THE UNNECESSARY END OF AN ERA

Naval Academy fans spend a lot of time talking about the importance of having a coach that “gets it.” The exact definition of “it” depends on the person making the comment, but in general “getting it” means embracing the mission of the school to produce officers for the Navy and Marine Corps. We’ve all heard people say that they want a coach who takes that mission personally and incorporates it into his program. When I hear things like that, I just laugh. Sure, people say those things, but they should know better. None of that matters if the team isn’t winning.

Nothing proves that point better than the forced resignation of Richie Meade as the Naval Academy’s lacrosse coach. No coach on the yard reveled in the mission of the school more than Meade. You could see it in everything from the pride he takes in his players’ careers, to his team’s offseason conditioning program based on Marine Corps training, to his attire on game day. He is an Annapolis institution, respected not only by his peers in coaching for his success on the field, but throughout the Yard for his leadership. There is a reason why he was offered a position at the Stockdale Center. Speakers at the Academy’s Corbin Leadership Summit have included military leaders, corporate CEOs… and Meade. Hell, even the best sandwich at Drydock was named after him. Richie Meade was made to be a coach at the Naval Academy. You will never find a more perfect pairing of an individual with a school. But as I said before, none of that really matters. A coach could churn out a team full of war heroes every year, but that won’t be the standard to which he’s sooner or later held accountable.

I’m not one of those hyperventilating idiots who thinks that the athletic department should revolve around the lacrosse program, and that any AD decision made for the benefit of higher-profile programs (read: football) is evil. Major college athletics is a business. That business is to serve as the proverbial front porch for the school, increasing exposure and awareness, and driving interest that turns into applications for admission. Football, being the most mainstream of American sports, is the primary vehicle both for exposure and for revenue generation. Making money allows the athletic department to reinvest in itself with things like facilities, recruiting budgets, and hiring and retaining coaches. That, in turn, drives winning. Winning is ultimately what maximizes interest in a given team, enabling it to carry out its role in fulfilling the athletic department’s mission. It is important to the school that their teams win. These are the basics, and the opinions of those who won’t acknowledge these fundamentals should be ignored.

That’s the real problem with Coach Meade’s ouster: it’s a bad business decision. The fact that he has been such an excellent ambassador for the school is just icing on a really crappy cake.

There is no doubt that the last two seasons were a disappointment. It should take more than that, though, to justify firing a coach that has won 60% of his games, won 5 conference tournament or regular-season titles in the last 8 years, and taken his team to 7 NCAA tournaments. It’ll be hard to find a coach with a better resume than that. Hasn’t Richie done enough to earn the benefit of the doubt? Hasn’t he earned chance to turn his program around? Don DeVoe got 3 seasons before he was forced out, and his team fell a lot farther than the lacrosse program has. Billy Lange had two winning seasons in seven years, and he was going to be allowed to finish out his contract. Yes, these were the first back-to-back losing seasons in program history; but if the standard for Naval Academy athletic programs is to compete for conference championships, how can anyone claim that Coach Meade hasn’t done so, even during the 7-8 2010 season?

The problem is that the standard to which the lacrosse team is held is apparently different. Competing for conference titles isn’t enough for those influential lacrosse alumni from Navy’s heyday in the ’60s. In their view, Navy should be playing for national titles. Never mind that the game has completely evolved away from those days, where you could build a championship contender by stacking your team with football players to simply out-athlete the opposition. Today’s game is a specialized, year-round enterprise. The same challenges that Navy teams face in recruiting academically qualified talent willing to make a military commitment are just as applicable to the lacrosse team. You might expect the lacrosse team to be a little better nationally than others on the yard since there just aren’t very many lacrosse teams to begin with, but expecting a national powerhouse on a regular basis is unreasonable. One might argue that it wasn’t just the two losing seasons that led to Richie’s exit; it was the gradual downward trend since the 2004 dream season. Even that train of thought is short-sighted; what you call a downward trend, I call regression to the mean. Navy has never won an NCAA championship, and only played in one other title game back in 1975. In the 36 years since then, the typical Navy season has been somewhere between 6-6 and 8-5 or so, with only a handful of exceptions. Those who expect more are not only ignoring decades of precedent, but also ignoring the fact that Meade’s teams have outperformed that standard for most of the last seven years.

