Adding lacrosse is a good, bold move for the Michigan athletic department
Go back 30 years for a second.
Men’s lacrosse is now a varsity sport at Michigan, athletic director Dave Brandon announced Wednesday, and that ends a 30-year drought since a major college athletic program -- one competing in the Football Bowl Subdivision -- added the game.
The last school before Michigan: Notre Dame.
The implementation of Title IX, along with the regionalized interest in lacrosse until the early part of this decade, kept the game from growing at the major conference level for years.
There were too many scholarships needed, too many athletes to pay for. Adding lacrosse was unrealistic for schools fighting Title IX balance with a football team on the books.
Until now, when Michigan decided it would join the lacrosse world with both a men's and women's varsity program. It is a pairing that makes almost too much sense to wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.
Other schools adding lacrosse in recent years. Denver added the sport, hired a big-name coach in lacrosse legend Bill Tierney and will be the first team west of the Mississippi River to play in the Final Four this weekend.
But Michigan is something entirely different.
Michigan is a name — a “brand” in Brandon’s words — and one familiar in homes in the three most important recruiting pockets for the sport: Long Island, upstate New York and the Baltimore/Washington, D.C./Northern Virginia corridor.
That alone will earn Michigan some early looks from recruits.
So, too, will the fact that those three lacrosse hotbeds coincide with where the majority of Michigan’s out-of-state applications come from. The Northeastern part of the country has always been kind to Michigan’s enrollment. Now, it’ll provide a fast option to competitiveness within college lacrosse.
Don’t expect Michigan to be an elite team quickly. While the Wolverines can be good and competitive within a couple of years, four teams have ruled the sport since the 1980s: Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Virginia and Princeton.
Princeton has slipped recently, but Virginia will be in this weekend’s Final Four. Syracuse and Johns Hopkins were both upset in the NCAA quarterfinals — the Blue Jays by that start-up Denver team — but they are perennial Final Four participants.
There is, though, little reason Michigan can’t make the NCAA Tournament within its first five years of existence in both men’s and women’s lacrosse.
The men’s side has experience and a winning culture from one of the best club teams in the country, one that won national championships in 2008, 2009 and 2010 along with a national semifinal appearance this season. It also has an experienced, winning coach in John Paul — who Michigan would be smart to retain as the varsity-level men’s coach.
Right now, Michigan could compete with some of the current lower-level Division I teams. Add a couple of years of strong recruiting and the Wolverines will have a chance at being an NCAA Tournament contender. There are also 100,000-plus reasons Michigan has in its corner as a potential recruiting tool.
Ohio State, Syracuse and Notre Dame include lacrosse as an on-campus day-of-spring-game activity either in their football stadium or, in Notre Dame’s case, a stadium within walking distance that attracts large crowds and festive atmospheres.
Another advantage for Michigan could be its conference. Tierney leaked Michigan will play in the Eastern College Athletic Conference, which means an in-conference rivalry with the Buckeyes and intriguing games against Denver and Loyola (Md.). But it is also entering a manageable conference, unlike the Big East or ACC, which have multiple powerhouses.
On the women’s side, Michigan can look at the Northwestern model.
The Wildcats added lacrosse as a varsity sport in 2002. By 2009, they were a dynasty, having won five straight national championships. They've reached the Final Four for seven straight years, including this weekend.
That this announcement comes the week of the men’s lacrosse Final Four — the biggest weekend of the year for the sport regardless of level — is not insignificant. Michigan adding lacrosse will be discussed throughout the weekend on ESPN, which televises the event, and will likely give programs in their infancy a quick recognition and recruiting boost.
Of course, that’s also a brilliant move by Brandon, who has made a business career out of understanding the moment.
This, though, could be the first of many moments for Michigan lacrosse. It’s going to take a while to build, but adding this sport makes perfect logical sense for the landscape of the school.
And for the growing future of the sport.