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.