It’s been quite a few years since the Harvard men’s lacrosse team put together winning seasons. Nine, to be exact.
But the Crimson are on the rise again, thanks to improving players and third-year head coach John Tillman. The former Ithaca College and Navy assistant coach, after going 6-8 in his first season at Harvard, helped the Crimson in 2009 record their best record (8-5; 3-3 Ivy League) in more than a decade. Last season’s first win, a 9-6 road upset in the season opener over fifth-ranked Duke, now stands as one of the biggest wins in program history, and a turning point.
“The Duke win was important for us for a lot of reasons,” said Tillman. “To get that win against one of the premier programs in college lacrosse and certainly a group we have a lot of respect for [was a big moment].”
Fast forward to this season. Despite consecutive losses to No. 5 Duke and No. 10 Cornell after a 5-2 start, Harvard is still ranked 20th in the nation and saw 13,285 fans come to Harvard Stadium to watch the Crimson face Duke — the largest Harvard lacrosse crowd ever.
“We had hoped to do things like that when we first came in. And to have those things start to happen, even after just 30 months, just makes you step back and think: If we keep working at this, the possibilities are endless. … We could lead the country in attendance. We could have an elite program up here.”
Tillman’s philosophy is simple. For Tillman, a one-time fleet support officer in the U.S. Navy and a former professional lacrosse player, one of the most important values is for his players to look at the team more like a family.
“During practices, we’re going to challenge each other and get after it. But as soon as the whistle blows, we walk off and we do anything to look out for each other,” said Tillman. “Whether it’s a guy’s injured, he needs a summer job, he needs academic help, whatever it is, we have to be there for each other, and that’s something that’s nonnegotiable. We always have to be there for each other.”
His players have bought into the program and the family environment, and increasingly recruits have too. This off-season Tillman recruited the third-ranked class in the country after pulling in a strong class a season ago.
“Harvard is unique in a lot of ways. Number one, the education you can offer a young man, and the experience that it can offer, is unmatched. To be able to go to the most recognized school in the world and get the best education in the world is a just a special thing to offer. On top of it, the environment that they’re put in, because of the great job the admissions people do, there’s so much personal growth here.”
As Tillman emphasizes individual growth, he offers a reminder to his players that, for them, Harvard is more than just lacrosse. “On top of being great athletes here, I want them to be very strong students here, great members of the Harvard community, and make sure they remember we’re members of the Harvard community.”
After the recent two-game skid against top teams, the next three games will be critical for the Crimson if they want to hold on to their hopes not only to put together back-to-back winning seasons, but also to stay within striking distance of their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006 and just their second since 1996.
That will be tough for the Crimson, who after taking on last-place Penn will face No. 6 Princeton and No. 16 Yale to close out the regular season. But this team, which traveled to UMass earlier this season to top the Minutemen (now ranked 12th in the nation) by a score of 13-12, is no longer afraid of a top-ranked challenger. The Crimson will be ready now, and likely for years to come.
“We’re still scratching the surface here, we’re still learning about Harvard … you can’t learn it all in 30 months, but we’re certainly trying to get there. We believe in this place,” Tillman said, “and I think that’s one thing that when recruits come up, they can sense from us.”