April 17, 2011

Steve Solloway: A teacher and a coach returns

WATERVILLE - They met by chance before the game in the corridor outside the locker rooms. The lacrosse coach who left Colby College for rival Amherst and the two-time All-American who stayed to finish up his senior year.

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Jon Thompson, as he did at Colby, is teaching his Amherst lacrosse players about a lot more than winning on the field. And as they did at Colby, his players are responding.

Photo Courtesy Amherst College

"I went for the handshake," said Jon Thompson, the 28-year-old coach. Craig Bunker brushed aside the outstretched arm and moved directly into the hug.

Both men knew the game would wring their emotions. Neither could put that feeling into words, fearing it would strip away their pregame denial. Saturday wasn't simply about lacrosse.

This was not your typical story of coach returns to the school that gave him his first head coaching job. When Colby hired Thompson three years ago, it wanted to change the perception that lacrosse is a sport of the privileged and the entitled.

That lacrosse players live by a code of conduct that winks at bad behavior. No one winked at the death of a female lacrosse player at the University of Virginia last spring. A male lacrosse player was charged.

No one winked when three Duke lacrosse players were charged with the rape of a stripper at a party held in the house of two lacrosse captains. The rape charge was proved false but not before there was a rush to judgment. Both incidents reinforced the stereotype.

Enter Thompson, a Freeport kid who graduated from North Yarmouth Academy and Brown University with a different code.

"Your legacy isn't how many beers you drink, how much money you have, how many women you've been with or what car you drive," Thompson said over coffee last spring, weeks before he took the job at Amherst. "Your legacy has everything to do with relationships."

With teammates, classmates, and family. With the custodians who clean up the locker room. With the secretaries in the athletic office. With strangers.

A week or two ago, Thompson gave his Amherst players a day off from practice. He handed out a list of Amherst support people and told his players to thank them and give the reason why. From the list, each player had to thank one person. If that person had already heard four thank-yous, the player had to move on to someone else.

Afterward, Amherst Athletic Director Suzanne Coffey started hearing from staffers. "It was the sincerity behind the thank-yous that made the impression."

Coffey needed a new lacrosse coach last summer. The usual search committee was formed and the name of a young coach kept coming back: Jon Thompson, who had just completed his second season at Colby. His team won 10 games last spring, the most since 2002.

His belief that one should earn everything and expect nothing had paid off big. Bunker, from Topsfield, Mass., being perhaps his best example. Colby had not had a two-time All-American in lacrosse before him.

Thompson worked hard to get into the heads of Colby players. In fact, he reached their souls. "It's not about winning games but creating men," said Jason Forino, a captain from Sudbury, Mass., on Thompson's first Colby team.

"The minute he stepped on campus, the program changed. It was definitely an adjustment for all of us. We weren't held accountable before."

Not coincidentally, Gabe Mann, the Amherst senior captain, said much the same thing. "He sees us as people first. He's always asking about our lives. He brought an energy we didn't have before."

Thompson, who was restoring a house in Gardiner with his wife, Susanna, didn't go to Amherst for more money, the prevailing belief at Colby. He went, he said, because he believed he could build a national champion more quickly and not compromise his beliefs.

(Continued on page 2)

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