University of Michigan’s Lacrosse Team’s Evolution

So what has it taken to become one of the best teams in the MCLA? Moreover, what does running a top program in the MCLA even entail? I have been asked numerous times by many adoring lacrosse fans, who love lacrosse, and Michigan Lacrosse even more, just what all does it take to make Michigan Lacrosse a success. In fact, has it always been a top program, and has John Paul always been so knowledgeable? I took the time in October to chat with John Paul about the current setting of the lacrosse team, and even go over how everything has come along over the many years. For many who don’t know, John Paul has been around this program for quite some time, not just coaching, so he knows everything about it.

Most people see the University of Michigan Lacrosse team as the team to beat. In fact, they see the 3 straight national championships and don’t really think about all the time, money, sweat, injuries, and countless hours that have been put into accomplishing those feats. No, it’s not just the fall ball, nor the summer before the season. It’s much more than that. It’s the years leading up to the championship years that really set the stage for the tremendous outcome that we have all seen. Nevertheless, I included many questions I hear asked often about MCLA team operations, and I hope it allows everyone to thoroughly understand MCLA teams much more clearly.

How much has the University of Michigan Lacrosse program evolved?

-Quality Of Recruits

John Paul:
“Our recruiting has changed dramatically over the years. When I first started we didn’t recruit at all. We had open tryouts for any athlete who was a student at Michigan and had interest in playing. We got a wide range of players at tryouts, from very accomplished players who came to Michigan for purely academic reasons, to athletes who were new to lacrosse and wanted to give it a try. Today we recruit much like any varsity team does. We are on the road often evaluating talent, and we are proactively identifying and reaching out to potential Michigan student-athletes. As we have put more effort into recruiting, and as the reputation and awareness of our program has improved, we have been able to target a much higher level of recruit. We aren’t competing with North Carolina or Virginia for the top rising juniors in the country, but we are certainly competing with the top level Division 3 and mid-range Division 1 teams for many of the same pool of athletes. This has positively impacted our overall talent level, our depth and the investment of our players and their families.”

-Amount of or type of Sponsors

John Paul:
“We are very fortunate to have the partnerships we do. Some of our support comes from personal relationships, but much of it has come from our ability to leverage the Michigan brand combined with the structure and perception of our program. We do not receive cash from our sponsors, but we do receive an incredible amount of free product, and we work directly rather than having to go through team dealers. We would not be where we are today without the support of our partners.”

-Donated money from alumni (Has it increased a lot over the past ten?)

John Paul:
“Our alumni don’t give as much as many people assume. That’s a work in progress. We have a very proud history, but most of our older alums had a looser relationship with the team than our current players do, and most of our younger alums don’t have the means yet to make major gifts. We are working hard to engage our older alums (many of whom are my former teammates here), and we instill in our more recent grads the habit of giving back. Alumni giving has gone up, but I don’t anticipate we’ll see program-changing individual gifts from them for some time.”

“Most of our fundraising currently depends on parents. We have some very, very generous parents who make the kind of gifts every year that allow us to operate at a Division 1 level. Like most club programs, we also have a staff that has remained dedicated to the program despite very little financial compensation.”

-Quality of equipment (How has the quality of equipment changed, training in practice, protective, warm-up, travel, etc.)

John Paul:
“The entire game of lacrosse has been altered because of equipment changes, most notably stick heads. As far as quality, the biggest changes have come in protective equipment. The improvements to glove design and materials have probably had the biggest effect. Our sponsorships have allowed us to outfit our team in a much wider range of apparel than we used to, but I don’t know that performance has changed all that much.”

-How have dues changed over your tenure?

John Paul:
“Our dues crept up from perhaps $500 a year when I first started in 1998 to $3500 a year five or six years ago. We have not raised them since then. Dues are very important to our financial health and spending flexibility, but our fundraising and sponsorships provide bigger chunks of our budget. I believe that our dues level puts us in range of many of the other top MCLA programs.”

“We always ensure that dues are never a reason to deny someone an opportunity to play for us. If a player makes our team, and he and his family cannot afford full dues or indicates the need to pay in installments, we always accommodate them. I simply ask that they remember that support when they are alums and have the capability to give back.”

