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Loyola's Charley Toomey: That Special Coach

February 13, 2013
How Loyola men's lacrosse coach Charley Toomey uncovered a winning formula at his alma mater

By Dave Lomonico

The irony was not lost on Joe Boylan during that final Monday in May 2012. Twenty-two years ago to the day, he had been sitting in the stands at Rutgers University, watching an All-American goaltender from Loyola College in Maryland surrender 18 goals as Syracuse University routed the Greyhounds, 21-9, to claim the 1990 NCAA Division I men's lacrosse championship.

But, despite the result, there was something about the feisty, determined netminder that resonated with Boylan. Something so unique, so fascinating, that 15 years later, Boylan, then the athletic director at Loyola, hired that former Greyhounds goalie to restore his alma mater to greatness.

Charley Toomey did just that. Seven years into his tenure, exactly 22 years after playing in Loyola's first championship game, he had the Greyhounds back on the brink of their first title last May. And Boylan, who had retired two years prior, was in Foxborough, Mass., to absorb it all.

"The night before the championship game, I slipped a note under Charley's door," Boylan said. "And I wrote in that note, 'I said for Loyola to win a national championship, it would take a very special coach -- and you are that coach.' "

The No. 1 seed Greyhounds, who finished the season 18-1, capped off their magical run with a 9-3 victory against Maryland to secure the school's first Division I championship. Toomey, who now owns a 64-35 record going into his eighth year as head coach, was later named the Division I Coach of the Year.

Although the championship and accolades thrust Loyola into the spotlight, allowing the small Jesuit institution on Charles Street to swell with pride, this isn't a story about an unlikely rise to glory. In fact, it isn't really about lacrosse, athletics or even the man who stood at the helm. That, after all, would be missing the point.

This is a different kind of story -- a love story, if you will. It's a tale encapsulated by a community's values and mores, told through the lens of a coach and his team.

"If you had to pick a coach to fit into the Loyola culture and what they believe in," Boylan said, "it would be Charley Toomey."

Of course, almost all love stories stem from despair, and there is usually adversity along the way. But it has been oft-repeated that people learn more in defeat than in victory, are made stronger through tragedy than triumph.

The Loyola community, like any other, has suffered its share, and Toomey recalled two moments in particular that directly affected the lacrosse program. When Toomey was a second assistant in 2000, defender Pat McCloskey was involved in a severe car accident and had to have his leg amputated. A shaken Loyola community responded by rallying around McCloskey, while a Jesuit priest sat in his hospital room for two straight weeks.

Eleven years later, less than three weeks after the Greyhounds had won the 2012 championship, attackman Adam Pomper died near his parents' home in Huntington, N.Y. Once again, the community offered its full support, and another Loyola priest traveled north to console the family.

"I always say Loyola closes ranks better than any institution," Toomey said. "And what I mean by that is when adversity strikes, whether it's 9/11 or the loss of a parent or the death of a loved one, we hold that. We … protect our own. Any one of those moments where we close ranks, that's what makes this a special place."

With that in mind, Toomey knew as long as he clung to his alma mater's principles, he could lead its men's lacrosse team -- pitfalls be damned.

And pitfalls there were.

After a stellar playing career at Loyola (1987-90), a brief pro career, a three-year stint as the head boys' lacrosse coach at Severn School and nine years as a Greyhounds assistant, Toomey assumed control of a program in 2006 that had fallen from its peak.

Under coach Dave Cottle, the Greyhounds were one of the preeminent lacrosse schools in the country. But Cottle's successor, Bill Dirrigl, wasn't able to produce the same results during his four-year tenure (2002-05). There were some internal problems that festered, and after Dirrigl was fired, he sued Loyola for wrongful termination during Toomey's first season.

But Toomey and his team persevered, and the Greyhounds finished that year 6-6, including a victory against No. 2 Georgetown. A year later, Loyola knocked off two top-ranked teams, Syracuse and Duke, en route to a 7-6 mark and a trip back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.

