April 9, 2017
By John Heisler
Building a championship program in any sport at any level is no easy task. It takes a mix of recruiting, coaching, institutional commitment, financial resources, facilities, promotion and multiple doses of just plain hard work. This is Part II of a series in which we take a look at several Notre Dame programs that have grown from modest beginnings to the point where they can compete year after year with the best in the country.
These are good times for the University of Notre Dame men's lacrosse program.
The Irish have played on NCAA Championship Weekend (lacrosse's version of the Final Four) four times in the last seven seasons--twice playing in the title game.
Notre Dame now has advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals seven straight years--something no one else in the country can say.
The Irish play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, widely regarded as the best competition in the land. They've been ranked number one in the nation multiple times in multiple years--and they've been good enough to qualify as the top overall seed in the NCAA bracket.
Head coach Kevin Corrigan's team plays its home dates at Arlotta Stadium, a nifty lacrosse-only facility that opened in the fall of 2009.
The Irish annually compete for the best players in the country from a recruiting standpoint.
Considering this is his 29th season in South Bend, Corrigan--more than anyone--understands all the steps it has taken to build the program to its current level.
When Corrigan took over at Notre Dame, the Irish had eight seasons as a varsity program under their belts after being elevated from club status in 1981. In fact, lacrosse remains the last sport to reach varsity status among the 13 current men's offerings at the University.
However, Corrigan initially had few of the advantages he enjoys today.
In 1989, his first season as head coach, the Irish split a Joyce Center locker room with several other Notre Dame men's teams.
They shared an outdoor grass game field with several other Notre Dame men's and women's teams.
They had no budget to pay assistant coaches and they had no money to fly to games on the East Coast.
They had no scholarships and, according to Corrigan, no real suggestion of scholarships to come.
But Kevin, who arrived a year after his father Gene left the job as Notre Dame's athletic director to become commissioner of the ACC, was not deterred.
"You've just got to take all the steps," says Corrigan matter of factly.
"When I came in we had no history in terms of national prominence in the sport. Not only that we were geographically outside the mainstream, and we were certainly one of the newer teams in the country in the sport at a time when lacrosse wasn't growing like it has the last decade.
"The first thing we needed to do was competitively raise the level of our profile. We needed to play better people. We needed to get out to areas of the country where recruits were and we needed to get to the NCAA Championship to show people proof of concept, that we could win some games and compete at a higher level."
So Corrigan ignored whatever financial limitations he faced and chose to begin by emphasizing what the University brought to the table.
"We had a great University," he says. "We had an athletic department that competed at a really high level which, for example, meant our weight room was good. We had an indoor facility (the Loftus Center that opened in 1987). We created the impression that we were fully supported. There were major limitations, but the idea was to make sure people on the outside understood Notre Dame was in the lacrosse business."
Corrigan began by working at recruiting in an effort to upgrade the Irish roster and give Notre Dame a better chance at beating quality opponents. Yet, that wasn't easy because Corrigan's program was still viewed as some sort of western outpost in lacrosse as opposed to a place where a player could go to compete against the best in the country.
"The first step to getting the best players is getting better players," says Corrigan. "You have to get your team to a level where the best players think they can come there and play at the highest level. Without scholarships and all those other things, you aren't going to just come in and recruit the best players--they aren't going to come because you're not at the highest level. So it was important to make the NCAA tournament a few times."
Corrigan laughs now about those early years when some of the best players in the country took official visits to Notre Dame--even if most ended up elsewhere.
"We got all kinds of kids to visit," he says. "They were intrigued with Notre Dame, a new school, a big football school that was now playing lacrosse.
"We would have these recruiting weekends during football season and we would bring in some of the top players in the country. But for years I would have players, say, `Hey coach, I'd love to come, I had the greatest visit, but I'm going to Virginia or Duke or Hopkins.' It was because those schools were competing at the highest level and we weren't. So we had to work up to that.
"But the idea that those guys were coming was huge--we wanted everybody in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Long Island (New York) to know that that guy was coming to Notre Dame for an official visit. That alone raised our profile in the high schools."
Corrigan's process was aided by some new financial resources--revenue from summer camps, additional funds for assistant coach salaries and an upsized travel budget.
"The first few years I was here we never got on a plane. We're playing an East Coast sport against East Coast teams by traveling on a bus," he says. "That was a tough way to go.
"But as these resources came along we had some stability, especially in the area of our coaching staff. The athletic department started benchmarking--and I got an immediate raise and immediate help in our assistant coaches' salaries. (Former assistant coach) Kevin Anderson (now a volunteer coach for the Irish) was here for 10 years--he can afford to get married and raise a family. So all the sudden the resources are there to develop some continuity--and all those things make a huge difference."