“From the first day I started as coach, I wanted to make sure that our dues each year would be our only financial requirement. We spend more than $12,000 per player per year (far more if you include what they get from our sponsors), but we have tried to never require additional payments for anything required to play. We certainly ask for donations from families, but nothing beyond dues is required.”

“On an interesting side note, we always discuss dues with recruits and their parents. You would think that the mention of a $3500 price to play every year would be received with raised eyebrows, but the opposite is usually true. The modern lacrosse family is used to spending that much and sometimes far more every year for camps and club teams. Parents often tell me that they feel that price is more than fair for the comprehensive college lacrosse experience we provide.”

-How have you guys gone about raising money, and what unique ways have you gone about doing it, if any?

John Paul:
“When I played, and when I first started coaching here, the players did a lot of typical fundraisers (tee shirt sales, laxathons, etc). About 8 years ago we started focusing a lot more on traditional fundraising – simply asking for donations. We have the ability to process all of our giving through the university and through the athletic department’s Victors Club, which helps. We have a lot of people who give small amounts, and all of those add up to make a real difference. Of course, we also have a few people with the means to give major gifts, and their generous support has allowed us to evolve into what we are today.”

-Do you have any ways of giving back to the community?

John Paul:
“Our players do a fair amount of community service. Until recently the athletic department arranged visits every week at Mott’s Children’s Hospital, and our guys have been very involved there. They’ve volunteered at schools and in reading programs. We’ve done team community service days here and there. We are currently identifying a new opportunity to partner with a local underprivileged children’s group. We’d like to establish a more long-term, sustained relationship that will both impact the community and teach some great lessons to our guys.”

-How has the training schedule changed for your athletes since you took over? (Do they work much harder now as compared to 10 years ago? Do they work hard through the Fall and Winter to prepare for the Spring and take the Summer off to relax?)

John Paul:
“Our training schedule has changed dramatically in the last few years, but the biggest change is accountability. Our athletes today are required to be at everything we do (we allow occasional misses for certain pre-approved reasons), and there are serious consequences for being late or absent. It’s a privilege to be part of this program and to represent Michigan as a student athlete, and it takes a passionate commitment to be part of it. Our athletes take pride in that. They expect a high level of commitment now, and they hold their teammates (and coaches) to the same high expectations.”

“The amount we practice hasn’t really changed over the years. In fact, many would be surprised to find out that we don’t practice as much as some of our peers. We go three days a week in the fall and four days a week in the winter and spring. The difference is the expectation that you are there every day, and you have to bring your best every day. The biggest change in commitment level has come from our strength program. Every one of our players is in the weight room three days a week. Two of those lifts are supervised, and all of them follow a specific program that is formulated to maximize performance and help prevent injury. In addition we do a lot of small group skill development, some of which is mandatory and some that is optional.”

“The type of lifting our guys do has changed a lot over the years as well. Contrary to rumor we lift in our general recreation building weight rooms (not varsity weight rooms), which presents a whole slew of challenges, but we still manage to get them through effective routines that focus on developing explosive leg strength, core and back strength, flexibility and balance. Developing beach muscles (chest, arms, shoulders) has almost nothing to do with athletic performance, so we focus on more of an olympic lifting and plyometric routine that our football strength staff has developed for us. A great deal of our focus for freshmen is on developing proper form and base strength. Most of our guys start making real gains after a few months of learning how to lift properly and how to fuel themselves.”

“Fall used to be a time to approach the game in a more relaxed manor. That’s not the case anymore. If anything, we are at our highest intensity level in the fall. Fall is where the most gains are made in strength and technique, and it’s where we establish the way we practice. Every one of our freshmen, no matter where they come from, comment on how much more intense everything is than what they are used to, and that starts on day one. The key is to get the guys to enjoy that process. We work to develop a culture where the players view this level of commitment and hard work as a matter of pride and never something to be feared or resented.”

“We view the summer as an opportunity to get away from our process to a certain extent. We certainly give each player a list of things to work on, and we give them a strength program to follow and some fitness targets to hit, but how they approach the summer is really up to them. The guys who go into the summer with a good plan and the commitment to get better are obvious when everyone comes back in the fall.”