Most, but obviously not all. The Mids beat Johns Hopkins to put a silver lining on the 2010 season, but 2011 was all cloud. Holding Coach Meade solely responsible, though, is wrong. Coaching at the Naval Academy presents unique challenges; one of those challenges is dealing with NAPS. You’ll often hear people describe NAPS as some great advantage that Navy has over its opponents, but those who say so don’t understand how it works. The prep school is not USNA; players are not obligated to attend the Academy after going through NAPS. And in recent years, many haven’t been.  Someone once told me that the NAPS administration at the time viewed the school not as a preparatory school, but as a pre-screening to weed people out. NAPS retention has been a problem for several sports, not just lacrosse. The football team doesn’t feel quite the same effects simply due to the size of its roster; each lost football player potentially represents only 1/22 of a starting lineup as opposed to 1/5 of a basketball lineup or 1/10 of a lacrosse lineup. With the players who left the lacrosse program, it’s no wonder that the team struggled last year. Take 15-20 players away from any coach in the country and see if he does any better. Now that NAPS has new leadership, retention is picking up. Coach Niumatalolo recently brought in one of the smallest football direct admit classes in recent memory, citing improved NAPS retention as the reason. It’s getting better for the lacrosse program too, with last year’s team dominated by freshmen. This has the potential to be a fantastic class. Coach Meade has proven that he can do special things with players like these, and he deserved the chance to do it again.

It’s been almost two weeks, but I’m still having a hard time gathering my thoughts. I should probably be focused on the future by now, but that is apparently easier said than done. We’ve seen a lot of good moves from NAAA over the past several years, including where the lacrosse program is concerned. Forcing Richie Meade to resign, though, was a mistake. I am eager to see who the next coach will be and I will support him wholeheartedly once he’s named, but I may be in the minority. The next coach will not only have to live up to the standard of the old-timers who think Navy is entitled to games on Memorial Day weekend every year, but he’ll have to contend with another faction that will constantly compare him to Meade. It will be hard not to. Letting Richie Meade go isn’t the end of the world for Navy lacrosse, but it is the end of something really, really special.

It didn’t have to be.

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26 Responses

  1. Well, said.

  2. All the things you said about Meade are true. Not sure that forcing him out was the best thing in the world. Also not sure that the program didn’t need a change…

  3. Somehow I’m betting we don’t see a link to this article on navysports.com………..

  4. I am one of those ’60s lax players that was NOT involved in lobbying for Meade to go. I took my grandson to two Navy lax camps, one run by Richie with his assistant coaches and Mids as coaches, and one with local coaches. The camp that Richie ran was out*******ingstanding. What a gentleman and credit to Navy. Lax is big time compared to yesteryear. Watch some of this year’s NCAA tournament to see the changes. See what coaching and unrestricted recruiting can do ie Denver. Navy can and will compete well in lax I just wish Richie was given the opportunity to retire on his own. Having played for Bildy, his strength was finding great assistant coaches to translate what was needed as few could understand what he actually said other than run run run, cut cut cut, and he has a room named after him. Richie was far the better coach.

  5. Great comment, Frank.

  6. Although none have surfaced and maybe there isn’t anything else, is it possible that there are issues behind the scenes that prompted this?

    Otherwise, as you have stated, this looks like a monumental mistake by CG.

  7. You started off by discussing the business of NAAA. If there were some really heavy hitters threatening to withhold $$, maybe it was purely a business decision. It would be ashame if the decision came down to that. However, I would bet that a lot of the big NAAA donors really only care about football and lacrosse. The bulk of our big donors are from the 60′s era. I never was Richie’s biggest fan, but I agree that it will be a tall order to replace him with someone with a better resume. Still, there are only so many D-1 coaching positions, so I believe there will be interest. Chet needs to choose wisely as his choice will be scrutinized much more than women’s hoops or soccer.

