This article originally appeared in Inside Lacrosse.
Now retired, Jack Emmer put together one of the quietest yet most successful coaching careers in the history of the game. Inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame the same year he retired, Emmer’s legacy as a coach is often articulated in wins and losses. While he won the gold medal in the 2002 World Games as the head coach of the United States national team, his record-setting 326 wins (which stood as a record until 2008) is often cited as his most-notable achievement.
Given the fact that Emmer set the bar for collegiate coaching wins at places like Washington & Lee (Don’t forget that when Emmer was there in the ’70’s little ol’ W&L was competing against Division I big boys like Maryland and Hopkins) and the United States Military Academy, the achievement is more astonishing than impressive. In spite of his historic ability to win, what may be most fascinating about Emmer’s career was his often forgotten sense for innovation.
Jack Emmer may have been one of the greatest coaching innovators in lacrosse. He pushed rule changes, consistently won as an underdog, and advanced a level of tactical creativity that forced others to question just how the game could and should be played. “I felt like we just took advantage of the talents we had,” Emmer recalls. And in working to position his teams to succeed with their talents, he remembers one question that drove his thinking: “What is an area we can do better than anyone else?” In that one question, Emmer worked to find answers, worked to build game plans and strategies that would bring success over others, even when they were more talented. In working to continually solve that riddle, Emmer concludes, “It [the answer] had to come down to an area that entailed more effort than skill.”
So Emmer built a career out of boundary-pushing coaching moves that forced his players and their opponents well outside the box of accepted and expected play. His most famous creation was the Armadillo, a gimmick devised at W & L in 1982 to slow down the vaunted North Carolina offense (there is now a small website dedicated to the effort). The play essentially assured possession of the ball through a bizarre circling of the wagons. Five players locked arms and encircled the ball carrier, protecting the ball from defenders, and acting out the most aggressive stall technique ever employed. In practicing the technique, Emmer and his staff worked around a variety of rules, and the final creation was explained and cleared by officials in the week leading up to the game.
Ultimately the play was deemed to be within the grounds of the rulebook, and history was made. The Armadillo makes for a quirky moment on the timeline of lacrosse, but was outlawed only days after it was conceived. Officials rewrote the rules on the Monday following the game, banning the play from ever occurring again.
Emmer’s antics and innovative spirit gained the most attention for the Armadillo, but his groundbreaking ideas and concepts were a constant throughout his career. While still at Washington & Lee he used a particularly aggressive pair of defenders to consistently double the ball on restarts at the end line, while his athletic goalie played defense in the field (a somewhat common situational play in today’s game). Additionally, at a time when there were no restrictions on the number of long sticks on the field, Emmer used nine. In the mid-‘80’s Army had a stable of athletic and competent defenders. Rather than leave all of his athletic defenders on the bench, Emmer concocted a plan to use nine long sticks during the ride.
The defenders subbed in and out off of dead ball and out-of-bounds scenarios, and Emmer explains, “They really took pride in this.” The ride proved deadly, as all nine long poles ravaged opponents for the ball, and looking back, Emmer admits that the tactic was “tremendously frustrating for the opposition.” Needless to say, within a couple of years another rule was changed, and the number of long sticks allowed on the field at one time was dramatically reduced.
Beyond the efforts that drove lasting change, Emmer also reflects on unconventional schemes that paid dividends during his career. The emphasis and practice that he put into riding at Army, even after he couldn’t rely on nine defenders, led to his phrase, “Winning the whistle”, which essentially captures the importance of being prepared after a re-start, the mental focus needed to look past a dropped or errant pass, and the desire to get the ball back in spite of the circumstances that led to its loss.
He also remembers running Adam Fullerton (2010 U. S. Team Goalie) as the man down goalie when Fullerton was only a freshman. The logic was that Fullerton was too talented to keep off the field so Emmer created a situational unit that Fullerton could lead and be a part of. The gamble ultimately paid off, as Fullerton eventually replaced the senior starter when the senior suffered an unfortunate injury to his thumb, which made Fullerton’s game experience as the man down goalie invaluable. Again, Emmer reminds us, “It was unusual, but it fit that group of guys.”
Jack Emmer has achieved a great deal coaching lacrosse, and his impactful legacy should inspire coaches for years to come. If nothing else, Emmer’s success and willingness to be different shines a light on the value of genuine innovation on the field. Emmer won games by playing outside the box, pushing the rules, even rewriting them. Perhaps there’s something to be said for bucking the status quo – especially when everyone you’re trying to beat is basically embracing the same stuff. For Emmer, success came by questioning the rules and identifying his team’s strengths. By understanding how to maximize his players’ talents within the rules of the day, he made a statement for the power of thinking differently.
Joe Frontiera, PhD and Dan Leidl, PhD are the Managing Partners of Meno Consulting, a firm specializing in leadership development, organizational culture, team building and motivation. To learn more about Dan and Joe visit their blog at www.mygenerationleader.com or contact them via email at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.