The 2021 season marks the Michigan men’s lacrosse team’s 10th season at the Division I level. Although the Wolverines became a varsity program back in 2012, the story of how the program originally came to be reaches back much further. As “Team 10” prepares for the upcoming season this February, The Daily details the history of Michigan lacrosse in a three-part series, charting its inception as a student-run club team in the 1960s to its transformation into a Division I program with one of the top recruiting classes in the country today.
Part 1: The Club Years
As a Midwestern youth in the 1980s, John Paul was one of the few in Ann Arbor to be fascinated by the sport of lacrosse. And what started out as a backyard game for Paul to play with his friends became a collegiate commitment, a professional career and, above all, an unparalleled lifelong passion.
The first time John Paul tried to start a lacrosse program, he was shot down.
In the early 1980s, Paul was a student at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. Like most athletic, Midwestern teenagers of his decade, he spent his after-school hours playing football in the fall and basketball in the winter.
Paul’s spring seasons were always unfilled, though.
Paul knew about lacrosse and casually played from time to time. He grew up with the sons of fabled Michigan club lacrosse coach Bob DiGiovanni, who revived the previously defunct program with his friends in 1965 and intermittently coached the team in the 1970s. But playing the game competitively was never an option for Paul growing up. Pioneer — like most high schools west of the Appalachians at the time — didn’t have a program for the traditionally East Coast sport, and the high school’s athletic department rejected his attempt to field his own team.
So when Paul weighed his options for college, he knew he wanted to go somewhere he could play lacrosse. Albion College, less than an hour from Ann Arbor, had a student-run club team of its own, and when Paul enrolled in the fall of 1984, he jumped at the opportunity to play and took to the sport quickly.
Paul ultimately left Albion after two years due to academic struggles and returned to work in Ann Arbor from 1986 to 1990, taking classes at Washtenaw Community College while he regained his bearings.
Meanwhile, Paul kept up with lacrosse by playing for Michigan’s club team. At the time, non-students were allowed to play for the University’s club sports teams, so the roster was mostly made up of young Ann Arbor residents like Paul, as well as graduate students.
DiGiovanni, who became Michigan’s full-time head coach a year prior to Paul’s arrival, was committed to changing the tone of the program by upping the level of accountability and enlisting undergraduates who would bring it to new heights. As a three-year captain during this period, Paul served as a key leader who set the bar for the newer, younger players.
“Like any older player, (I was) just at that time leading by showing them what it took to be good at what you do,” Paul said. “It was trying to do things the right way and hoping that others would follow.”
After a year-long stint with the Detroit Turbos of the Major Indoor Lacrosse League (rebranded as the National Lacrosse League in 1997), Paul returned to Michigan in 1992, this time as an admitted student, where he finished his bachelor’s degree and played one last season with the Wolverines.
Following graduation, Paul secured a fundraising position in the Michigan athletic department, which he held for four years before transitioning to an adjacent role in the university’s College of Literature, Science & the Arts. For the first time in a while, things were steady for Paul. He had recently married his wife, Lisa, was happily settled in the town he grew up in and had a job working for an institution he loved.
It appeared as if he was content. But then an opportunity came knocking.
After serving as Michigan’s head coach for 12 years and leading the Wolverines to an impressive 198-54 record, DiGiovanni retired in 1997. The team’s rising seniors asked Paul to fill the void for the upcoming 1998 season.
Paul had some coaching experience, but not a ton. Back in 1990, Pioneer finally added a lacrosse program, six years after Paul’s original plea, and appointed DiGiovanni to the helm while he kept his post at Michigan. Helping his coach out, Paul acted as the Pioneers’ junior varsity coach and assistant varsity coach when he was still playing for the Wolverines. His involvement had waned since he graduated from Michigan, though.
Cautiously, Paul agreed to the seniors’ request under the assumption that his affiliation with the position would be temporary and part time. A year later, Paul found himself quitting his office job in LSA to become the Wolverines’ full-time head coach.
“I just had such a great time doing it and I had this vision for making it more and more,” Paul said. “I just wanted to make the club program as good as it could be. So it came to a point where I was devoting so much time to that, my regular work was suffering and I had to make a choice. And I just liked (coaching) more.”
As it did for him as a player, Michigan lacrosse — the brotherhood, the endless grind, the experience and camaraderie of it all — had captured his heart as a coach. And it wouldn’t let go for quite some time.
As it turned out, Paul was the perfect person to take the reins from DiGiovanni.
For Paul, growing up in Ann Arbor and surrounded by the University gave him an utmost reverence for the Block “M” and the values of hard work, determination and enthusiasm that he felt it represented. His desire to showcase Michigan in its purest form culminated in a rich intensity and passion that he brought to the program from the get-go. And in terms of building a strong team culture, Paul made sure that a similar mindset manifested itself in his players, his staff and even his eventual successor.
