Off-Topic: Michigan lacrosse is set to net big reward

I am a huge UofM fan and have been playing lacrosse for 12 years. Given this, it is not a surprise that I am a huge fan of the UofM Lacrosse Team. And what’s not to like: They have won 3 National Championships in the past 3 years and are poised to win their 4th this year. Anyway, check out this story on them in the Detroit News today:

Ann Arbor — To understand just what John Paul’s talking about, you first have to listen to him talk about the good ol’ days, back when he played college lacrosse at Michigan.

It was a club sport more than two decades ago, as it is now. But the program then was nothing like the one Paul, in his 14th season as the Wolverines’ hugely successful coach, has poised to make another quantum leap in short order.

A long-awaited decision to elevate lacrosse to varsity status at the university — once a pipe dream — now seems certain, with the full support of athletic director David Brandon.

And although Brandon and Paul insist it’s too early to celebrate, with necessary financial commitments yet to be secured, an announcement could come next month.

Varsity lacrosse beginning in the spring of 2013?

“It’s exciting and I’m hopeful, but it’s not a done deal yet,” Brandon said. “We have to finish the task, and that is to get the resources we need to make it happen.”

Of course, that’s what the last decade or so of progress has been all about for Paul, who was an undergraduate in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there were no spring lacrosse trips to California, like the one the top-ranked Wolverines enjoyed this month. (Now 7-0, Michigan hosts Boston College and UC-Santa Barbara in Ann Arbor this weekend.)

There were no cross-country flights, no charter buses and no nice hotels. There was no recruiting budget, no director of operations and no training staff. There were no matching uniforms or equipment. Heck, there weren’t even many undergraduate athletes.

The team was mostly grad students, guys pushing 30 who’d played varsity lacrosse elsewhere and still needed a competitive fix. The crowds for games were sparse — parents, girlfriends and the occasional seagull — and trips were not unlike the ones we all remember from our college years.

“Hopping in our cars and whoever could make it went,” said Paul, 44, who was a three-year captain at Michigan. “We’d have eight guys in a room, and beer money was as important as anything else.”

Modest beginnings

They practiced on the old Tartan Turf in the evenings, after Bo Schembechler’s team was done, “and we’d actually hit Bo’s car with shots every once in a while — it was parked right behind the field,” Paul recalled with a laugh. “He’d come out and growl at us.”

Michigan’s club team played in something called the Big Ten Lacrosse League at the time, “but I don’t even think the Big Ten knew we were using that name,” Paul joked.

Now the team plays in — and dominates — the 25-team Central Collegiate Lacrosse Association, winning 10 of the last 12 titles. And Michigan, with a cash budget of close to $600,000 these days, thanks in large part to Paul’s tireless fundraising push, has become the gold standard in the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association, a collection of more than 200 “virtual varsity” teams in 10 conferences nationwide. Michigan, which boasts a 65-1 record since 2008, is the three-time defending MCLA champion.

Throw in the sponsor support of adidas — part of Michigan’s eight-year, $60 million apparel deal — as well as Warrior and Riddell (yes, winged helmets), and Paul’s team doesn’t just act like a Division I-caliber program, it looks the part, too.

Minus the scholarships, that is. Players pay $3,500 in annual dues to play for Michigan, rather than getting a discount on tuition, room and board, as they would with a partial scholarship as a varsity athlete.

“Varsity-level resources, because we’ve been able to fund those resources ourselves, is what has transformed our program,” Paul said. “We always said we were kind of like a varsity program. Now we really are one, with what we require of the guys and what they expect from us, too.”

Dogged determination

Yet until recently, Paul adds, he never expected to make it official.

“It never was a goal because I knew it wasn’t a realistic goal,” said Paul, who also spent five years working in the university’s athletic development office in the mid-’90s.

“I started my career in athletic administration here, so I know the way college athletics works and I know the way this athletic department works.”

And he knew Bill Martin’s plans when he took over as athletic director in 2000 didn’t include adding another non-revenue sport — or two, really, in order to comply with gender-equity requirements — to a department budget more than $4 million in the red. The decision to add men’s soccer and women’s water polo as the 24th and 25th sports came in 1999, and Michigan — like a lot of schools — hasn’t promoted any to the varsity level since, as Martin instead focused on improving the facilities and the bottom line.

More than a decade later, the aging facilities have gotten a serious facelift and the department — Brandon officially took over the AD post a year ago next week — is running an annual surplus, projected at nearly $5 million for the 2011 fiscal year.

In the interim, Paul and others were busy building a foundation themselves, raising money — Paul landed his first six-figure donor for the lacrosse club program about five years ago — and raising standards. Especially in terms of recruiting, where Paul manages to land some Division I-caliber talent.

“And it was our plan as soon as a new AD came in to have a proposal ready, which we did,” said Paul, who sat down with Brandon less than two weeks after he’d settled into his new office last March. “Dave came into the meeting saying right away, ‘I really want to explore this, and if it’s possible, let’s see what we can do.'”

Brandon praises Paul’s “commitment and passion” as “something that’s pretty special,” and when asked about this latest push, he adds, “If it weren’t for his dogged determination, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Solid commitment

The sport has a lot to do with it, too.

Lacrosse is one of the fastest-growing team sports in the country, and not just in the Northeast, where it has long been popular. When Paul started playing, he says there were about a dozen high school lacrosse programs in Michigan. Now there are almost 10 times that many. The NCAA Final Four for lacrosse draws crowds of 50,000, and as Brandon is quick to note — and ESPN seems happy to agree — “lacrosse is a terrific television sport.”

“I’m convinced that it’s a sport for the future and something Michigan would like to be a part of, as long as we can make it work,” Brandon said.

To make it work, Michigan will need to add women’s lacrosse, as well, and while they’ll be added jointly, the start-up likely will take a little longer for the women’s program. But just as Paul is committed to seeing this through, Brandon sounds committed to getting it done, which would be big for Michigan — another example of the new AD’s larger plans for the department — and huge for the sport.

Marquette and High Point (N.C.) recently announced plans to add programs in the next few years, but of the 60 schools currently competing in Division I lacrosse, only a dozen also have Division I-A football teams.

“I’ve made it real clear that, at a time when most athletic departments around the country are cutting sports because of all the financial pressures, I would love to add lacrosse as a varsity sport,” Brandon said. “We’ve been doing a fair amount of study to determine exactly how that would work and what it would cost. And I think it’s a viable opportunity for us.

“Now, the reality is, the next step is a significant step.”

And while there is still work to be done in the development office reaching out to donors, I don’t think this is a step Brandon would be talking about the way he is if he wasn’t preparing to make the leap.

In fact, when I asked him about the facilities plan going forward — lacrosse makes its home now in busy Oosterbaan Field House, although sometimes that means they get to practice at 11 p.m. — Brandon said “we would be talking about building some kind of a lacrosse field or stadium.”

“That would be the next step,” he said. “And that comes later. But not too much later.”

No, it sounds like it’s finally time to turn Paul’s dream into a reality, and sooner rather than never.

via The Detroit News

Colin A. Daniels

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