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Coach Worth Watching: John Tillman, University of Maryland Men’s Lacrosse Coach

May 15, 2017 09:55AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Tom Worgo

John Tillman paid a price to break into coaching lacrosse. His first job as assistant coach at Ithaca College in New York came with a salary of $2,400 per season in the early 1990s. Obviously, it wasn’t enough to live on, so he supplemented his income with a number of side jobs, including delivering pizzas and bartending.

The 42-year-old Tillman has come a long way since those leaner days. Now, he’s in his seventh season running one of the nation’s premier lacrosse programs at the University of Maryland.  Tillman has been highly successful, compiling an 80-26 record entering this spring. He also guided the Terrapins to four appearances in the national championship game. They’ve lost all of them, including in overtime to North Carolina last year, 14-13. But Maryland should be in the national title hunt again with an extremely talented team.

Tillman loves to talk about Maryland and his early years in coaching. After four years at Ithaca, the native of Corning, New York, moved on to become offensive coordinator and assistant head coach at the U.S Naval Academy, a job that laid the foundation for him to become the head coach at Harvard University and, then, Maryland.

While in Annapolis, the Cornell University graduate played professional indoor lacrosse for three seasons and was commissioned as a fleet support officer while being awarded the Navy achievement medal. We recently sat down to talk to Tillman, who is single, about his coaching career, his time in Annapolis, and what he does to relax after a game.


Can you compare and contrast the different cultures between Harvard, Navy, and Maryland?

The schools are very different. You have a service academy, an Ivy League school, and a state university. I think all those places are very special and I have enjoyed the uniqueness of each place. At the Naval Academy, the core values are just tremendous. Honor, commitment, integrity, leadership. It’s hard for those things to not be part of you. Harvard is a very diverse place. Not only on campus, but in Boston. The university and city have so much history. Coming back down here, being at Maryland and being part of the ACC and Big Ten is exciting. Maryland has really evolved in a lot of ways. It’s amazing the growth of the school and how tough it is to get into now. And being in an area where lacrosse is so important is special.

Can you explain how you were commissioned as a fleet support officer while at the Academy?

There were opportunities for the coaches to get engrained in the military. You would learn a lot more about the working of military and what it entailed. When you are working with midshipmen, understanding what the Navy was all about was very helpful. I taught boxing and martial arts classes and helped with the physical readiness test. I helped administer drug tests. I had duties above and beyond security duties. You got appreciation about what the academy and the Navy was all about.

How have you dealt with four losses in the national championship game? Do they linger?

I just don’t let them linger. You have to look at the big picture with this. It’s not like a football bowl game, where you kind of get to celebrate the season. You realize most teams are going to end their season with a loss. You have to step back and realize, unless we win every game [in the NCAA tournament], there is going to be some disappointment. But getting that close and not finishing is a different type of disappointment. You are so close to a national championship. You want that game badly.

You started your coaching career as an assistant at Ithaca College in 1991 after graduating with a degree in hotel management. What kind of sacrifices did you have to make?

The first year I volunteered and the two next years I was making $2,400 before taxes with no insurance. I had to do different things to make ends meet. I loved spending the time with the players and being on the field. If I had to work harder and supplement my income, I was going to do that.

A lot of rival coaches say you are a tireless worker. Are you married to your job?

I am a pretty passionate guy and anything I ever do I put my heart and soul into it whether it’s being the best uncle, the best mentor, or the best coach I can be. I am fortunate that being a coach is different. It’s not a nine-to-five job and you punch out. It’s much more than a job. It’s a passion. 

What causes do you devote your time to?

I think the thing that we have done the most with is a group called Team Impact. We adopt local youths who have some sort of challenge. [Six-year-old cancer patient] Fionn Crimmons came on board about a year ago. We are very engaged with him. He has been on campus probably a dozen times. He lives in Kensington. We also do a lot of community service. We do a lot of events and activities whether it’s on campus or in the area.