By Michael Spinner
In an ironic twist of fate, the two biggest stories encompassing the world of college athletics on Memorial Day 2011 involved two of the biggest name head coaches in their respective sports. During the morning of Memorial Day, we learned that Jim Tressel, the head football coach at The Ohio State University, resigned in disgrace after doing everything but tell the truth regarding a scandal plaguing his team. A few hours later, University of Virginia Head Coach Dom Starsia completed one of the most improbable championship runs in lacrosse history when his Cavaliers overcame an avalanche of adversity to down the University of Maryland to capture the 2011 Division I men’s lacrosse championship.
The juxtaposition of Tressel and Starsia represents what will be the story to be remembered of the 2011 Division I men’s lacrosse season. Tressel will likely never coach college football again (and rightfully so) because he placed the pursuit of victory ahead of the standards of integrity, conduct, and educational value mandated by the mission of the NCAA. Starsia, who entered the 2011 season a dozen victories from becoming the all-time wins leader in Division I Men’s Lacrosse history, faced a similar ethical dilemma to Tressel in that he had to make a decision whether or not he should put standards of conduct ahead of the pursuit of victory. But instead of hiding issues that existed within his program, Starsia put his value system first, suspended three of his best players at one point or another, rallied the troops, and won a national championship. In doing so, Starsia proved to be every bit worthy of the honor of being the all-time wins leader in NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse history.
When you think about it, the 2011 University of Virginia men’s lacrosse season will be defined more by the adversity the program faced off the field than the product on the field that won a national championship. 14 months ago, a team member allegedly murdered his ex-girlfriend, a member of the Virginia women’s lacrosse team. Between that date and Memorial Day 2011, the program saw the Bratton Brothers, its two premiere midfield players and two of the most highly touted recruits in lacrosse history, suspended for the season on the eve of the team’s final regular season game. The suspensions sparked the Cavaliers to play its best lacrosse of the season just days later, and engage a run that saw Virginia dominate a solid Pennsylvania team, somehow come back to beat Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and then defeat a Cornell team that seemed destined to win its first National Championship in decades in the NCAA Quarterfinals.
And just when it seemed like Virginia had finally overcome all of the obstacles it had faced during the last 14 months, on Saturday morning of championship weekend, it was announced that Starsia suspended midfielder Colin Briggs for the team’s semifinal game against Denver … a game that Virginia dominated en route to a 14-8 win. Whatever Starsia told Briggs, it certainly worked as the junior netted five goals to lead the Cavaliers to their fourth national championship, all under Starsia.
The odds would suggest that the University of Virginia had absolutely no business winning this particular national championship, or any championship for that matter. To be thrust into the national spotlight at the end of the 2010 season in a way that would cripple many programs, lose two of the most skilled and dynamic players in program history late in the 2011 season, and their best remaining midfielder just before the 2011 Semifinals is enough to send many teams plunging into a losing season. Somehow, for some reason, faced with such adversity, the University of Virginia thrived, and captured the 2011 national championship … in the home state of their opponent in the finals to boot.
The reason for this team’s success in the face of such adversity starts and ends with the man at the top of the program. The University of Virginia is the 2011 national champion because Dom Starsia would not let his squad crumble under the weight of such incredible adversity. He could have very easily spoke of rebuilding when the Bratton brothers were suspended. He could have lauded another great Virginia recruiting class coming next year, and take on the ‘wait until next year’ mantra. Instead, he brought his team together using the ‘Why not us?’ slogan, made some incredible late-season adjustments on both ends of the field, and provided leadership reserved exclusively for champions. As a result, it is now more clear than ever before that Starsia has earned every accolade that has come his way.
During a span of nine days, facing odds greater than probably any championship program in NCAA history has faced, Dom Starsia became the all-time wins leader in Division I history, and captured his fourth national championship as a Head Coach. In the process of doing so, Starsia secured his reputation as a man of character and integrity who put his team standards ahead of a perceived pursuit of victory.
How many coaches would dismiss not one, but two of the most talented players on their team? How many coaches would suspend another top player just hours before the national semifinals? During a time when it is now ‘the norm’ for lacrosse coaches to lose their jobs for a lack of championships appearances (see: Cottle, Dave; Meade, Richie; Seaman, Tony), Starsia put it all of the line and placed his team in a position to potentially lose in order to pursue the finer virtues of the program he runs.
In other words, from the moment the national media first heard the name George Huguely a year ago until the final seconds of the 2011 championship victory over Maryland, Dom Starsia was a championship coach regardless of what happened on the field. He holds the most prestigious record among Division I men’s lacrosse coaches, a record that the entirety of the lacrosse world can be proud that he holds because – unlike the other coach in the headlines on Memorial Day 2011 – Dom Starsia stands for the finest qualities of college sports. The example and precedent he set with the way he handled the 2011 University of Virginia lacrosse team while leading them to a national championship is one of the great stories our sport has seen in some time, and will hopefully set the tone for the way programs are run as our sport continues its growth.
For a sport that has not quite hit the proverbial big time the way football and basketball has in the national sports culture, we have seen far too many scandals during the last five years. Had Dom Starsia not acted to maintain control of his program this season and set the bar higher than ever for what is expected of a Virginia lacrosse player, who knows the kind of stories that would have come out of this program? Instead, Dom Starsia did things the right way, and never lost focus on the educational mission mandated by intercollegiate athletics. As of Monday night, he is the all-time wins leader in Division I men’s lacrosse history and a four-time national champion … and the lacrosse world should not want it any other way.