  8. I know this is Monday morning quarterbacking, but hopefully Chet can build off his DeChellis hiring. Meade’s shoes are bigger than Lange’s.

  9. Great article and nice to wrap all the key elements together..As an 89 lax guy it pains me to call this a “resignation”. A midhsipmen does not lie,cheat or steal why should a press release? and why is NAAA OK with that? Why are we Ok with that as former Naval Academy student athletes? If this was a bad business decison why are we not looking at personal issues? How many old school coaches are still in the Yard? Has the almighty dollar trumped what the good is? One of the core tenets of Adm Stockdale leading in crisis is to be a Moralist, to define the good in any situation and lead to it. Could someone explain to me what the “good” was in CG decision to fire Coach Meade?

  10. It wouldn’t have said resignation unless he agreed to resign.

  11. One of the really unfortunate things about Coach Meade’s firing is that it seems to have created, or exacerbated, conflicts between generations of Navy Lacrosse players.

    I agree with what you say about Coach Meade, and also found his firing unfortunate. And you are right to point out that the game of lacrosse is a different sport than it was during the 1960s.

    Nevertheless, I take exception to your contention that the great success of Navy Lacrosse during the 60s was merely a result of “stacking your team with football players to simply out-athlete the opposition.”

    While it is true that my Grandfather, Willis “Bildy” Bilderback took great advantage of his ability to recruit outstanding athletes from within the Naval Academy, and especially from the football program, there was much more to the success of his teams than simply throwing some random football players onto a lacrosse field and and hoping for the best.

    My grandfather was a great evaluator of talent, recruiter, team builder and strategist, and the success of his teams was no accident. Certainly it was not merely the result of the superior athleticism of his players, although I am sure were he alive today that is where he would place all the credit.

    It is possible to defend Coach Meade’s performance, and object to his firing, without denigrating the accomplishments of previous generations of Navy Lacrosse. And it makes me very sad to observe this generational rift, and to think that this (unfortunate) event would cast the accomplishments of previous generations of Navy Lacrosse players into a less favorable light in the minds of some.

    That said, my Grandfather would be the first to acknowledge that the game of lacrosse had changed since he coached. I had many conversations with him about the changes in the game, as well as the recruiting challenges faced by the coaches who followed him. And, of course, much more about the game has changed since he passed on in 1990.

    I have the highest respect for the players that my grandfather coached, as well as those that came through the program during later eras. I hope that in time this generational rift will heal as the next Navy Lacrosse coach builds on Coach Meade’s many accomplishments.

  12. Well written!!

    Agree with you NavyRugger!!

  13. It is not a criticism to point out that other teams from around the yard were a source of athletes for the lacrosse team. I see it as a credit to the lacrosse coaches like your grandfather who could teach these Mids the game and turn them into productive players, and sometimes even All-Americans. But the fact that such methods were even possible proves my point. Of course drawing in athletes from around the yard wasn’t the ONLY factor in Navy’s success, but that it was a factor at all just highlights how different today’s game is, and how expectations should be different as well.

    It isn’t necessarily a generational thing. The natural gung-ho Navy mindset across every generation is “no excuse, sir!” and doesn’t want to accept anything less than the absolute best. What makes for a fine personal mantra, though, is not the same as what makes for a well-run program. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. That’s all I was saying.

  14. Hi Mike. Thank you for your clarification.

    I did not really object to your overall point that the game of lacrosse has changed since the 1960s, but the tone of your post seemed somewhat dismissive of past accomplishments, although I am sure that was not your intention.

    When my grandfather retired, the game was still played with wooden sticks, and was still largely a regional sport, mainly played in high schools in parts of Maryland and Long Island. It was a dream of my grandfather to see the sport expand, and I am sure he would be pleased to see organizations like Denver fielding competitive teams, even if that made the kind of dominance that his teams experienced in the 60s all but impossible. It is obvious that lacrosse is a different, much bigger and more competitive sport than it was in the 1960s.

    I also agree with you that it is wholly unrealistic to expect a Navy team (or really any lacrosse program) to compete for a National Championship every year in this day and age. Every program, no matter how solid its foundation, is bound to have some ups and downs in such an intensely competitive environment.

