Lacrosse Teams That “Changed The Game”: The 1981 North Carolina Men’s Lacrosse Team Led By Head Coach Willie Scroggs Vaults To The Top Of NCAA Men’s Lacrosse In 3-Year Turnaround Of Program (Sports Illustrated March 30, 1981)

Led by Coach Willie Scroggs, upstart North Carolina is about to crash—and perhaps crush—the sport's elite.

There’s no reason in the world why the University of North Carolina should be any good at lacrosse. Or even that it should want to be. After all, high school lacrosse isn’t played in the state, so all Tar Heel players must be recruited a long way from home—primarily from the Baltimore area and New York‘s Long Island, which are the sport’s hotbeds. If pressured, most sports fans in the Carolinas would be hard pressed to say whether lacrosse is something burned on lawns by the Klan or a town in Wisconsin.

Yet last week, like the budding dogwoods on the Chapel Hill campus, the North Carolina lacrosse team looked ready—only three years after a player revolt left the program in ruins—to burst into full flower. “We have some talent,” deadpanned Coach Willie Scroggs.

Indeed, the Tar Heels very likely have the most talent in the nation in a sport

1981 North Carolina Men's Lacrosse Team

played by about 130 colleges but dominated by a few—Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Navy, Virginia and Cornell. The interloping Tar Heels not only are horning in on this clubby little quintet but are also threatening to march right over them. Henry Ciccarone, the coach at Johns Hopkins, which has been national champ 40 times, including the last three years in a row, says gloomily, “Carolina has more ability than we do, so that puts them in position to beat us.”

And maybe everybody else. Already this season, North Carolina has whipped Navy 11-8 and the 1980 NCAA runner-up, Virginia, 11-6. Then last Saturday the Heels showed an explosive and well-disciplined attack in overwhelming Towson State 19-3. A crucial game for North Carolina comes April 4 when it plays Maryland, which has defeated the Tar Heels all 17 times they have met. Should North Carolina finally win—and the Terps are down from their once lofty heights—then notice will have been served that there’s a new boy on the old block. Further proof may well come at the NCAA championship in Princeton at the end of May.

That’s not bad for a college that didn’t take up the game until 1964, and did it then mainly to earn points that would enable it to win the Carmichael Cup, the ACC‘s all-sports trophy. The ploy worked—sort of. In the last 17 years, Carolina has won the cup nine times, but hardly because of its lacrosse prowess.

Most of the credit for North Carolina‘s sudden prominence in the sport goes to Scroggs, 33, who has the perfect temperament to coach lacrosse at a school where basketball and football have long shared kingship: he will not allow himself to feel insulted, demeaned, put-upon or otherwise trampled in spirit.

He’s the classic example of someone who gets along by going along. Scroggs was hired in July 1978 after a disastrous season that included an ugly set-to in which 14 players were suspended by the then coach, Paul Doty. The players said Doty was a lousy coach, and Doty said he wasn’t real crazy about the players. Against this backdrop, Scroggs was told, among other things, that lacrosse definitely wouldn’t be as important in Chapel Hill as it was at Johns Hopkins, where Scroggs had played and then had served as an assistant coach for six years. Fine, he said. When auto dealers gave all the rest of the Tar Heel head coaches big new cars to use, Scroggs got a two-door Honda. Fine, he said. You’ll have to share the practice field with the track team. Scroggs was told. Fine, he said. You have 13 scholarships now but we’re dropping it steadily down to nine, Scroggs was told. Fine, he said. Your office is being moved over to oblivion in the women’s facility to make room for somebody more important. Fine, he said.

Scroggs was also told money would always be a problem so don’t ask. Fine, he said. He then went about making a deal for his 41-member squad to clean up Kenan Stadium after four of last fall’s home football games for $3,600. “I liked doing it,” says Scroggs, “because it demonstrated that we’re not afraid to work for what we want. It was tough. I liked that. To be in a filthy football stadium at 6 a.m. on Sunday in the rain is special. I think the kids gained by suffering.”

So the players liked it, too?

“No, they hated it,” says Scroggs.

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