“I think when you have someone who’s lived it their entire life like coach Paul, he understood what Michigan was,” current Michigan head coach Kevin Conry said. “It was ingrained in our program, so that the guys came in and they understood, although we are relatively young as a program, this university — this athletic department — has been around for so long and has had so many legends come through it.”
Upon taking the head coaching role, everything Paul had — money, time and energy — went towards Michigan club lacrosse. He never took a paycheck, even forgoing the proceeds from a youth lacrosse camp he ran every summer, instead putting all of his meager club sports coach earnings back into the team. This was not without sacrifice, not only for Paul, but also for Lisa, whose income the newlywed couple was solely relying on to get by.
On the lacrosse field, such immense commitment paid off. From 1998 to 2006, he led the Wolverines to a compelling 152-37 record. Michigan was among the best teams in the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association, the highest division of collegiate club lacrosse, making its way to the MCLA Tournaments quarterfinals eight of the nine seasons and advancing as far as the semifinals in 2005.
In 2007, though, the fourth-seeded Wolverines suffered a major upset when they were blown out by No. 13 seed Northeastern in the first round of the MCLA Tournament, 15-4.
The loss shocked Paul and his players’ systems.
“We had never lost in the first round,” Paul said.
But after nearly a decade of gliding at an above-average — yet not quite championship-caliber — level of play, the loss offered a silver lining. It allowed Michigan to step back, evaluate its progress as a program thus far and understand what it would take to climb the next rung on the ladder to excellence.
“We were at this crossroads,” Paul said. “We had always been this team that was highly ranked but never got it done. When you’re doing that year after year after year, that’s culture. And so we knew we kinda had to blow everything up and completely rethink the culture if we were gonna make the next step.”
That offseason, Paul met with the rising seniors to discuss the future trajectory of the program. He had plans to make some big changes, mostly elevating the level of intensity and overall commitment, but he was worried that his ambitions did not match his players.
“I know they wanted to win, but there’s a big price to pay to do that, especially at the club level where you’re paying to play and there aren’t those expectations and accountability,” Paul said.
But the seniors accepted Paul’s challenge. In that moment, they bought in and set forth to change course.
“We were building it to be the best club program ever,” Paul said. “That’s what we wanted to be.”
While it may seem frivolous for a coach and group of players to declare that they are suddenly going to rise to the top of the ranks of their sport, that sort of confidence made all the difference for incoming freshmen like Trevor Yealy prior to the 2008 season.
Although Yealy’s decision to attend Michigan was primarily driven by his interest in the University’s aeronautical engineering program, as someone who was deciding whether to play Division I or club lacrosse in college, he was drawn to the fact that the Wolverines took themselves seriously despite being a club team.
“I think it was those guys kinda setting the tone on how this program was going to be run and how, from a player perspective, we were going to conduct ourselves,” Yealy said. “(Those guys took) a step forward so that when my class (got) to Ann Arbor freshman year, we got a group of seniors who fully bought in and committed and had gotten the kids who were already there, the sophomores and juniors, fully bought in and committed.
“I didn’t really know any other way at Michigan aside from being fully bought in and committed to the vision of being an excellent program, because those seniors set that foundation.”
A new standard had been codified.
In order to elevate its game, Michigan trained as if it were a varsity program, holding early morning lifting sessions and night practices four days a week in preparation for games on weekends. With a $1 million annual budget, a benefit of additional sponsorships and donations the Wolverines had recently received, they were fortunate enough to have the financial bandwidth to do so.
“As a club team we practiced with incredible tempo,” Paul said. “I mean, our practices were brutal.”
Added Yealy: “This was not your traditional club sport, where maybe you go play for a couple hours and then roll out a keg onto the field after. It was treated very seriously, very much like a varsity sport. If you did not abide by the team rules and whatnot, that was it, you were off the team.”
To get some coaching help, Paul brought in Ken Broschart — an old friend who had previously run a successful club program of his own at Arizona. According to Paul, as a gritty blue-collar Long Islander, Broschart brought a unique blend of toughness and lacrosse intelligence that added positive value to the team, as well as Paul’s own coaching abilities.
Michigan reaped the benefits of its metamorphosis immediately.
In 2008, the Wolverines went undefeated in the regular season, something no other MCLA team had ever done before. Entering as the No. 1 seed in the MCLA Tournament, Michigan tore through its opponents in the early rounds before defeating No. 2 Chapman in the championship game, 14-11, to secure its first MCLA title.
The Wolverines continued their reign into 2009 and 2010, notching a cumulative 38-1 record over that stretch en route to their second- and third-straight titles.
What Michigan accomplished over such a brief period was nothing short of history. For the majority of these three years, the Wolverines sat untouched at No. 1 in the MCLA rankings. Spanning from the end of the 2007 season to the midpoint of 2010, the Wolverines won 50 consecutive games.
Just as Paul and his seniors had set out to do in the summer of 2007, Michigan had quickly become one of the best club programs ever, and it showed little signs of wavering anytime soon. Division I coaches glanced at the Wolverines and were utterly impressed with what Paul had built, while club coaches desperately tried to figure out how to emulate it. For players like Yealy, who were now wrapping up their junior years, winning was the norm.
