Michigan men’s lacrosse coach John Paul graduated from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School in 1984 without having played a single organized game of lacrosse.
A quarter century later, with several MCLA championships in his swollen trophy case, Paul leads the newly announced varsity men’s lacrosse team into the competitive and bureaucratic challenges of NCAA lacrosse.
In the beginning, playing catch with friends at Burns Park in Ann Arbor, some bystanders mistook Paul’s lacrosse stick for a Jai alai basket. Others wondered if he was going fishing with his peculiar-looking net.
“I knew I wanted to play in high school, but at the time there were maybe 13 high school teams in the state,” Paul said. “Pioneer didn’t have a program yet, but there were a number of us trying to get a program going. I had a stick in high school, and I had buddies who had grown up around lacrosse.”
In the past 25 years lacrosse has exploded in popularity, rising from an East Coast-dominated sport to a national and even international phenomenon.
“Lacrosse has changed incredibly and there are a number of reasons for that,” Paul said. “It’s a spring sport and there is not another spring sport like it.
“In the winter you have basketball and hockey, teams sports that are flowing and contact sports. In the spring you had baseball and track, and so lacrosse started to appeal to kids, outside of the hotbeds in the East where it had always been popular, as an option in the spring.”
Paul attributes the growth of lacrosse to cultural considerations as well.
“The 90s brought on this opportunity for new sports, even though ours is a very old sport,” Paul said. “All these sports that weren’t considered sports now became mainstream. It provided a cultural opportunity for new sports.”
And no one’s mistaking lacrosse for Jai alai anymore.
“Now you go to Burns Park in the summer, and there’s youth lacrosse leagues,” Paul said.
In the mid-1980s, Paul transferred from Albion College to Michigan, where his father was a professor and dean of the College of Pharmacy, and began playing club lacrosse.
“When I played it was very much a club team,” Paul said. “You showed up when you wanted to show up. We’d hop into each other’s cars to get to games.
“It was pretty good lacrosse but it was nothing like it became as an MCLA team.”
Paul’s coaching career began shortly after his playing career, when he started helping out at his alma mater, Ann Arbor Pioneer. After receiving his undergraduate degree in 1992, Paul took a position in the development office in the Athletic Department, while assisting with the Michigan club team. Paul became head coach in 1998.
In 14 seasons Paul’s overall record is 223-43, with 11 CCLA conference championships and three MCLA national championships. And Paul helped create an environment where the club varsity team flourished, by attracting donors, building infrastructure and attracting talented athletes.
The success of Michigan lacrosse, along with a host of other factors, contributed to the team’s promotion to the varsity level.
“What has happened here is serendipity,” Paul said. “We’ve had so many things come together at once. The growth in the game nationally and regionally was a key component and without that, there wouldn’t have been much interest in doing this.”
Another significant factor was a change in leadership in Michigan’s Athletic Department.
Athletic Director Dave Brandon arrived in Weidenbach Hall with a strong plan concerning the future of Michigan athletics. Part of that plan was the elevation of men and women’s lacrosse, which Paul learned about as soon as Brandon took over.
“I’ve been working very closely with Dave Brandon, and when he took the job I felt we had everything in place to make it happen,” Paul said. “We just needed an AD that was motivated to do it, and the last piece fell into place when Dave was hired. We didn’t know that was going to be the case but he made that clear pretty quickly.”
Former Athletic Director Bill Martin, while generally supportive of the lacrosse team, did not make the team’s promotion a priority.
“He was very supportive of our program in every way except making it varsity,” Paul said. “It’s not something I ever approached him about in any serious way because I knew it wasn’t on his agenda.”
Now in the world of the NCAA, Paul faces a demanding landscape of compliance issues, scholarships and the other frustrating realities of big-time college athletics.
Of course there is also the essential challenge of playing better teams.
“We go from a program that’s 76-2 over the last four years to a program that realistically is going to struggle for a few years as we build our talent base up to an elite level,” Paul said. “That’s going to take some time.”
With new obligations come new privileges. As a club team Michigan lacrosse had to do everything by themselves — from hiring and supporting a training staff to providing IT support. Now they have the full support of the Michigan community.
“When you suddenly have the support of the hundreds of people that work in the Athletic Department, it is a little overwhelming,” Paul said. “So far it has been wonderful because everyone is bending over backwards to make sure that that we succeed.”
For the players, the change will begin to be understood when they come back to Ann Arbor in the fall.
“They are excited but I’m not sure that they full realize yet what this is going to mean,” Paul said. “This is a dream for a lot of them.”