
Brian and I are good friends, and I’ve offered as much help as I possibly could, and he knows that the line is always open. I care for those guys…I’m rooting for Brian and his staff and those guys to have a great year. I’ve reached out as much as possible. You don’t want to impose yourself, but I think he knows I’m there for anything he needs.
What were your thoughts on taking over a program that is a real flagship program in terms of success, talented players, history, and resources? With that job comes a lot of opportunity, but also a lot of pressure to succeed.
You coach for a reason, and that’s to win games and be involved with young people, and I think [Princeton] offers an opportunity to work with some really fine young student athletes. Coaching is coaching; that part in a lot of ways is the same. The fact that you’re at Princeton, you’re able to recruit a different kind of kid. The foundation that the university provides is pretty special. It being one of the best, if not the best school in the country, and with the history of the program, it allows you to dream big, and obviously with six national championships in the past couple decades, there’s sort of a demonstrated track record that you can accomplish some things. It’s a different niche in terms of the kids you’re able to look at, but the Ivy League is strong and will continue to be strong just based on the demographic of our sport lends itself to this kind of education being really valued. As the game grows across the country, the pool just continues to grow…We’ve got our work cut out for us. The Ivy League is different because from an admissions standpoint there’s only so much that you can do at an early stage, but at the same point, I think there’s enough kids out there that are really excited about this type of degree that we’ll be fine.
Tierney, on top of his success, created a very definitive style and philosophy of play that Princeton became none for. While that has changed some over the years depending on his players, you always knew Princeton would be smart, would try to control the game, and would play good defense. How as a new coach do you come in and put your own brand on this team? Do you just keep going with the pillars that were there?
You start with what’s good. There’s a lot of good here and a lot of talent here. I think as a coach, you always want to build from the defensive end of the field. That’s always been my philosophy and something that has helped me as a head coach and helped Drexel be successful in the past. There’s some very good pieces here in terms of defensemen and goalies and structure and philosophy, that I think we’ll kind of continue to build on because it is a strength.
In terms of differences, we want to get up and out a little bit more from a philosophical standpoint. From an X’s and O’s standpoint, we’re a little bit unique in terms of how we run offense. Half-field offense is half-field offense. However you get the ball in the back of the net, that’s the trick. I think we’ll be different there just with some of the things that we’ve done and will do, so that a lot of the fall, a lot of the preseason is getting offensively on the same page in terms a different language and a little bit of a different structure. From a team standpoint it is going north south a little bit more when the goalie makes a save. There’s some guys that have been here who have played, you’re just trying to get them to branch out and try some new things and embrace some new concepts. The Ivy League only allows you to have 10 practices in the fall, so I think we’ve made some progress, but we’ve got a long way to go.
What were player reactions to seeing the offense open up and become a little more north south? There is a lot of offensive talent on the team, and they started to do that last year.
Honestly, the guys that are probably most affected by it are the middies, because typically there’s so much specialization going on that the middies are typically either a defensive middie or an offensive middie. We tried to push guys to do both, so offensive middies we’re asking them to come back and play defense and they’re scratching they’re heads a little bit…and defensive middies when they come across midfield, we’re saying, ‘why don’t you take a look at the cage and see if you might be able to create something.’ Those guys, you’ve got to push them out of their comfort zone, but I think ultimately with some of the depth this year, and just philosophically we want to have some more two-way midfielders, and we want to let guys play the full field, which is how the game should be played in a lot of ways. I think it’s been well received. I don’t think we’re there yet by any stretch, but I think it’s something that guys have embraced a little bit and they’re excited about.
While the team graduated a lot of key players, it also retained a lot of important players who have gained valuable experience over the past season or two. Does it help your transition to have a solid core of veterans on an otherwise young team?
If you really look at our roster, there’s some returning experience really, but this team graduated a lot of solid seniors, and they didn’t really play a lot of guys last year. There’s a handful of guys, but aside from that there’s a lot of guys getting minutes that haven’t gotten them, which is exciting. Whether it’s a senior or a freshman, there’s a lot of guys getting that many more minutes. A lot of this is new for everybody.
I will say that the leadership and work ethic is very good here, and we’re going to continue to build on it. Jeremy Hirsch is an exceptional captain. Those other guys kind of fill the vacuum of leadership that was left. I think that senior class last year here by all indications, really helped change this program, and really kind of got it back on track, and then there’s just real good leaders in training here. We have a lot of juniors and sophomores that played big roles here that are kind of filling that vacuum…It’s a work in progress, but there’s certainly some good pieces to work with.
After what was considered a mostly successful year last year (13-3, ending on a loss to eventual runner-up Cornell in the NCAA quarterfinals), what are the expectations for Princeton this year, considering the changes that occurred this summer but the team that still remains?
I think the hope is that from top to bottom everybody’s hungry. I think the few years before last year were a little bit of a roller coaster, and then last year I think good leadership and an influx of some talented young guys really helped get this thing back on track, and sort of directed towards what Princeton lacrosse should be directed towards, and that’s Ivy League Championships and playing on Memorial Day weekend. We do graduate a really good core of leaders, but hopefully their legacy has given this group an idea of how to prepare. We focus on the day-to-day preparation. We don’t look to May, because I think a lot of the goals here are understood. We want to play at a very high level and be the last man standing.
Bill Tierney obviously left his mark on Princeton, not just in winning championships and producing great players, but branding Princeton and their style of defense, and the way they approached games, so that his coaching philosophy became synonymous with the team. In five or ten years, when we look at Chris Bates’ Princeton Tigers, what will be the defining features in terms of philosophy or style or success?
Hopefully winning big games. As a coach you dream of winning those big games, and ultimately, my philosophy is, it doesn’t matter how you get there…As a coach you want to be known for being successful in the most important games and hopefully having a team that rises to the challenge.
There’s obviously a lot to improve upon and build on, but six or ten years from now hopefully we’re talking about Princeton offense as well as Princeton defense, and scoring big goals, and all the good stuff that comes along with it. It’s a work in progress, we’ll see, but it’s been a fun start, that’s for sure. It’s a great place, and a good group of guys, so it’s gotten me sort of charged up not only for the short term, but for doing some things consistently here over the years.
Princeton opens the season on February 27, 2010, when they host Hofstra.