"I think the [players] will tell you, I coach from the heart," said Toomey, an Annapolis native who went to high school at Archbishop Spalding before transferring to Boys' Latin. "The guys knew we were bunkering in with them [in 2006]. I didn't have all the answers, but we were going to work our fannies off to figure them out. And our kids played awful hard. We didn't win every game, but I never walked off the field saying, 'We quit today.' "

They didn't quit when the team finished 7-7 in 2008 and, for the second straight year, lost during the first round of the NCAA tournament. They didn't quit when, despite finishing 2009 at 9-5, the school's best record since '02, the team missed the tournament altogether. They didn't quit in 2010 or 2011, when Loyola posted back-to-back impressive regular seasons before being eliminated during the NCAA tournament's first round one year and the Eastern College Athletic Conference semifinals the next.

"Loyola lacrosse has been on the map for years, going back to the Dave Cottle days," said Don Zimmerman, who guided Johns Hopkins to three national titles before moving to UMBC, where he is entering his 20th year as head men's lacrosse coach. "And with what Charley and his staff had been doing over there -- they're great educators, good recruiters, great coaches -- they understood what was important and what it took [to win]."

Toomey was no-nonsense and strong-willed from the start, with help from assistants Matt Dwan; Steve Vaikness; and Dan Chemotti, now the University of Richmond's men's lacrosse coach. Toomey weeded out any lingering problems, demanded discipline and wrung every last ounce of energy out of his roster. Along the way, he earned the respect of his players, his coaches, the school and his peers.

"If you hang around with that [Loyola] team long enough, and you watch them long enough, you can see a lot of Charley Toomey coming out," said Tony Seaman, who posted a 263-166 record during the 30 years he coached at Johns Hopkins, Towson, Penn and C.W. Post. "His players are willing to sacrifice for him, and his coaches are willing to give all they have for him. He's a great disciplinarian. He's not afraid to step up and make a move, even if it's not great for the team right at the time. Those kinds of moves are difficult for a coach to make, but he's willing to do that."

Vaikness, who played with Toomey during the late 1980s and has been on the Greyhounds' staff since 2006, agreed with Seaman. He said Toomey always let the players know exactly where they stood.

"There's no games," Vaikness said. "Charley is trying to make these guys better people by the time they graduate. He tells them they should leave the program in better shape than when they got there, and that's really what he's all about."

It's called tough love, and the players ate it up. Simply put, if they worked, they were rewarded. On the field, they were rewarded with a fiery, relentless and creative coach, who let them play at an exciting, up-tempo pace -- in a sport that had increasingly slowed down. (During a recent practice, a referee told Toomey he didn't even bother setting the shot clock, so fast was Loyola's offense.) Off the field, they were rewarded with trust, loyalty and devotion.

Senior long-stick midfielder Scott Ratliff has been at Loyola only since 2010, by which time the Greyhounds had reestablished themselves, allowing Toomey to, in his words, be nicer to them. Toomey said he hadn't been an easy guy to play for early on. Even so, the coach's enthusiasm hadn't waned. During the Loyola-Denver NCAA quarterfinal matchup last year, Seaman, who now sits on the lacrosse selection committee, said he developed the worst headache ever watching Toomey and Pioneers coach Bill Tierney unleash a verbal tirade on the officials.

"What's so great about coach Toomey is he does whatever he has to do, and he is whoever he needs to be," said Ratliff, a two-time captain and the 2012 ECAC Defensive Player of the Year. "The personality he takes, and how he coaches, he adjusts to each of his teams. And he's so fun to play for, because he gets so fired up on game day. He comes in the locker room, he gets after us, and all game long, he's running up and down the sidelines, screaming at the players and refs. Man, that fire, we see that every game.

"But the one constant that has never changed is his passion and love for the players. I don't think you could find a player in college lacrosse who loves his coach as much as we do."

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Issue 182: February 2013