COLLEGE PARK – John Tillman had finally made it.
After years as a low-paid assistant lacrosse coach at Ithaca College and the U.S. Naval Academy, four and a half years ago Harvard gave Tillman his first Division I head coaching job and a significant bump in pay.
When he arrived, he didn’t buy a house of his own in Cambridge, Mass., or rent a fancy apartment. At 38 years old and 16 years out of college, he moved into a dorm room. Seriously.
“There were a bunch of duffel bags on the floor. We were lucky enough to get our wash done once a week. Might of worn the same shirt once or twice in a row, but I don’t think anybody noticed,” Tillman said of the three months he spent on the first floor of Harvard’s Lowell House with his assistant coach.
Tillman, now in his second year as Maryland’s head men’s lacrosse coach, said he ended up in the dorm because he was too busy turning around Harvard’s lacrosse program to look for a real place to live.
Tillman’s friends, family and former players said his low-maintenance personality is a big part of his success.
If it isn’t about lacrosse or his family, Tillman doesn’t have time to think about it. He’s a little goofy and knows how to have fun, but his players said it would be hard to find someone more dedicated to his job.
“He’s the guy that gets in there at six in the morning and won’t leave until eight o’clock at night. He’s always working,” said Brian Farrell, a former captain at Maryland who now plays for Major League Lacrosse’s Boston Cannons.
Tillman was born in 1969 and grew up in rural Painted Post, N.Y., the son of a teacher and a judge, with two older brothers. Mac Tillman, who is four and a half years older than John Tillman, said “surviving two older brothers” provided John the mental and physical toughness he needed to rise to the top of the college lacrosse coaching ranks.
“They were tough on me…I think they knew that if they weren’t around, I was going to have to take care of myself and they weren’t always going to be there for me,” John Tillman said.
From an early age, John Tillman was extremely passionate about sports. Tim Tillman, who is a year and a half older than John Tillman, said that his younger brother couldn’t sleep without sports.
“He had a TV in his bedroom, and on more than 10 occasions, I would walk in there late in the evening, there would be a college basketball game on and he would be sleeping,” Tim Tillman said.
From his mother Elizabeth “Betty” Tillman, John Tillman learned of the impact he could make on kids’ lives.
“Some of the kids came from tougher homes…the only positive support they really [got] was from their teacher at school,” Mac Tillman said.
He sees the same passion in his youngest brother.
“At some point they can’t play competitive lacrosse. [If he can have a] winning season, kids with strong moral fiber, strong athletes on the field, ultimately successful in life, he feels great. That’s why you see so many players loyal to him,” Mac Tillman said.
His mother’s teaching pushed him towards a career mentoring young people.
“I certainly had positive role models when I was younger, [I wanted to] be that type of person that you could positively influence someone else and maybe make a difference,” John Tillman said.
His father Myron “Mike” Tillman was a New York Supreme Court Justice, who instilled a strong sense of right and wrong.
“[As the] kids of a judge, everyone is watching you. If you screw up, everyone is going to know it. You live in a little bit of a bubble, when a parent is involved with the judicial system,” John Tillman said.
TRANSITION TO COACHING
John Tillman had always loved sports, but he didn’t pick up a lacrosse stick until the summer before 9th grade.
“I was a late guy compared to everybody else. I didn’t really start playing until high school and I was not very good,” John Tillman said.
“We talked about putting the team first, making sure that everybody is valued. Regardless of how many goals you score or ground balls you pick up, everybody contributes to the team, not just the starters,” Tillman said.
In 1991, John graduated from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. The following summer he and a friend worked at a lacrosse camp for four to five days teaching the game to 300 kids.
“You really got a chance to be hands on with them, coach a team, see kids improve, see them interact with each other. At that point, I was like, ‘This is what I’d like to do,’” he said.
After the summer camp, he earned his first volunteer assistant coaching gig at Ithaca College in 1992. For the next three years, he delivered pizzas and worked in bars to survive.
“Going and trying to make a million dollars on Wall Street…that never really appealed to me,” he said. “I made like $2,400 a year with no benefits. And I was very happy.”
From Ithaca head coach Jeff Long, Tillman learned coaching is never about the head honcho — unless the team loses.
“When we lose, I’ll take all the blame and when we win, the kids will get all the credit,” he said.
Watching Long also reinforced his decision to pursue a coaching career.
“With a guy like that, you saw the difference he made in a lot of young people’s lives and I was like, ‘Wow, that would be a great thing to be able to do,’” he said.
His work at Ithaca landed allowed him to jump to a big-time program in 1995, as an assistant coach at the U.S. Naval Academy making about $20,000 a year.
“My parents were like, ‘You sure you know what you’re doing?’ I’m like ‘I have a plan,’” he said.
It was a natural fit for him. His father spent four to five years in the Marine Corps after graduating college, so he understood how to recruit players with a military mindset.
During Tillman’s 12 years at Navy, from 1995-2007, the Midshipmen went 104-63 and made the 2004 championship game. After five years as Navy head coach Richie Meade’s top assistant — from 2002 to 2007 — Tillman earned his first head coaching job at Harvard at age 38.
At Harvard, Tillman didn’t have time for anything but lacrosse. That’s why he found himself back in the dorms with his assistant coach, Kevin Warne, who later followed Tillman to Maryland.
At least they didn’t have to answer to a resident assistant.
“Apparently, they thought we were mature,” Warne said.
Tillman improved Harvard immensely. Before he arrived the offense and defense were both ranked in the 40s in the country. Under his watch, the defense and offense were ranked in the top 15. In 2009, Tillman’s final season, Harvard (8-5) posted their best record since 1999.
That was enough to convince Maryland that he could bring the school its first national championship since 1975. In 2011, his first season at Maryland, he came close. The Terps lost 9-7 to Virginia in the national championship game.
Though he didn’t bring a national championship in his first year, his players said he infused the team with a strong sense of discipline. His work ethic also rubbed off on his players. And he re-emphasized the team’s longstanding motto, “Be the best.”
“He took…‘Be the best’ to what it meant,” said former captain Brian Farrell. “He takes that to heart.”
Tillman has a passion for improving his players on and off the field. He doesn’t ask of them anything he wouldn’t do.
“We’re [the coaches] going to put in long hours too, we’re going to be here night and day,” Tillman said. “Once we leave the field, I’m here to help you as a person. I’m going to make sure you graduate, I’m going to help you get jobs. I want you to be the best person you can be.”
Freshman defender Goran Murray said he has adopted Tillman’s philosophy of life off the field. “You want to do something right all the time,” he said. “Just being on time for things and being prepared is the best way to approach things in life.”
Junior midfielder Mike Chanenchuk, who Tillman recruited to play at Navy and later transferred to Maryland from Princeton, was looking for a father figure after three tough years in New Jersey.
“I think he enjoys being a part of our lives and our progression through college, and getting us to do the right things,” Chanenchuk said.
As Chanenchuk was rehabbing a knee injury this off-season, he could always count on a friendly text from his coach.
“A little reinforcement to let you know he’s thinking of you. Goes a long way when you have so many things going on in your life,” he said.
Tillman cares about his team like family. But he wouldn’t be where he is today without his real family.
Tillman doesn’t have children of his own, but his brother Mac Tillman’s kids simply adore him.
For one of his recent birthdays, his nephew and niece in Petaluma, Calif., sent him a box filled with chalk, a combination lock, and a box of ding dongs.
Why? Because Tillman is a “Chalkalockadingdong.” Don’t worry if you don’t understand. It’s a nickname his niece and nephew gave him that stemmed from a goofy language he invented for them. Seriously.