Skip to main content
Original Issue

'My Teams Are Collages'

Sculptor Roy Simmons Jr. followed his dad as Syracuse lacrosse coach and last year won the national title

It's halftime at the 1983 NCAA lacrosse championship game. Rutgers Stadium is baking in 90° May heat. Syracuse trails Johns Hopkins 8-4, and in a soft, authoritative voice Orange coach Roy Simmons Jr. orders his players to stay on the field. He doesn't want them to get cool and comfortable in a locker room. He wants them to stay out in the glare and the heat of the sun and the score. "Here's the crowd and here's the scoreboard," he tells them. "There is no sanctuary."

In the press box, his father, Roy Simmons Sr., the sparky 82-year-old former Syracuse coach, has been all but hiccuping with excitement. He hollers. He rants. He curses. He clouds the air with smoke from his briar pipe. "I hope that damn Indian gets hot," he snarls, referring to Syracuse goalie Travis Solomon, a full-blooded Onondaga.

Roy Sr. approved of the stratagem of keeping the team out in the sun during the half. And while the son is benign and analytical, the father is mightily exhortatory. "You've got to be mean to be a good athlete," he says. "And you've got to be a sore loser. That stuff about losing gracefully is a bunch of crap."

The Simmonses have a heavy psychological investment in this game. The old man, who's in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, had been an All-America defenseman on Syracuse's last championship team, in 1925, and coach of the '57 squad that went undefeated but came in second to Hopkins in the national standings; there was no NCAA tournament then, and a coaches' poll decided that the Blue Jays, who also were unbeaten, played a tougher schedule. Roy Jr. was an All-America attackman on that team. Last season was his 13th as coach of the Orange, but his first with a team that made the finals. The closest he had come was a loss to Hopkins in the semis in 1980, when one of his players was Roy III, now a Syracuse assistant coach.

As the second half begins, Syracuse falls behind 12-5. But Roy Jr. sticks with Solomon in goal. From the end of the third quarter, Solomon gives up only three goals, all of them impossible-to-stop deflected shots. Syracuse shocks Hopkins into submission with nine straight goals and wins 17-16.

Roy Jr. has won the national title that eluded his father. They embrace in the locker room. "Good game, Slugger," says Dad. They're united in the common bond of victory for Syracuse, but there could hardly be a greater difference in the character and coaching style of these two men.

The old man seems the embodiment of the total athlete of a generation or two ago: pure of heart, noble of spirit and hard of muscle, the Grantland Rice hero. Amos Alonzo Stagg recruited Simmons to play football for the University of Chicago in 1920. He had been a sensational tailback for Hyde Park High, the Cook County champs of 1917. At Chicago, he was captain of the freshman team.

But during Thanksgiving break in 1920, Simmons went to see Hyde Park play the Michigan champs in Lansing. His alma mater was losing 7-0 at the half, and Simmons went to the locker room and put on the uniform of one of the Hyde Park players, Mush Smith. "What the hell," he told the coach, "the damn team is quitting out there. Lemme go in and wake 'em up." He did. He ran for 85 yards and scored the TD that set up the final 7-7 tie. "It was a crazy thing to do," he says, "and it changed my life."

When Simmons got back to Chicago, he was a front-page story as a ringer halfback. Stagg was chagrined. "Son," he said, "you're the only boy I know who would do a thing like that. You've got too much school spirit."

But the administration didn't see it that way. Simmons was kicked out of college. So he hopped a train East to find a school with spirit to equal his own. He eventually rolled into Syracuse and played for the Orange freshman team. It was his second straight season as a frosh.

How did that work?

Simmons puts up his dukes in a slightly askew boxing pose.

"It just worked!"

He has been at Syracuse ever since. He became known as the Hobo Quarterback and is famous for leading the 1923 squad that beat Nebraska the year the Cornhuskers were the only team to lower the boom on Notre Dame and their Four Horsemen. He was coach of Syracuse's lacrosse team for nearly four decades and backfield coach of the university's national championship football team in '59. He's so revered in Syracuse that in 1958 he was elected president of the Common Council, the legislative body of the city, and served 12 years.

Simmons also coached boxing at Syracuse, and as an outgrowth of that, he came to call his son Slugger. A boxer himself, he started the team as an undergraduate, molded it and guided it to an NCAA championship in 1936. Understandably, the son has reservations about the nickname. "It's pretty tough when you go to a bar and someone you know says, 'Hi, Slugger,' and then some tough guy shouts, 'What'd he call you?' I just say, 'Oh, I was a baseball player.' "

Slugger is as much suffering artist as demanding athletic coach. He's a sculptor whose works have been exhibited in galleries from New York City to Los Angeles. "My goal was to be represented in the Museum of Modern Art and win a national title," he says. "To be honest, I thought I'd get in the Museum of Modern Art first."