    My own personal feeling is that Coach Meade has no need to make excuses for his performance as coach. He compiled an outstanding record, and built a team that (with the unfortunate exception of the last two years) was competitive year in and year out. And as far as I understand, Coach Meade never lost sight of the fact that his primary responsibility was to train outstanding Midshipmen for future leadership roles within the Navy and Marine Corps and beyond. The loyalty and good will of his past players is testament to that fact.

  15. I won’t be as kind or in my response. A lot of things just stink about this entire situation, most of all Richie Meade getting fired. The fact that continues to frustrate me is perfectly illustrated in “Franks” comments. Bildy’s strength was hiring good assistants, all he did was yell go, go, cut, cut and Richie is a far better coach is the summary of your comments. What a completely classless move Frank! I don’t know nor do I care who you are, something tells me you were buried deep on the roster and still harbor some great resentment for never having the career you dreamed of. I can’t understand for the life of my why my grandfathers name has been constantly dragged into this conversation. Every living Bilderback supports and has always supported Richie Meade. The fact that some of his players did not, has nothing to do with him. Frank, based on your classless and clueless comments I doubt you ever stepped foot on the lacrosse field in the 60′s. I’ve never met a single former player that didn’t respect, admire and flat out love Willis P. Bilderback so something tells me Frank is about as real as a unicorn. Frank if you really do exist, you should be ashamed of yourself for dragging someones name through the mud who passed from this earth before Richie Meade was even hired, let alone fired.

  16. You have a mighty low standard for what you consider to be dragging someone’s name through the mud.

  17. I played four years at Navy under Bildy, although my plebe year was not under him except off season. My point is that Bildy was great at getting excellent assistants that in fact translated his thoughts to the players. The run, run, run cut, cut cut, was classic Bildy on the field. I stand by my comments

  18. Frank, as far as I am concerned your assessment of my Grandfather’s coaching abilities is irrelevant. The question is why you and others have felt the need to drag his name into the situation with Coach Meade in the first place. He had nothing to do with Coach Meade’s resignation. He was dead before Coach Meade was even hired. Why bring his name into the discussion it at all? What possible purpose is served by that other than to stir up unnecessary animosity?

    In my opinion you are taking what is already a bad situation and making it worse by taking Coach Meade’s resignation as an opportunity to denigrate my grandfather and his accomplishments. You are welcome to your own opinion of him of course, I just don’t see what purpose is served by such nasty, embittered commentary directed at a man who lived and breathed Navy Lacrosse and who has been dead and gone over twenty years now.

  19. i will call you…..

    minithud

  20. Stand by your comments all you like Frank, just explain the reason you felt compelled to write ” Richie was far the better coach” I’ll stand by mine, classless and clueless thing to say.

  21. who knew that hyperventilating was contagious?

  22. To the brother’s Bilderback……..your GrandDad’s record, as is commonly said these days, “is what it is” – and it is pretty damn good, speaks for itself. He is revered by Navy LAX fans and is aHOF coach. You guys are getting upset over peanuts. I’ve not seen anything that ties your grandfather to Richie Meade’s firing. Some of his player’s, maybe.

    Your GrandDad was not even mentioned in this article. And for what it is worth even the greatest coaches have players who don’t like them. And the greatest players have coaches that don’t like them. Nothing that you can control or influence.

  23. Word!

  24. I appreciate the perspective. Mostly we are upset over Coach Meade’s forced resignation, which we regard as both a mistake and an injustice. As you say, our Grandfather’s record needs no defense from us, our response is nothing more than a reflex born of familial love and deep respect.

  25. Well written article and true. I played for Coach Meade in the 80s and know damn well that he is a great coach. If the lacrosse magazine blogs are any indication of the broader lacrosse community’s feelings – and I think they are – then 95+% of the people believe Chet screwed up. Can this many people be wrong ? I wonder how many coaches will be fired in the future for not winning a national championship ?

  26. For the record, I think Chet has done a lot of good as Navy’s AD. Forcing Richie out, however, was wrong.

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