By Michael Spinner
When you think about it, for those of us who were awake late enough on May 1 to hear the news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed will probably spend the rest of their lives telling people exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. It was one of those moments in American history that we never forget the sights and sounds and emotions. Regardless of how you feel about a carnival atmosphere to celebrate the death of an individual, seeing thousands of people celebrating outside the White House, in Times Square, and at Ground Zero was a site that few of us will ever forget.
It was a very special night, followed by the kind of patriotic day that we have been waiting to happen for nearly 10 years since the September 11, 2001 tragedies. For so many of us, it was a collective sigh of relief, and a reason to think that perhaps the world can be a safer place again.
I was nowhere near Richie Meade on May 1 of this year, nor have I been in his presence in many years, but I can only imagine there was a certain level of emotion that a man who in many ways was one of the most public faces of the Naval Academy for nearly two decades felt. Who knows if one of the Navy Seals who were a part of the mission to capture Osama Bin Laden happened to play lacrosse at the Naval Academy? Nobody knows who these heroic men were, but we are certainly collectively happy that these heroes made the decision to dedicate their lives to protecting our nation.
What is for certain is that at some level, at least one component of the planning or execution of the mission in Pakistan on May 1 was overseen by somebody who at some point in their lives became a better citizen, patriot, and member of our armed forces because they had a chance to encounter Richie Meade. Even if it was a former Navy Lacrosse player who happened to train one of the Navy Seals involved with the mission, you have to think that somebody involved with Operation Neptune Spear can say that one of the individuals who made the biggest impression on them was the lacrosse coach at the Naval Academy.
All of which makes the events that unfolded on May 9 all the more unfortunate, idiotic, and on a certain level, unpatriotic.
Let’s call a spade a spade here, while Richie Meade is still a tenured professor at the United States Naval Academy, Coach Meade was fired, most likely because the Navy Lacrosse team has had its share of tough times for the last 730 days or so. And with the popularity of Division I Men’s Lacrosse exploding, losing the opportunity to be on national television and to play in front of 50,000 people Memorial Day weekend is more likely to cost a coach his job than any other time in the history of the sport. Somebody, somewhere in the USNA hierarchy felt that the 15 years of excellence that came before the last 730 days were not important enough to allow Meade to see a young core come together in 2012 or 2013, and return to the NCAA Tournament, which Navy likely will do. Somebody demanded change, change was made, and somebody new will patrol the Navy sidelines in 2012.
Whomever that is, whatever his background, he has the biggest shoes in college lacrosse to fill next season.
Richie Meade was not just a great lacrosse coach at the Naval Academy, the man was Navy Lacrosse for the last 17 years. Many coaches wear baseball caps during games, but how many wore a hat dedicated to a specific ship in our naval fleet which likely houses many former members of his team? How many coaches spend more time when presenting at the US Lacrosse Convention speaking of their institution and its history as Meade did whenever he spoke at the Convention?
Having met Richie Meade on several occasions when lacrosse journalism was a more full-time vocation for me, the only thing that struck me as being odd was that a man so incredibly proud of his institution, somebody so immersed in the values his institution stood for, never actually attended the institution he represented. Over 17 years, Meade wore the Naval Academy banner on his sleeve to the point where one would think he was an alum. That was what USNA meant to Richie Meade. That was what Meade’s presence on the sidelines meant to USNA, and it was one of the best stories in college lacrosse for a very long time. Win or lose, I think the entire lacrosse community had a certain warm feeling when it came to Navy Lacrosse because in large part of the man who patrolled its sidelines. I was so moved by Meade’s unrelenting pride for the Naval Academy that I wrote a column about the man shortly after Navy’s 2004 trip to the NCAA Championship Game (http://www.e-lacrosse.com/2004/spin/32.html).
In short, some coaches build a legacy by winning championships. Others do so by being great minds and innovators for their sport. In the case of Richie Meade, while Navy Lacrosse competed at a championship level for almost the entirety of his career in Annapolis, his legacy as Head Coach at Navy was that I cannot name another coach in another sport anywhere who made him or herself part of the culture of the institution the way Richie Meade did at Navy. His removal – I refuse to call it a departure – actually could in theory lead to more successful days for Navy Lacrosse … but there is no doubt that this particular program will not be the same anytime soon. Coaches come and go all the time, and in many cases their replacements do a great job. Mike Pressler was removed at Duke University, and John Danowski led the Blue Devils to their first national championship only a year ago. Dave Cottle was removed at Maryland, and John Tillman performed admirably in his first season in College Park. But as great as Pressler was at Duke and Cottle was at Maryland, there is no coach in this sport who can identify with their school the way Richie Meade did at Navy.