Next the Irish did what many thought would be impossible. Despite the absence of scholarships, Corrigan's 2001 Irish squad won a landmark NCAA quarterfinal game against Johns Hopkins and advanced to the final four. That victory came against a talented Blue Jay team that had been to the final four the previous two seasons and would do the same the following four years.
"We started winning some (NCAA) tournament games, and the next step was being a consistent top 10 team and expecting to win and be in the tournament every year," says Corrigan.
"You're making those steps. You have to have the best players in the country thinking they can come and make the difference and put you in that position."
With the on-field success came more good news. Kevin White's tenure as Notre Dame athletics director featured a commitment to ensure that every Irish sport received the full NCAA complement of scholarship. The University announced in December 2000 that it would add those additional grants-in-aid over a four-year period. The largest number of scholarships went to two Irish programs then without grants-in-aid--women's rowing (it received 20 over those four years) and men's lacrosse (12.6).
Corrigan looked at that program upgrade as a windfall because he came to South Bend with no expectations in that category.
"In those days everyone always asked about scholarships and the answer was no," he says. "I did not think we'd ever have scholarships.
"It was a different environment in our sport--there weren't a lot of schools in those days giving a lot of money in those so-called minor sports. But clearly the perception was that you were one of the have-nots if you did not have scholarships.
"I was looking at it with the idea that, hey, we're not going to go after Virginia, we're going to go after the top Ivys, which at that time were great. We can offer the same things they can offer, plus we've got all these facilities.
"But the schedule was always an issue at that point, too. The best players want to play the best schedules, the best teams. I refused to pay people to come out here and I refused to play anybody in a one-off at their place. I refused to do that unless they would come here because I knew if I started that I'd never get home games.
"I told them, `Bring your kids out to Notre Dame, play us once every four years at Notre Dame. Let's play a home and home, take two years off and then play another home and home. So you can tell every kid he'll make one trip to Notre Dame over his four years.'
"These were the steps you had to take."
Corrigan's program prospered with players who weren't on the "A list" for some of the traditional powers in the sport.
"Mostly we were finding guys other people didn't know about or turned down--like Randy Colley (Notre Dame's first All-American in 1994). He would have gone to Duke if Duke had taken him. Mike Iorio (a second-team All-American in 1995) would have gone to Virginia if they had taken him.
"Those schools just did not have those guys at the top of their lists, and so they came here and became our best players.
"Todd Rassas came to Notre Dame via Holy Cross Junior College, without any other Division 1 options available--and he became a three-time All-American (1996, '97, '98) and captain of the U.S. national team.
"We tried to recruit kids from good programs, from places like Delbarton (New Jersey) and Wilton (Connecticut), from certain schools where we felt like if we could get kids from those schools they would be tough players, well-coached and intelligent. If we could find a few stars and a bunch of other guys who knew how to win, then that would work.
"Some of it was a plan and some was learning what worked and what didn't. Now we are so conscious of recruiting kids who are a great fit for Notre Dame. What I learned along the way was that the ones that were most successful here were the ones that were great fits for Notre Dame.
"I had to find kids that wanted Notre Dame and were willing to come here and play lacrosse. Back then there was no internet or web sites so it was harder to sell your program or your University. The amount of awareness of any University is amazing now compared to what it was then, and the advances in media have given us a great ability to craft our messages (including via a Notre Dame lacrosse YouTube channel).
"Kids would think Notre Dame had 50,000 students because all they saw was a football stadium full of people every week on television. Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame--they're all the same. That whole thing has changed so much now."
That 2001 win over Hopkins in the rain in College Park, Maryland, became a major stepping stone.
"From that point on we've never had to convince people that we could compete," says Corrigan. "That game changed the perception.
"We had great kids from good programs like Boys Latin (in Baltimore) that had a high profile in our sport. Players like David Ulrich and Tom Glatzel (both All-Americans in 2000 and 2001)--they weren't the best players on those (high school) teams, but they were guys you could win with.
"We got some great players in those first few classes with scholarships, guys like Pat Walsh (a three-time All-American from 2003-05). But the interesting thing was that we didn't have a lot of success right away."
Coming off a 14-2 record and NCAA national semifinal appearance in 2001, the Irish struggled to a 5-8 mark a year later and didn't earn an NCAA bid for four consecutive seasons (2002-05).
