Petro's Life Lessons

Posted on March 06, 2007

By Keith Mills

Dave Pietramala was ready to go to the University of Maryland. 

"I loved Coach [Dick] Edell and loved Maryland," Pietramala said. "I grew up a huge basketball fan and they had Len Bias, Keith Gatlin and Lefty Driesell. I thought it was all set. I was going to Maryland."

George Pietramala had other ideas. The head of facilities at the St. John's University Law School in Queens, N.Y., George Pietramala lived in Hicksville, Long Island, and wanted his only son to attend Johns Hopkins University. 

His son was, after all, the best defenseman in high school lacrosse in 1985 and the elder Pietramala felt he should at least take a recruiting trip to the most famous lacrosse school in the country. Don Zimmerman had taken over for Henry Ciccarone as coach in the summer of 1984 and George Pietramala liked what he heard when Zimmerman and a young assistant named Bill Tierney dined at his home during his son’s senior year.

"I didn't want to visit but my dad said, 'You got to go, just go and give it a shot,' ” Pietramala said. “Finally, I said 'OK.' So I came down, got to hang out with my idol John DeTommaso [a superb Hopkins player], met a lot of great people and fell in love with it."  Edell's loss was Zimmerman's gain as Dave Pietramala became the game's most dominating defenseman. He was a first-team All-American three years in a row, the national Player of the Year in 1990 and a big reason why the Blue Jays won the 1987 national championship. 

"Dave was a playmaker, he just dominated," said Quint Kessenich, who tended goal during three of Pietramala’s four years. "There wasn't much I had to do when he was on the field. He'd take their best player out of the game and then go help someone else. He wanted to win but he also wanted to be the best player on the field. And he was."

Pietramala graduated from Hopkins in 1990 and returned 11 years later as the 22nd head coach in the Blue Jays’ history, just the sixth since Bob Scott took over for Wilson Fewster in 1955.

In 2005, 18 years after leading the Blue Jays to their seventh NCAA crown as a player, Pietramala coached his alma mater to its eighth title, a 9-8 win over Duke at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. An unlikely career that began when he first picked up a stick as a freshman at Manhasset’s St. Mary's High had come full circle.

"I got admitted to Hopkins, but then I slacked off in high school during my senior year and they took my admission away," Pietramala said. "I'll never forget Coach Zimmerman called my house and told my dad what I had to do to get back in. I got back in but it was the most roundabout way you could."

Pietramala arrived at Hopkins for his freshman year in the summer of 1985 wearing a three-day beard and a "Long Island Tuxedo."

"Jeans, light blue Chuck Taylors, a white T-shirt, a denim jacket and two earrings in my left ear," Pietramala said. "I got stitches over my left eye from where I took an elbow playing hoops. I had long hair and a three-day gruff and Coach Zimmerman walks me into my dorm and I see this guy playing music I never heard of. He's wearing a Quicksilver T-shirt, hot pink shorts and flip-flops and he says, 'How ya doin’, dude?'"

Dave Pietramala had officially met Pat Russell, a Catonsville resident who came to Hopkins from Loyola High School. "Dude! I've never been called dude in my life,” Pietramala said. “I'm thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ It's like the guy just got off the surfboard. He was straight as an arrow.

"Pat's nickname was Daddy Russell and he was just like my father. That's why Zim put me with him. I needed some guidance, someone to watch over me and Pat Russell was that guy."

Pietramala, the self-admitted rebel, had arrived at Homewood, and Hopkins lacrosse would never be the same.

***

There's an adage in sports that says great athletes are born, not made. There's another that says great coaches are made, not born. Pietramala is proof of both. 

"I remember seeing him for the first time at tryouts for the Empire State Games at Hofstra," said Kessenich, who was a junior at Lynbrook High School on Long Island at the time. "He was a freak. He told me after I made a save to just get him the ball. I did and Dave just took off. Then he'd strip a guy, just abuse him and I said, 'Hey, I like this guy. Where did he come from?'"

Pietramala was a basketball player first at St. Mary's, though it wasn't long before he became the country's premier lacrosse defenseman, first in high school, then at Hopkins. He was a natural.

"David was quite a talent," Tierney said. "Most people would say he's the best defenseman who ever played the game and I would never argue that fact. He was a fabulous talent, a fabulous athlete."

"He saw things before they happened," Kessenich said. "And he wasn't afraid to make the play. Today, guys aren't as aggressive. They'll just wait and see what happens. Not Dave. He'd see a play he could make and he was gone. He was tremendous."

He could also be a coach's worst nightmare. 

"He and Zimmerman went at it every day," Kessenich said. “Dave was this typical Long Island kid. Long hair, quick temper, loud, liked to do things his way. It was like Lawrence Taylor and Bill Parcells with the Giants. They battled and battled, but on Saturday Dave came to play."

Pietramala eventually caught the coaching bug, which surprised his former teammates. They weren’t surprised that he would trade in the stick for the whistle, but that he would cross-check the widely-accepted theory that great players could not make great coaches.

"He's a totally different coach than he was a player," Kessenich said. "He's much more structured now, always in control. As a player he'd let it fly. There wasn't anything he wouldn't do on the field."

"I remember seeing him for the first time," said Drew Dabrowski, a senior midfielder from West Genessee High School in Syracuse. "His hair was slicked back, he had shades on and he pulled up a lounge chair and just camped out right next to the field."

That was five years ago at the Empire State Games tryouts in Fayetteville, N.Y. Pietramala landed Dabrowski that year and virtually every other recruit he targeted, thanks to an unrelenting recruiting philosophy and a tell-it-like-it is approach that has ruffled some feathers and cost him some friendships, but ultimately earned him the respect of his players.