When Slugger takes his players on a road trip, he sometimes pulls them off the bus to spend an hour in an art gallery or museum. Both father and son have a reputation for being sensitive to their players. And the son can be downright sentimental. He keeps a 67-year-old Oneida stickmaker named Eli Cornelius on the bench mostly because Cornelius likes to watch the games. Roy Jr. learned to play box lacrosse on the Onondaga reservation five miles south of Syracuse, although he isn't too sentimental about that. He remembers the Indian women spitting at him through the chicken wire enclosing the lacrosse box.

"One day an Indian sage pulled me aside," he recalls. "He explained that the Indians spit on you only if you're a good player and feared by the other team. The time to get upset is when they don't spit on you. After that, I used to lean by the side of the boards and hope they'd spit on me."

Roy Jr. grew up in the shadow of the gym and absorbed lacrosse as the mascot of his dad's teams. He picked up sculpture early, too. "Slugger and I would be out hunting, and he'd find a piece of wire or get out his jackknife and start carving wood and creating things," says Roy Sr. "Little did I think he'd become an artist."

Apparently, Roy Jr. didn't see himself as an artist, either. He wanted to become a veterinarian but wound up majoring in fine arts. Today, his studio is a converted chicken coop in back of his house in the Syracuse suburb of Fayetteville. There he makes collages, assemblages and constructions, tiny attics bundled up with discarded objects and serendipitous materials: canceled stamps, old marbles, strips of fabric, dolls' heads, fragments of toys, shooting gallery figures. He doesn't entitle his works. He says he doesn't want to "intellectualize" them.

Roy Jr. treats his teams like fine pieces of art. "They're collages," he says. "I've got a frame, and within those confines I have to go out and find the medium, the players: boys who are defensively very agile, quick ones talented at shooting, others good at dodging without the ball or stopping shots. And the talent must work as a team, not a one-man show." This season's collage is 3-0, including a 10-9 last-second win over highly touted North Carolina in the Orange's March 10 opener.

Roy Jr. inherited the job of coaching Syracuse lacrosse from his father in 1971, at a time when the school was de-emphasizing non-revenue sports. In his early years as coach, he sometimes had to comb the campus before games for volunteers to fill out his squad. He raised money for road trips by having his players sell raffle tickets and bottles of musk oil door to door. There was so little money for equipment that the team once had to borrow a goalie's stick from Cornell, its opponent that day.

And the lack of funding showed. By Roy Jr.'s fourth season, Syracuse's record had fallen to 2-9, and it was losing to Division III teams by as many as 22 goals. One day, a Division I team, Cornell, thrashed the Orange so badly that he put two players in the goal. "That's something I'd never do again," he says. "I was as much as admitting we couldn't win. I should've been fired for that."

On another occasion fans at Hobart pelted him with dead carp and yelled, "Go back to your studio. You're a lousy painter." After Roy Jr. and his sons, Ronnie and Roy III, who were then team mascots, returned home, his wife, Nancy, asked how the game had gone.

"We lost," said Ronnie and slunk off to his room.

"What was the score?"

"I don't know," said Roy III tearfully, "but they threw fish at Daddy."

With a little scholarship aid, Roy Jr. built a team. Last year's championship squad was assembled with transfers from four different schools, a second-string Indian goalie, and 10 guys from a local high school, West Genesee; Simmons had two full scholarships at his disposal last year, which he spread among eight players.

"Roy's an enigma," says Phillip Booth, Syracuse's poet in residence and an avid Orange lacrosse fan. He says Simmons' handling of the team makes for "a very interesting psychodrama. Keats called it a 'negative capability': Not to appear as an executive officer or a John Wayne leading the troops into Iowa, to make them meld and want something they didn't quite know they wanted."

"He's a have-fun-and-learn-at-the-same-time kind of coach," says Syracuse midfielder Brad Kotz, last year's Lacrosse Association Player of the Year. And an easygoing, low-pressure kind of recruiter. "He's not a loudmouth like a lot of coaches who came to see me," says All-America attackman Tim Nelson. "He spoke honestly to me, like a real person."

"Most coaches have an archetypal image of what an athlete should be," says Jim Ridlon, a fellow artist and former lacrosse teammate of Roy Jr.'s who went on to play safety for the Dallas Cowboys. "They want intelligence, sacrifice and commitment. But instead of trying to force a player into a stereotype, Roy tries to understand them and form a partnership. His father was the same way."

