Rising to heights unimagined
While sport fans may have seen the headline at the base of their television - Tuft's Men's Lacrosse Wins Division III National Championship , most forgot the news soon after it slid across the screen. But underneath the headline is a remarkable story about persistence, sacrifice, dedication, and, most of all, leadership.
In the early winter of 1998 Mike Daly took over a nearly 70-year-old lacrosse program that had only 19 winning seasons. Coming off a 2-12 '98 campaign, it was a daunting challenge for any coach to inherit. Adding to the difficulty, the 26 year-old Daly had never been a head coach and never played lacrosse.
When Daly accepted the head coaching job 12 seasons ago he set his sites on working hard and getting the little things done right. He met with the finest coaches, read about leadership and strategy, and developed relationships with lacrosse insiders, equipment reps, high school coaches and his beloved alumni. He brought an extra set of eyes with him to scout his opponents, wore Tufts colors to high school and all-star games, and attended recruiting camps when he could have simply sent assistants.
Tufts plays in the New England Small Athletic Conference (NESCAC), the most competitive conference in the nation, and early in his tenure Daly worked to assemble a competitive out-of-conference schedule that could help his players succeed. He scheduled teams that would push his players, but ones that his players could push back. He built confidence with out-of-conference wins, attracted recruits as a team on the rise, and in time Tufts began taking down in-conference NESCAC foes. Daly continued to improve the quality of his opponents, kept winning, and began gaining national recognition.
All the while Daly and his players kept working. They attended lacrosse events, watched game film, subscribed to insider magazines, and started to talk more freely about winning championships. Daly continued to focus on details, arranging events at the Final Four for families and alumni, only hiring alumni for coveted graduate assistants jobs and the opportunity to continue serving the team as a coach. Daly also used fund-raising dollars to give his players more and more equipment, apparel, and positive experiences. The staff continued to study, read, recruit, and learn, and the players continued to practice, lift, condition, and try.
To be clear, on the surface nothing was that special about the Jumbos. They were an underdog team trying to win, smart kids who were passed up by more successful programs being coached by a guy who had no business coaching college lacrosse in the nation's most competitive conference. But those watching closely saw a determined and united team serving their university proudly while dreaming of winning a national title.
The day before the 2010 National Championship game, Daly told me they had the better team, and showed me what his players would be wearing on game day. With a thick playoff-bearded grin he lifted a red, white and blue helmet from a bag and said, "I've been thinking about this for a long time, and can't believe no other team has ever thought to represent our nation on Memorial Day Weekend." He also pulled out new uniforms that he planned to surprise his players with in the locker room before the game. He talked about how Bob Kraft, owner of the NFL's New England Patriots, and his son Dan Kraft, proud Tufts lacrosse alum, spoke with the team days before the game after inviting them to practice in Gillette Stadium so they could get accustomed to the stadium atmosphere. In a word, he told me that they were prepared.
After the victory, a whole band of Jumbos cheered "Michael Daly! Michael Daly!" while marching into the record books as the first team to win a National title at Tufts and the first men's lacrosse team to ever bring an NCAA trophy back to Massachusetts after winning in its first appearance in the Championship game and only its third trip to the NCAA tournament. While the crowd was chanting a single man's name, Daly's efforts throughout the past decade ensured that the victory would be shared. This win belonged to his players' efforts, his wife's sacrifices, his staff's commitment. It was shared with alumni who donated their four years of college athletic eligibility to the hope of pushing a program and a school to heights unimagined. This victory was collective.
Mike Daly and I are long-time friends, and when I approached him after the championship game he looked at me and quietly said, "This is awesome." We hugged, and I let go of the tears that I had been trying to hold throughout the afternoon. I was inspired and proud to have watched such a hard working, good person succeed after all these years. Just as important, in a society that seems to value style over substance, I had proof that dreams can be fulfilled with effort, passion, honest relationships and unwavering leadership: The type of leadership that starts with sharing a dream, working at it, and believing in those around you when no one else will.
The comments to this entry are closed.