"It completely changed the culture of our team having scholarships," says Corrigan. "We only gave the scholarships to freshmen, and I would have fought that if I had known. Then the next year freshmen and sophomores--so it created a really bad dynamic in our locker room.
"The perception was that this guy's playing because he's on scholarship. No, he's playing because he's better and the reason he's better is because with scholarships we're able to get better players.
"It was nothing personal, but it really muddied up our locker room and I didn't do a good job with that."
Scheduling remained as difficult as ever--in part because the Irish now were good enough to fight tooth and nail with the better teams. Opposing coaches who once worried that playing Notre Dame hurt their strength of schedule now became concerned that traveling all the way to South Bend also was likely to add a loss to the ledger.
Corrigan credits former Loyola coach Dave Cottle with breaking that barrier.
"Dave really helped us because when he was at Loyola and they were a top 10 program every year he would play us home and home," Corrigan says. "The good news was that there were a couple of years where the only win they had, the best win, was against us and they got into the (NCAA) tournament in part because they beat us.
"So that was a great thing for other coaches to see. They said, `We can go out to South Bend and lose and it won't hurt us, and we can go out there and win and it can get us into the NCAA tournament. Now we can afford to play those guys.'
"Right before that it was really hard to get people to play us because they would say, `We can go out there but they can beat us and that will kill us. And if we beat them we won't get any credit for it, so why play them?'"
Notre Dame joined the Big East Conference in 1995, but the league did not sponsor men's lacrosse at the time. With a push from Corrigan--and a decision by powerful Syracuse to end its days as an independent--the conference finally began men's lacrosse in 2010.
"The Big East was huge," he says. "We fought so hard for that for a long time. It wasn't that our league in the Midwest (the Great Western Lacrosse League) was terrible, but we needed that perceptual jump to say we're not just out here in the Midwest playing Midwest lacrosse.
"It started after we beat Duke that year (1995) in the (NCAA) tournament. I think they really had one of the three best teams in the country that year. From that point on people saw us as someone coming into the tournament who belonged in the tournament and could compete in the tournament.
"Then we beat (fifth-ranked) Loyola (in the NCAAs) when they were very highly thought of (2000)--that was a team that a lot of people thought would win it all and we beat them in the first round. We beat Loyola and lost to Hopkins and then the next year we beat the two to go to the final four.
"I think from about 2006 or 2007 on there was no team on any day that we didn't expect to beat--we were more surprised to lose than to win."
The latest piece of the puzzle came when Arlotta Stadium, a lacrosse-only campus facility with FieldTurf, came online.
Over the course of about a decade, Notre Dame had developed into a program that could check all the critical boxes for potential recruits.
And Corrigan, whose wife Lis helped grow the game locally by assisting in the start of a middle school league in South Bend, found a way to turn the University's geography into a plus.
"We built it on a foundation of a great University and a great athletic heritage," he says. "Our competitiveness now means all the pieces are there.
"We're a Midwestern school and we use that to say, `If you come here you're going to play all over the country.' Not every school is interested in doing that. We're in the middle of the United States, and by the time you graduate you're going to have played all over the country and all over the world (the Irish have made summer foreign trips to Ireland twice, England and Wales, the Czech Republic, Japan and Italy). So we flipped the geography to make it a positive perception."
The men's lacrosse program also is one of the most involved in the community, with Irish squad members regularly mentoring students at Dickinson Fine Arts Academy in South Bend. The ACC in 2015 recognized Notre Dame with its United Way Game Changers Award to commend the squad's ongoing work. The Irish also connect regularly with the OWLS program that provides lacrosse experiences for at-risk youth in the Chicago area.
"If you look at what distinguishes our program now from the others, it's our emphasis on the whole experience--the things we do off the field, the way we do things on the field," says Corrigan.
"It's the attitude and culture of our program in terms of everything from service to networking and professional opportunities. Many of the experiences we can provide our guys are because of the University and the reach of our alumni and where they are working.
"We're one of the top universities in the world, and our alumni are fervently behind the students at their alma mater and they'll do whatever they can to help them. Part of what Notre Dame is and always has been is that it's something different to go to Notre Dame. Who are the ones that choose us? They are the ones that value the other things that Notre Dame brings beyond just being one of the top lacrosse schools.
"We're now able to help craft the image that is so important to us -- every trip we take, what we do around the games, what we do in the community and in the greater lacrosse community. It's all those things that can be shared via the internet--those are the shared values that have played out over the last 10 years.
"They are the foundational aspects of our program.
"If you come here you are going to do all these things and compete for a national championship."
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.
Part I of the Program Building series featured the Irish women's basketball program. View it here.