This article originally appeared in Inside Lacrosse.
One of the most cherished ambassadors of the game, Richie Moran may have kissed more babies and shaken more hands in the name of spreading lacrosse than any other figure associated with it. Skilled at working a room, Moran’s good nature, sense of humor, and willingness to extend the glad hand has made him one of the more memorable figures in the sport. He jokes and converses as naturally as he breathes, and sometimes seems more of a missionary than a coach. A pleasure to sit down and interview, Moran’s insights are as useful now as they were 40 years ago.
A throwback to what’s often remembered as a simpler time, Moran seems to live with clear purpose. He enjoys the company of family and friends, is loyal to his team, is devoted to spreading the game of lacrosse, and is a furious competitor. It is this unique blend that not only leaves nearly everyone he meets with a memorable impression, but has also led to three NCAA and 15 Ivy League Championships during his 29 seasons as head coach of Cornell from 1969-1997. One of the most accomplished NCAA skippers of all time, Moran has also proven integral in grass roots efforts throughout the United States as well as the development of lacrosse in Ireland, where he has served as an administrator and coach for a national program that has grown stunningly in little more than a decade.
This year, he was honored with the Spirit of Tewaaraton Award.
Moran offers one of the clearest windows into his personality and coaching persona when he says, “My philosophy has always been about commitment.” He takes it seriously, very seriously, and he respects, honors and cherishes those who do the same. He cares about the players, the parents, the grades, the conditioning, the uniforms, the equipment, the big things and the little things, and nothing is too small to demand his attention. “Fundamentals were always a big part of our game,” he says somewhat obviously. “Every day should be a fundamental day.” He talks fondly of his days coaching the Big Red, and pours through memories of how those teams were built, motivated, and pushed to care. Those players and teams were expected to do the little things well, focus on details overlooked by many of their peers at rival schools, and embrace a level of financial and academic stress that few college students can wrap their heads around. “There’s no doubt about it,” he admits, “they made some sacrifices.”
The players who came to Cornell worked summer jobs to offset the lack of athletic scholarships the Ivy League program offered, and many washed pots and pans in dormitory cafeterias or delivered typewriters throughout campus for a modest salary during the academic year. They practiced in the storied Polo Grounds, a poorly lit indoor facility that was cold and leaky, the home of a stray cat the team called Felix. Every year they began the season with the wicked winters of Ithaca, an Ivy League academic schedule, and the pressures of preparing for an NCAA title run. But in spite of the shared sacrifices, they loved it. And the reason they loved it seems to ultimately come down to the idea that they loved each other.
Moran recalls one particular scene during an unforgiving winter practice in Ithaca. The players had their helmet ear holes covered with tape to stave off the whipping winds, icicles had collected on their facemasks, and Moran used a team huddle to gauge the meddle of the chapped and reddened faces staring back at him. “Isn’t it great to be here?”, he asked. There was nowhere else any of them would rather have been. They nodded and answered yes, and Moran remembers that the sun began to push aside the clouds and shine. “Life is beautiful,” he now laughs, punctuating this notion that if we care enough about our teammates and the people around us, if we just work hard at the little things and never back down from the challenge, everything will somehow work out.
“I used to use the word clan”, he explains — a symbolic commitment to his Irish heritage and the family of players he wanted to build. He says of the early years at Cornell, “In order for us to accomplish anything we’re going to have to watch out for each other, protect each other, and be a family.” He purposely ignored certain stats, only choosing to highlight ground balls, goalie and defensive play. “Statistics were not important to our team”, he affirms, asserting his greater interest in the larger team. He remembers first-year players singing the Cornell alma mater at the end of practices, the Mother’s Day cards and thank you letters the team wrote to moms, parents, teachers, and guidance counselors, and the nighttime returns to campus when the bus driver would drive past the Polo Grounds and the team would sing. “We always came back happy”, he says. He thinks back on the support he developed through the creation of a Cornell Lacrosse Club for fans and families, the newsletters and Christmas cards that were religiously written and mailed, and the history that slowly built up around the program.
Moran has used lacrosse to impact thousands. Now in his 70s, he’s still pushing to promote the development of lacrosse in Ireland, supporting the inspiring efforts of the many in Dublin and beyond growing the game throughout the country. In talking with Moran, he finished the interview as we’ll finish this article, remembering the halftime of the 1976 NCAA Championship. The game was held at Brown University, and both Cornell and Maryland were meeting for the first time that season with undefeated records. Cornell was down seven to two at the half, and the fate of one of the most potent teams in the history of the game was in question. After his halftime talk Moran began walking to the field, and overheard something that has never left him. You can tell in listening to him now that he’s no further away from that moment than he was from his players when he heard them talking. “The reason we’re going to win this second half and this game is because we love each other”, they said. Needless to say, they took Maryland to overtime, but Cornell won.
Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl are managing partners of Meno Consulting, a firm specializing in team and leadership development, and authors of the forthcoming book Team Turnarounds, to be published in July of 2012 by Jossey-Bass. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com with comments and ideas for future pieces, or connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.