"I admire the honesty," Dabrowski said. "The recruiting process is such a big tool for a university that you can get caught up in telling a recruit what he wants to hear. But the coaches have been honest with me from the start."

Dabrowski, Jake Byrne and Brendan Skakandi are this year's Hopkins captains while Paul Rabil, Kevin Huntley and Jesse Schwartzman are also key players in the Blue Jays’ quest to win a ninth NCAA title.

That's always the goal at Hopkins. In fact, it's the only goal -- win it all or take the intense heat from fans and alumni that is second to none when it comes to scrutinizing a coach and his program.

"That's my job," Pietramala said of fielding criticism. "That's what I get paid for. As long as it doesn't include the kids. That's not fair to them."

That loyalty to his players and assistants is what drives Pietramala. So does winning. 

"I don't have any balance in my life," said Pietramala, who was an assistant to Tony Seaman at Hopkins and Dave Cottle at Loyola before taking a head-coaching job at Cornell in 1998. "I'm here at 6 or 7 a.m. and I don't leave until 9 or 10 p.m. My wife tells me all the time I need some balance. I'm gaining some but it's not there yet. I've lost some friends since I started coaching but I've gained a lot more than I've lost."

He has also won a lot more games than he has lost. Pietramala was 73-16 heading into Tuesday's game with UMBC with a national championship in his six-plus years at Homewood. 

Fatherhood has helped provide some of that sought-for balance. Pietramala and his wife Colleen have 3-year-old twin boys, Dominic and Nicholas, and that has given him a totally unique perspective on coaching. 

"We're building relationships," Pietramala said. "We're building men. The best part of my day is 6:30 to 7:30 in the morning or at night. It's quiet. The kids come in and we talk. Not about lacrosse. We talk about life. I love that."

***

Glynn Stoffel stood in the end zone at M&T Bank Stadium last weekend. His gray hair glistened in the brilliant afternoon sunshine as the Blue Jays warmed up for a showdown with Princeton in the Inside Lacrosse Face-Off Classic. He held a lacrosse ball in his left hand and wore a black Hopkins lacrosse sweatshirt with No. 21 on the chest, symbolic of his son Matt, who died in a car accident in December of 2005.

At the other end of the field was Greg Raymond, a former Blue Jays defenseman and now an assistant coach for Tierney's Princeton Tigers. It was Raymond who was driving Matt Stoffel's Jeep when it crashed under the Charles Street Bridge on the Jones Falls Expressway.

Matt Stoffel was Raymond's best friend. Raymond later pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated. The incident sent shock waves through the lacrosse community and changed Raymond's life forever. But Glynn and Patricia Stoffel embraced Raymond with open arms and did something Pietramala said he will never forget -- they forgave him.

"Forgiveness," Pietramala said. "It was amazing to see this man who just lost his son. You know he must be filled with anger, resentment. No, he's filled with forgiveness. Talk about giving Greg Raymond a gift."

Pietramala shared this story two days after Hopkins lost its season opener to Albany, a stunning upset that left the No. 1-ranked Blue Jays almost in shock.

"[Glynn Stoffel] was in our locker room after the Albany game," Pietramala said. "We're all feeling sorry for ourselves. Then you look at Glynn and you say all we did was lose a game. Look at what he lost. It certainly put things in perspective."

The Blue Jays rebounded with a 7-6 double-overtime win last Saturday over Princeton. It was reminiscent of the Blue Jays' one-goal win over Duke in the 2005 national title game that Raymond and Matt Stoffel were a part of. 

Glynn Stoffel wasn't on the field that day in Philadelphia, but he was Saturday.

"Glynn is a big part of everything we do now," Pietramala said. "He's in the locker room before and after games. He travels with us. He needs to be a part of it. Having him around, I think, makes him feel close to Matt."

"It's great seeing him on the sideline and seeing his smiling face," Dabrowski said. "That was a very difficult time for all of us. When there's adversity you really see what people are made of."

What Glynn Stoffel saw in Pietramala will never be forgotten.

"A lot of people told me they'd be there for my wife and me," Stoffel said. "But other than our best friends, Dave was the only person who really was. And he still is. I cannot tell you what a great friend he's become."

On Dec. 16, 2005 Matt Stoffel’s funeral was held at St. Philip Neri Church in Linthicum, just a few miles from the Andover Apaches rec program where Matt began his lacrosse career. Pietramala delivered one of the eulogies. Raymond was there, sitting between Glynn and Patricia Stoffel.

"Incredible," Pietramala said. "They wanted Greg right there with them. The lesson I learned from the Stoffels, I'll never forget. The lesson of forgiveness."

***

George Pietramala is one of the two men who helped shape Dave Pietramala’s life. The other is Tierney, one of the great coaches in the history of  lacrosse. The two stood side by side before Saturday's game, one Hall of Famer talking to another.

"I admire him for what he's achieved and what he did for me when I was young," Dave Pietramala said. "It's becoming harder and harder, though, to maintain these relationships because of the competition. When I talk to him there's some things I don't want to tell him but I have no jealousy or envy of Coach T. He's always been honest and forthright. We've had our moments where we've disagreed but I admire him for how he's done his business."

And the same goes for his father, George.

"My mother and father divorced when I was in ninth grade, but my sister and I lived with my dad," Pietramala said. "And I'll never forget what my father did. My mother's father was living with us and my dad let him stay because he was older and comfortable with us and my dad wanted his kids around their grandfather. I never forgot that."

He also never forgot the work ethic. 

"If I wasn't coaching, I'd probably teach or be a construction worker,” Pietramala said. “I could help build something. Then I'd go home and I'd spend time with the kids. Probably be a much better father."

(Photos by Sabina Moran/PressBox)

Issue 2.10: March 8, 2007

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