Skip to main content
Original Issue

New boy on an old block

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 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.

But with the money they bought shoes, turtlenecks, jackets. They probably will clean up again next fall and put the money toward a trip to Colorado to play the Air Force Academy. Goalie Tom Sears, one of the nation's best at the position, says, "What's so hard about cleaning up a stadium?" Nothing, really, although Scroggs admits that he thinks watching the procedure scared off one of the nation's top recruits this year. "I don't think he wanted to come to college to pick up garbage," Scroggs says sadly.

And Scroggs was told that because being lacrosse coach wasn't considered a full-time job, he'd also have to be in charge of game operations for North Carolina's football and basketball games. Fine, he said. Thus, he looks after all arrangements, including ticket-taking, security, motor vehicles ("In this capacity, I learned not to get emotionally involved with a van"), fire protection, everything. He also takes the lacrosse jerseys home after every game and washes them, partly to get them done the way he wants and partly to prevent workers at the university laundry from swiping them and raising further havoc with his budget. "It's not hard," he says, "so why complain?"

Here's a measure of where Scroggs and lacrosse fit in the hearts and minds of the North Carolina public: it's estimated that Tar Heel Basketball Coach Dean Smith took in more than $300,000 from his summer basketball camps last year; Scroggs made $67 on his lacrosse camp.

Gee, isn't all this terribly demeaning? "It could be if I'd let it," Scroggs says. "But it's my job, so I do it to the best of my ability and I do it cheerfully."

Scroggs doesn't merely recruit in Maryland and on Long Island; he raids the places—cheerfully, of course. In 1979, a Baltimore newspaper named 12 All-Metro lacrosse players; Scroggs got six of them to go to North Carolina. Last spring's Baltimore area Player of the Year, Andy Smith of Annapolis, was snagged by Scroggs. Scroggs can do this because he was born, raised and educated in Baltimore, and even today you can look in his eyes and see row houses. First, he knows everybody connected with lacrosse in Baltimore—and darn near everyone involved on Long Island, too. Second, he uses the many attractions of Chapel Hill to entice young men from the North. He tells them, for example, that often in the spring they will practice on Wednesday nights because the track team needs the field that day. But more important, he points out that the spectacle of coeds jogging around the field in the afternoon is so distracting that it's more efficient to practice at night anyway. That's something boys understand.

Scroggs also succeeds because he's a born scuffler. His father was a Baltimore city policeman, his grandfather a boxer who fought under the name of Handsome Harry Scroggs. When Willie announced to his mother that he wanted to go to college, she was furious, because she wanted him to get a job. When he persisted in this college nonsense, she insisted that from then on he pay rent to live in her house. He did, raising the money by parking cars at Oriole baseball games, working as a guinea pig for psychology-department experiments (he made $7 taking a nonsense syllable test), stuffing envelopes and playing poker. In exchange for sweeping up in a barber shop, he got free haircuts.

This background colored everything Scroggs did in those days—and does now. At 5'9", 165 pounds, he was captain and defensive back on the Hopkins football team, but he was never, as is now sometimes written, an All-America in lacrosse. A midfielder, he excelled on defense and at picking up ground balls, two of the game's least glamorous skills. "Around here we place big emphasis on kids' trying," says Scroggs. "Everybody wants to play. We are looking for guys who want to practice." Not long ago he told one disgruntled athlete, "Your role is to really help us in practice, and if you can accept that, we'll be a better team."

Bill Cobey, the former North Carolina athletic director who hired Scroggs, says, "He can turn a negative into a positive overnight." The Scroggs method: when an assistant coach complained about a player during the 1979 season, saying, "This guy is terrible," Scroggs retorted, "Well, let's teach him."

And Scroggs does teach. He's a team man. The players understand. "I never get scored on," says Sears. "The whole team gets scored on. I'm just the last person the ball goes by." Against Towson, Sears was his usual brilliant self, getting 18 saves, several of them spectacular. Two Tar Heel attackmen, Chris Mueller, a little-used sub, and Kevin Griswold, North Carolina's only certified star, scored three goals each in the romp that saw Towson dead and gone midway through the first quarter. "We're up and coming," says Griswold, an All-America last season, "but we haven't proven ourselves yet."

Last year North Carolina made it to the NCAA semifinals before losing 11-10 in double overtime to Virginia, but as the Heels' 8-4 record indicated, they weren't consistently good. "Consistency gives you confidence, and by God, with confidence you can do anything," says Scroggs. "So what I set out to do is establish a program so consistently good that it would be hard for the university to get rid of us."

That would be fine with the current athletic director, John Swofford, who marvels, "Willie has raised our realization of how good we can be in lacrosse." Fine, Scroggs would say.



Goalie Sears tidies up around the net in the spring and cleans up the football stadium in the fall.