-How, if you do, do you hold the players accountable for their health and what they eat. Obviously they are adults, but to be on the team they need to show they are dedicated in some aspect, right?

John Paul:
“We have used nutritionists before to teach our guys about fueling their bodies properly. We definitely provide some resources, but we can’t follow them 24/7, and we don’t have the means to provide a daily training table, so ultimately they have to be self-motivated. A lot of that boils down to their individual desire to maximize their potential. We do cater most meals when we are traveling, and we always do pregame meals four hours before home games. Our partnership with Herbalife also allows us to provide healthy nutrition supplements like protein shakes, meal replacements and vitamins. They all get all of the supplies they need, and we have a protein shake station in our offices that they can use after every lift.”

“Along the same lines, we have been asked to participate in the athletic department’s very comprehensive drug testing program. We definitely believe that lifestyle choices can make a big impact on overall health and performance.”

-How has your coaching changed? Have you become more relaxed, become harder on the players, more confident?

John Paul:
“One thing I learned early is that you never know it all. I go to the two major national coaching clinics every year, and I am just as likely to see the Hopkins and Syracuse coaching staffs taking notes in a session as I would be to see some new middle school coach. There is always more to learn. But as much as I learn about new tactics and training methods every year, coaching has taught me a lot more about how to motivate and lead. I get a lot more pleasure out of influencing the character and maturity of our players than I do from helping them practice their shot or win a game, although the two are often related.”

“I’ve developed much higher expectations of our players as our program has matured, and I’m harder on them now because I want so much for them, but my style hasn’t changed. I think it’s important to be true to yourself, and I’m not an outwardly emotional person. I can’t really fake that. I’m not a screamer. I don’t give our pregame speeches. Ken Broschart does because he’s far better at it.”

“Nobody has ever accused me of having a lack of confidence. If anything, I probably have a reputation for being cocky. I prefer to think of it as a very real confidence in what we do, and to be honest a lot of that comes from the people who are around me. Our staff is unbelievably talented and dedicated. Our players have an amazing level of character and commitment. Our alumni and parents and supporters are very proud and incredibly supportive. My confidence has gone up with our success, but most of that is due to the people I’m around every day.”

-How much have you learned about the sport of lacrosse in your tenure, and how much of it do you think could translate to the next level in D1?

John Paul:
“When I started coaching at this level I spent the first few summers working the camp circuit. Being around so many incredible high school and college coaches taught me very quickly how much I didn’t know, and I still feel like I have so much to learn. But when I look back at the coach I was 14 years ago and compare that to where I am now, there’s really no comparison. I’ve learned so much about the sport, the profession and myself.”

“The other thing I’ve learned from being around so many D1 coaches over the years, many of whom are now friends, is that what we do is really not much different than what they do. At the highest levels they have better athletes, and recruiting is quite different (we aren’t trying to get commitments from the top 50 rising juniors or dealing with scholarships), but what we do on the field every day, how we develop players, the tactics we use, the tools we use, and how we manage our program are all pretty much the same. If I ever have the opportunity to coach at the D1 level my approach won’t change a whole lot (aside from recruiting). I’m comfortable with that. I guess we’ll see if it’s successful if I ever have that chance.”

Exiting Thoughts
When this article was first presented many people asked me about the NCAA topic, so I will ensure I answer it this time. Coach Paul, for many reasons, can’t answer certain questions that are very specific to the program going to the NCAA. In fact, this is not only to protect the team, but the university as a whole. However, as I stated on CollegeLax radio weeks ago, I can see the program making the transition in 2013, and Coach Paul has already shifted into recruiting great players to make the move, and I know the players on the team now know if they do move NCAA, their position on the team will be at jeopardy. Nothing to fear right now, but I am sure some of the players are competing hard to show they want to make the move when/if they go NCAA. Most of the questions I asked Coach Paul, he couldn’t comment on them, which I respectfully accepted. Stay tuned in the future just in case any news breaks!

As always, if you want to know anything specific please email me at [email protected] or shoot me a message on Twitter @TheRealHag

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