Photo: University of Utah

You may (or may not) have noticed yesterday that the University of Utah announced it would start a Division I Men’s Lacrosse program in 2018-2019.  In doing so, the Utes will become the western-most school to offer NCAA D-I men’s lacrosse, thus displacing DU (and Air Force) as the current westernmost schools to field D-I men’s lacrosse programs.

This development is exactly what DU coaching legend Bill Tierney had envisioned when he headed west to coach DU from Princeton in 2009 — to grow the game of lacrosse in the West.  In an article in Inside Lacrosse Magazine, Tierney said Utah has the three things needed for a D-I program:  “passion, money and guts”.  Utah was helped by a $15+ million financial donation spearheaded by Jet Blue airlines founder David Neeleman, whose son, Seth, plays lacrosse at Utah. The Utes were also helped Title IX-wise as a university where 56% of the students are male, unlike most universities (DU included), which tend to have female enrollment majorities.

Indeed, Tierney consulted with both Utah and with Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott to help make the sport a varsity reality at Utah. The Utes have already hired a D-I quality coaching staff, featuring Brian Holman as head coach (a former North Carolina and Johns Hopkins assistant) as well as three current MLL captains (and former D-I players) as Utah assistant coaches.  The Utes, which currently operate as an MCLA club-level program, will reportedly begin offering scholarships next fall, and will ramp-up from eight scholarships at the start to the full allotment of 12.6 scholarships in due time.

Aside from the great news of growing the sport in the West, for Denver Pioneer fans, this move may have far-ranging implications, which I evaluate as follows:

UTAH’S IMPACT ON DU AS AN POTENTIAL RIVAL/OPPONENT:  I am sure that Bill Tierney has thought long and hard about scheduling Utah as a potential DU non-league opponent.  Certainly, there is the moral imperative to help our fellow new western program, but it’s not exactly a slam dunk.  Salt Lake City is a flight from Denver, and not likely to be a bus ride from DU (at 8 hours or more of time on the road).  Additionally DU would take an RPI/scheduling hit with Utah on the DU slate for a few years as the Utes will take its lumps as the program ramps up to full-DI status. Finally, would DU want to give up an east coast flight every two years, as well as the RPI hit, just to help Utah and perhaps hurt DU a bit in the process?  Interesting question – my guess is Tierney would do it, if only to help grow the sport.

POSSIBLE CONFERENCE PARTNER:  DU could also lobby the Big East to include Utah as a conference affiliate, as the Big East only has six current men’s programs playing D-I lacrosse and Utah’s regular conference, the Pac-12 does not offer men’s lacrosse (at least for now). While Utah is a big (32,000 students) Pac-12 athletic brand, I’m not sure if the Big East would be interested in Utah, given the short-term RPI hit and the travel costs/hassle factor. The Big East still has many eastern schools it could choose from if it wanted to add lacrosse teams as associate members, and the big reason it took DU in 2013 was that the Pioneers are a final four calibre program. Additionally, to my knowledge, DU didn’t lobby to help Air Force with the Big East when the Falcons were looking for a conference home, before the Southern Conference accepted the Zoomies.  Eventually, there may be a western or even a Pac-12 men’s lacrosse conference, but that looks to be at least a decade away, as Title IX and endowment hurdles remain formidable obstacles that must be overcome in order to add more men’s lacrosse programs. That said, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott is very interested in lacrosse as a future revenue sport and TV product for his league, not to mention the high performing academic status it brings, as well as the affluent admissions/ tuition money that all schools are seeking. Don’t be surprised if other Pac-12 schools start to show some interest, now that conference mate Utah has taken the plunge.

RECRUITING WAR: This one is the biggest implication for DU, in my book. DU’s recruiting success is built on the “Three Cs” – Colorado, California and Canada (the Western side of the country). The Pioneers benefit now as the closest D-I program to those three recruiting zones (Air Force is a special recruiting case given its military restrictions) and with Utah coming on board, this will no longer be the case, at least geographically in California and in western Canada.  As the Pioneers have big head start as an established final four level program, this aspect may not be all that relevant right away, as DU can get most of the players it wants from these three recruiting zones. But after Tierney, currently age 64, fades into the sunset at as his retirement looms in the coming years, I think the recruiting wars will heat up. Utah will be able to offer closer access to California recruits, as well as to the Northwest, as well as offering a big school, Pac-12 football school atmosphere, and perhaps more playing time for initial recruits. Utah is also a lot cheaper in tuition than DU at $8K in-state and about $27k for out of state students, which is relevant when there are only 12.6 scholarships for a 40-50 man roster. The Pioneers will counter with a strong lacrosse pedigree, a smaller, private school atmosphere and a slightly better academic ranking (DU is #86 and Utah is #111) if you believe in the USNews rankings.

All in all, I am excited.  This is a new chapter, and the Pios will be ready for it.  Go Pios!

Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of the long-time DU fan and alumnus. He shares his views here periodically at LetsGoDU.com