These days Roy Sr. frequently comes down at halftime to dispense patriarchal wisdom. "Win or lose," says his son, "he always has a little criticism."

Roy Jr. was eating dinner with his dad last Easter when he got the word that his team had been ranked No. 1 in the country—the first time ever. "Dad, we're Number One," he exulted.

The old man didn't even look up. "Uneasy rests the head that wears a crown," he said.

But Roy Sr. no longer wears his Syracuse baseball cap to games. He cost the lacrosse team a technical a few years ago for berating a ref. "I'm just a spectator!" he bellowed. The official pointed to the insignia on his cap. Simmons now comes to games in an unmarked hat.

He still has a reputation for irascibility. "He gets awfully excited," corrects his wife, Thelma, "but he's not really irascible. I've lived with him for 56 years, so I know."

Roy Sr. is remarkably full of energy and packed with an endless supply of stories, which he tells more or less nonstop for hours, pausing in his Naugahyde La-Z-Boy only long enough to fill his pipe with Blend Eleven Aromatic tobacco. He spices his anecdotes with a gentle profanity.

He'll tell you about the time his football coach at Syracuse slightly deflated some of the balls so that Maryland's punter would have a bad day; how he used to enforce curfew as assistant football coach by prowling the dorm halls with Candy, his German shepherd; and about his rousing gridiron speech at the half of Syracuse's game with West Virginia in 1955. Syracuse was behind 13-7. Before the players had time to take off their helmets, Simmons jumped up on a table and became so animated he leaped for a pipe and pulled down the sprinkler system. "It was just an act to get them excited," he says. "By the time I finished, they were so fired up, a brick wall couldn't stop them."

When Syracuse left the locker room, the West Virginia band was still on the field. "We've got to beat this team," he told his squad, "and let's start with the band." So the players plowed through the horn section and over West Virginia by a 20-13 score.

Simmons remembers loaning Jim Brown to the track coach before a crucial lacrosse game with unbeaten Army in '57. Brown was only supposed to compete in the high jump, but by the time Simmons caught up with him, Brown had won the high jump, broad jump and 100-yard dash, and finished second in the javelin. "They would've put him in the damn pole vault if I hadn't interceded," he huffs.

Roy Sr.'s conversation always returns to Brown, the best athlete he ever coached and the greatest lacrosse player of all time. "Big Jim never drank or smoked," he says. "His only weakness was the chicks."

"Roy Simmons is the greatest man I have ever known," says Brown. "Roy treated me so well during my first season in football that I went out for lacrosse purely because of my affection for him. He's the kind of guy you never want to let down. He was the reason I stayed in school."

At the end of practice on the day before that '57 lacrosse game with Army, Brown got into a fight. Simmons broke it up and took a punch on the back of the head. Everyone froze. "I think that's enough practice," said Roy Sr., and the stunned players dispersed.

As he walked off the field, Simmons grinned broadly. "Well," he said to an assistant, "I think they're ready for Army." The Orange won 8-6.

Things haven't always gone smoothly for the old man. Five years ago, his daughter Connie was hospitalized with lung cancer. He would sit by her bedside, trying to cheer her up. "He would never reminisce with her," says Roy Jr. "He'd just talk optimistically about the future, although there was going to be no future. Dad always had encouraging words for a losing team; he was always there to give hope. But Connie frustrated him because he couldn't coax or cajole another touchdown out of her. It was one game he didn't know how to coach.

"I'd watch him walk out of her room. His step would lose its spring as soon as he closed the door. And then he'd fall apart. I'd seen him lose lacrosse games, but I'd never seen him defeated."

In the days that followed Syracuse's championship win over Hopkins, the Simmonses basked in their celebrity. Roy Sr. got letters, telegrams and phone calls from former players, some of whom weren't sure he was still alive.

A week after the victory, Roy Jr. came over to his father's house for toast and coffee. His father's mood had changed. He was done talking about the game.

"You know, Slugger, you've got to be ready for '84," he said. "You're the trophy. Everybody'll come at you harder now."

He sent his son home with a poem:
From little rays of sunshine,
Come little blades of grass.
Today a college hero,
Tomorrow a horse's ass.


A show of Roy Jr.'s works (above) didn't include his winning lacrosse assemblage.


Roy Sr. relishes piping up about the past, when he played on a championship team.


It isn't a dog's life for Sasha when she's able to hang out with Roy Jr., Nancy and Roy III.


The workplace in which Slugger concocts his collages is a converted chicken coop.


Lacrosse-and-football legend Brown visited his old teammate at an '83 tournament.