It appeared, once again, as if Paul was content.
“I never really had long-term goals for the program,” Paul said. “When we were changing the culture of the club program, it wasn’t necessarily about winning national championships. It certainly wasn’t about becoming varsity. It was just about being really excellent and trying to figure out how to do that better the next day than we did that day. That was it.”
But then, once again, an opportunity came knocking.
While Paul had certainly dreamed and talked of his program one day turning Division I, it was never a priority for him. He knew the answer would always be no.
“I knew (then-Michigan athletic director) Bill Martin pretty well, and I didn’t bug him about wanting to be varsity, because I knew what he’d say and I didn’t want to lose his support for what we were doing,” Paul said. “I knew bugging him about varsity would just piss him off, so I didn’t. I thought we’d never be varsity.”
Added Yealy: “Previous athletic directors had no interest. Rightfully so, big football, basketball, hockey school, they (had) their time plenty spent dealing with those sports, so adding lacrosse probably wasn’t high on their radar.”
As a result, Paul just focused on building the best possible club team that he could, so in the event that, one day, should his circumstances change, he was ready.
That day had come.
On Jan. 5, 2010, then-Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman announced that Dave Brandon would serve as the University’s next athletic director following the retirement of Martin, who had served in the role for the previous 10 years.
As the former CEO of Domino’s and a Wolverines’ football alum, Brandon came to the Michigan athletic department with an entrepreneurial spirit and sense of school pride that propelled him throughout his tenure from 2010 to 2014.
Paul thought it was worth a shot to send a proposal to the athletic department detailing why Michigan club lacrosse should be promoted to varsity status. If anyone was going to take a chance on a new, exciting opportunity, it was Brandon.
Fortunately for Paul, the stars were aligned in his favor. At the time, lacrosse was the fastest growing sport in the country, so investing in a Division I program would ensure that an athletic powerhouse like Michigan was a part of the latest and greatest wave in sports. Paul’s squad had also clearly proven itself to be the best club program in the country at the time, so it made sense for the Wolverines to want to take the next step at the varsity level.
Paul was still surprised, though, when Brandon responded positively to the proposal.
“He was like, ‘I already know I want to do this, I just don’t know if I can,’ ” Paul said. “He needed a few months to figure it out and then came back to me and said, ‘If we can get over all the hurdles that the University is going to put in front of us, we’re gonna do this.’ ”
To make Paul’s vision a reality, he and Brandon would have to fundraise $5 million. The quantity of money was merely symbolic; $5 million doesn’t go very far for a modern Big Ten athletic program in terms of scholarships, facilities and equipment, but University officials wanted to see some commitment and have some cushion before approving the promotion.
While Brandon and the athletic department primarily handled the accounting and logistics behind fundraising, Paul sold the idea. Not only did he have experience working with donors from his old work in the athletic department and LSA, he was also still quite close with club alumni, who he knew would be interested in contributing.
“(A key ingredient was) coach Paul and his persistence and perseverance in getting lacrosse on the administration’s radar, getting the donors in place, really being the conductor of the orchestra to pull all these parts together,” Yealy said. “He was not going to back down from that until it happened.”
So, in the spring of 2011, while a 5-0 Michigan was in the midst of yet another dominant season, Paul went on an all-out fundraising offensive. A week in March leading up to the Wolverines’ matchup against highly-ranked Brigham Young, he skipped two days of practice — something he never did — and traveled to New York City. Hopping from office to office across Manhattan, Paul spoke to numerous alumni and parents who served as prospective donors.
Paul’s business trip paid off. Michigan still easily beat the Cougars, 16-6, but more importantly, he returned to Ann Arbor having secured a significant number of the pledges needed to close in on the fundraising goal.
“We had the good fortune of having some very supportive donors that were willing to step in and donate to help get the program off the ground,” Yealy said.
In the next couple weeks, Brandon pulled some strings to secure the remaining funds. Before long, he and Paul had their $5 million and were ready to officially promote Michigan men’s lacrosse to the varsity level.
Unlike Paul’s failed attempt in high school to start a lacrosse program at Pioneer many years ago, this was going to happen.
On April 16, 2011, Paul broke the news to his players following the Wolverines’ 14-10 conference championship win over Michigan State.
“It was surreal,” Yealy said. “I mean it was like, ‘Holy cow, this is happening. This is incredible.’ … I’ll never forget it.”
Paul also announced some more shocking news. Rather than wait a season or two to prepare for the transition and garner recruits, Michigan was slated to turn Division I right away and compete in the 2012 NCAA lacrosse season — a condition for the donors who wanted to see their money promptly put to use.
“What was so unique and what made it even more surreal was that this was not just the announcement of a varsity program, this was the announcement of a varsity program that was going to play competitively (that) fall,” Yealy said. “That’s unheard of.”
For Paul and his players, it was time to get to work.
Part 2: Becoming Varsity
Part 3: A New Era
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