Bill Tierney & Matt Brown: Success bred from opposition

Photo courtesy DU Athletics

As a coach, establishing a rapport that is effective, trusting, innovative and compelling for players and other staff members is not a simple feat by any means. It takes chemistry and experience to even qualify for such position. Legendary men’s lacrosse coach Bill Tierney and Matt Brown were on opposite ends of the coaching spectrum when their paths collided at the University of Denver in June 2010. Canadian-born Brown was entering his third year on Denver’s sideline, while New York-native Tierney was in his 28th year of coaching.

Coach Brown, a former DU player, runs the Pioneer offense. Brown originally joined the coaching staff in 2007 as a volunteer assistant coach and was asked to remain on staff as Coach Tierney took over the program in June 2010. During the past seven seasons as offensive coordinator, Coach Brown has elevated DU’s offense to national prominence as it is consistently ranked within the top 10 in scoring, it has made the NCAA tournament in each of the last seven seasons, and won the program’s first national title in 2015.

“After that season [’07] I got the itch, I got the opportunity to go full time and I just knew this is what I wanted to do,” Brown said. “A lot of it had to do with being here at Denver. I don’t know if I was at another school if I would have pursued it, but I think I really appreciated everything the University gave me and I just wanted to give back.”

Brown grew up in Burnaby, British Columbia playing hockey and baseball until a group of friends encouraged him to play lacrosse. Brown was a natural attack from the get-go. He played hockey and box lacrosse with the same group of 10-12 guys year-round until he was 14 years-old when he made the Burnaby Juniors Lakers box lacrosse team. With the Lakers he would go on to play in six straight national championships, winning three of them.

An epiphany following any early morning shift stocking shelves at his Safeway job, 16-year old Brown sent an email to any and every lacrosse program that he could find in the U.S. without knowing anything about the NCAA. He didn’t know the difference between Division l, ll, and lll. He recalls that his first email was sent to Syracuse because of Paul and Gary Gait, but he never received a response. The Denver coach however, was on the phone within 40 minutes and offered him a spot that same evening without ever having seen him play. The decision was simple.

Coach Brown’s class redefined the culture of Denver lacrosse and establishing a national presence as they beat Notre Dame in South Bend for the first time in program history during their senior year and fell one goal short of a berth in the program’s first NCAA Tournament in a loss to Fairfield University.

“It was heartbreaking, but after all the tears and disappointment settled, we all look back and say, ‘You know what we left this place in a really good spot,'” Brown said. “The following year the juniors who were then seniors took them to their first NCAA Tournament appearance against Maryland. I came back to be a part of it and watch them play. That’s why I wanted to get back into it [with coaching], because I saw the culture we started to create and now things were moving forward.”

Building on the previous successes’ and values instilled by prior players has become a commonality in the Denver program.

Coach Tierney and Coach Brown combined have established an undeniable rapport that “translates to Denver’s unparalleled, high-powered offense.” Ironically, the transition wasn’t initially so smooth.

Coach Brown had reservations with Tierney’s entrance, not knowing much about Tierney except for his numerous accolades, infamous ‘Princeton’ coaching style and having played with his son Trevor during his stint with the Denver Outlaws.

Trevor Tierney, Bill Tierney’s son, immediately assured his father that Brown was critical to retain. Tierney reached out and within a day, Brown had sent him a detailed list of player information. This was so convincing that Tierney made his decision that same night.

“I was still a little unsure of what this thing was going to be like. I believe the game should be played a certain way and what I saw from his Princeton days it was the opposite of that. How are we going to evolve? Which direction is this program going to go?” Brown said. “The biggest thing about Bill is that he has an open mind to everything. It was amazing to see how many similarities we really did have with each other as far as the game goes. There is a reason why he is the best coach to have ever coached our game because he really does a great job of managing people. The transition was hard at first, but once we got settled in it’s been the best thing ever.”

The evolution between coaches has flourished.

“His ability to combine, it hasn’t just been the Canadian guys. It’s been a combination of how to incorporate the Canadian guys with the American guys and be effective,” Tierney said. “A lot of coaches run a Canadian offense. It looks like box lacrosse, but it’s outside. Ours doesn’t look like that. Ours incorporates the Canadian skills of the kids, the Canadians, whether it be their dodging or their catching or their shooting ability, but along with what we call their downhill. The straight line stuff that the American kids do, the ball movement that kind of meshes the two qualities of the players together, hence a unique and effective offense.”

The passion Coach Brown emits in his coaching is contagious, there is no question as to how the combination of Tierney’s and Brown’s styles have created such a dynamic, successful lacrosse culture in such a brief period.

“The nice thing about sports is that a new year begins every year,” Brown said.I think that’s the beauty of coaching and athletics for me. Can you get the most out of your student athletes? Can you get them to reach their potential? Whether you win championships or not, you’re not going to win it every year, but that’s got to be the goal. Can these guys leave this place saying, ‘That was amazing, we accomplished some great things.’ I look at our hockey team, I look at our soccer team, I look at our athletic department and I think we’re so successful because we focus on the process. You don’t look too far ahead you just look at the next day and make the most of it. If you take care of the little things, then the big things just come into play.”