Eight days after one of the most patriotic moments in our nation’s history, the institution that was the source of many key members of the group that planned and executed perhaps the most risky and famous military mission in our history is not the same. Richie Meade’s removal will in no way hinder our national security, but when it comes to the core values the Naval Academy stands for and its mission so essential to our national security, the Naval Academy is a better institution with Richie Meade as Head Lacrosse Coach.
There is an old sports cliché about learning about the true character of an individual by asking their opponent. If that is the case than everything already written in this column is an exercise in understatement. Former Army Head Coach Jack Emmer, one of the greatest coaches to ever grace the sidelines, told the Baltimore Sun, “Certainly, based on what he’s done with that program and with the respect he has from those he’s coached, you just don’t make that change. I can’t imagine somebody coming in and doing a better job than Richie in total, which is what you’ve got to do at the academy. It’s a 24-7 kind of job at that place.” Johns Hopkins Head Coach Dave Pietramala echoed the sentiment, telling Lacrosse Magazine, “Richie Meade losing his job is a joke to me. There are bigger things going on [at Navy] than wins and losses. It’s about making men, which is what we try to do here. It’s certainly what Richie and the academy are about. Who personifies what that institution stands for better than Richie Meade? In my opinion, [Gladchuk] made a bad mistake.”
The worst part of this entire situation is that Meade was not only a great man for USNA, Richie Meade was a heck of a lacrosse coach. How soon the athletic administration at Navy forgot the remarkable run in 2004 that saw the Midshipmen come oh so close to a National Championship? How about the 60% winning percentage over 17 years? 730 bad days, and a legendary coach is tossed aside as if he were just another staff member. How many other Navy coaches led their team to the NCAA Tournament seven times? Very few I would imagine. In other words, instead of proclaiming a new day for Navy Lacrosse, Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk should simply say thank you, and allow a man of true honor, integrity, and character that Richie Meade is to continue his great work for one of the finest institutions in our country.
With this decision, what the administration at the Naval Academy does not realize is that it’s not as if the nation’s best athletes are lining up to attend the academy. Aside from the academic standards it takes to simply gain admission to the Naval Academy, and lifestyle Midshipmen face during their college years, service academy graduates enter the ‘real world’ representing a nation at war, on multiple fronts. We are in a world that is just as unsafe as it was the day before Bin Laden was killed. Our servicemen and women make a commitment that few of us can even relate to. We go about our daily lives with a sense of security because men like the ones who Richie Meade led for 17 years put their lives on the line every single day in the name of our freedom and security. But to make that commitment, to make a decision that could put oneself in harm’s way as a vocation is a tougher decision than it was 17 years ago, in September of 2001, and even the day before Bin Laden was killed. 17 years ago, the life commitment it meant to go to the Naval Academy was not what it is today. Yet still, thanks in large part to the man who patrolled its sidelines, the Navy Lacrosse program remains one of the best in the nation, despite a down year or two.
How many other programs at the Naval Academy that can say they are among the nation’s elite, even during a down year? Not many. Sure, the football team has become the elite program of the service academies, and even makes it to a minor bowl game most years lately. Their coach is revered for his success. But Navy football rarely plays the kind of schedule that Navy lacrosse plays. When is the last time the USNA football team – with all due respect – played against several top-10 teams in the same season? Even Navy beating Notre Dame in football is not a big deal anymore. Yet, it is a safe assertion that the Navy football coach is on safe grounds (for now), while Richie Meade is no longer Coach Meade.
So why is Richie Meade out? The answer is simple … somebody at the Naval Academy thinks somebody else can do better. The thought is that somebody else can be a better leader, mentor, and more successful coach. With programs such as Duke and Syracuse and Virginia as strong as ever, schools such as the University of Michigan adding varsity men’s lacrosse, and programs such as Denver becoming power players on the Division I landscape, somebody in the Naval Academy hierarchy thinks that Richie Meade had done all he could possibly do for Navy Lacrosse, and somebody else can do better. Good luck with that.
And while we’re at it, what kind of coach is the Naval Academy looking for? An aggressive recruiter with significant expertise in the x’s and o’s of lacrosse? Somebody who will enhance the value of the Naval Academy experience? An individual who will represent one of the finest institutions in our land with a sense of value, purpose, and integrity? Somebody who will wear the Navy name on their sleeve with a sense of pride? It would seem to me that USNA has their man … they just fired him.
Michael Spinner returns to e-lacrosse.com after a two-year hiatus to continue his lacrosse column, ‘The Latest Spin.’ Spinner, currently the Director of Athletics at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut. He has been covering the world of lacrosse since 1997. The Latest Spin began publication in 2001 for 360Lacrosse.com and has been a part of e-lacrosse.com since 2003.