Thursday, April 21, 2011


Jeff Tambroni is one of the most promising young coaches in all of lacrosse. He’s widely respected for his ability to do more with less, and seems destined to slip on a National Championship ring during his career. He’s guided Cornell to eight consecutive Ivy League titles, three Final Four appearances, and one championship game in ten years as the head of the Big Red.
In taking the reins at Penn State, a collective gasp spread throughout D-I. Tambroni has proven himself a winner in the Ivy League, and has everyone wondering what kind of damage his teams can do at a state school that seems committed to seeing lacrosse succeed. With a new recruiting base, the resources of a vaunted athletic department, and the ambition of Tambroni, Penn State could quickly become a national contender. With all that said, what is it that’s so special about Tambroni? What does he do to develop his players, motivate his teams, and churn out one successful season after another?
When talking about his coaching style and philosophy, Tambroni speaks definitively of two events. First, he talks about the 2004 Cornell team and George Boiardi. For Tambroni, Boiardi was “the ultimate team guy”, and that year’s team was “the greatest team, genuinely investing in one another.” Boiardi was known as a selfless leader, a captain, who passed away on the field during a game in 2004. Boiardi’s untimely death set off a spark in Tambroni and that year’s squad that pushed them together. Through that experience, and the questions and concerns that naturally followed, Tambroni gave pause and looked inward. “Through his passing,” Tambroni recalls, “it put my profession in perspective.” In looking more closely at his job as a coach, Tambroni came back to the importance of relationships, heartfelt and meaningful relationships with players, assistants and parents.
Through the experience, Tambroni not only looked inward, he was keenly aware of the grief and strength those around him displayed. In particular he speaks of the “inspiration the Boiardi family has provided us.” In watching the Boiardi family, Tambroni seems to have found a bit of a guiding beacon, a depth of fortitude and compassion he not only respects, but seemingly strives to emulate. As he says, the Boiardi family was “unbelievably powerful in their message of faith and their message of life.”
At this point in the conversation it’s clear that Tambroni’s not slinging the same old coaching clich├ęs. He’s not simply trying to build up accountability by empowering his athletes to be self-motivated achievers. It’s as if he’s trying to stay true to unwritten principles that a life-altering experience instilled in him. At different moments he seems to have stopped and truly questioned himself, his practices, and what’s important. Through those moments he’s gained a sense of clarity that, “nothing is more gratifying than those hugs and longstanding connections.” In short, he’s committed himself to investing in players as people, developing relationships that will thrive long after the last whistle blows.
Tambroni has seen the face of grief in his locker-room, and emerged with a resolve to commit himself to his players and the promise of connecting. He then explains how he works to connect, and the second experience that has shaped him as a coach.
He directs the conversation to an unlikely source: three girls. As the father of three daughters, the challenges of being a good dad guide his coaching. “For me personally, I try to treat kids here the same way I’d want someone to treat my kids.” His voice is gritty with conviction as he talks about what the ideal caretakers of his children would do, explaining that they’d “look my kids in the eye, tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.” It doesn’t sound easy when he says it, and the difficulty seems to be the point.
As a coach, Tambroni seems to be continually balancing two drives: Build relationships, and push those same people to be better. It’s a delicate balance, but he doesn’t flinch. “Admittedly so, we’re really hard on our players,” he offers, but he also describes his efforts to call a player after he was particularly demanding, text guys when they take exams, have off-field meetings, and check up on guys who are sick or hurt. Spring breaks are filled with team events: movies, comedy clubs, hanging out as a group of guys.
It’s not to say that Tambroni isn’t willing to be like the players. In fact, he wants them to know he likes to enjoy himself. However, he also wants to maintain the boundaries of the coach-player relationship. He’s willing to extend himself, be there for players, but he’s not going to stop pushing them.
Tambroni’s focus on his players may not be unique, but his self-awareness and struggle to balance two goals that often radically conflict may be. He cares for his players immensely, but he also cares about seeing them succeed. He’s balancing compassion with the conviction that the people around him can be something better than they are. Perhaps that single struggle is what makes him one of the very best.
It’ll be exciting to watch Penn State emerge in the up-coming seasons. It seems predestined that they’ll become a national contender. But in the mean time, take note of the coach on the sidelines. He may look calm and controlled, but he’s likely frenetic inside – if not from the desire to see his players develop, than from the pride he has in watching the people he cares for achieve.

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