In college football, the average tenure for a head coach is reportedly only 3.7 years. The demands placed on all college coaches are immense, and many are either one loss away from unemployment or one big win away from their next great opportunity.
Early in his career, Bill Tierney, head coach for the University of Denver’s men’s lacrosse team, experienced the coaching carousel that is all too common in college athletics. He coached at four different high schools and colleges before becoming head coach at Princeton. After his third season there, he was again confronted with the perennial decision: Leave for a bigger school or stay and see what happens? He opted to stay, and three years turned into 22 years and six national championships, not to mention recognition as the country’s most respected college lacrosse coach.
So why would he leave Princeton to move out West, where lacrosse has been slow to grow in popularity? “Everyone thought I was crazy except for the ones who knew I was crazy,” Tierney jokes. “I felt comfortable in Princeton, but I was on automatic pilot.”
When the DU position became available, the prospect of coaching with his son Trevor was especially appealing. He was also sold on the position by Peg Bradley-Doppes, then vice chancellor for athletics.
“She told me I’d have two jobs here: Let’s get this program doing well, and let’s use this program to help you spread the word for lacrosse out West,” Tierney says.
Now, 13 years and another national championship later, Tierney, who recently announced that he will retire after the 2023 season, is DU’s fourth-longest-tenured head coach. The people and culture have kept him at the University.
Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart, in her 25th season as head coach of women’s gymnastics, shares that sentiment.
“I love the people here,” she says. “There is something about the University of Denver, the people who work here, how they are committed. There is something about Colorado. There is something about this region of the country that I just absolutely love.”
Before coming to Denver, Kutcher-Rinehart served as assistant coach at the University of Michigan, where the Wolverines placed as high as second at the NCAA Nationals. When she started looking at head coaching options, she never thought DU would be a perfect fit—until she met the people.
“I stepped on campus and the minute I met with [then-Chancellor] Dan Ritchie and [then-board chair] Joy Burns, I was hooked,” she says. “They laid out their vision for athletics and gymnastics specifically, and they were inspiring and motivating, and they had really high standards of excellence. I just so appreciated the character of how they wanted to win.”
Under Kutcher-Rinehart’s leadership, the gymnastics program has become one of the country’s most respected, with two individual national champions and a fourth-place finish at the 2019 NCAA National Championships. Over the years, other coaching opportunities have surfaced, but she’s committed to building upon her success in Denver.
“This has been one of my children. You are not going to leave one of your children,” Kutcher-Rinehart says. “We have more of a family feel. When we talk about character, teamwork and excellence as our philosophy and three pillars, they mean something. That’s what makes it so special here and why I wouldn’t want to leave to take any other job in the country.”
Like Kutcher-Rinehart, Jeff Hooker has spent decades building a winning program. He came to Denver as a professional soccer player and then also took on the role as head coach of DU’s then-Division II women’s soccer program. The culture Hooker has helped establish is a big reason he is still here 31 years later.
“Other programs will say it’s about culture, and then they will have five kids transferring every year,” he says. “We don’t have kids transferring every year.” Following every home game, a tailgate gathering brings players and their families together. Hooker says these events, driven by parents, appeal to prospective athletes and their families.
Hooker also values the support from within the athletics program. He credits Ron Grahame—whose career with the Pioneers began in the 1970s as a student-athlete and ended in 2019 as the athletic director—with promoting his success and reinforcing his decision to stay at DU.
“There were times where I might have had a foot out the door, and then I would talk to Ron,” Hooker recalls. “We would go over details of things like what are your goals, what are your aspirations. And without talking me out of it, he would talk me out of it.”
Liza Kelly, head coach of the women’s lacrosse team, also remembers Grahame’s steady presence. “He was an incredible mentor and had so much pride for this University.”
Now in her 17th season with the Pioneers, Kelly arrived in Denver in search of a great place to start a family and a program with the right culture. Under her leadership, the Pioneers have had only one losing season and have appeared in the NCAA Tournament six times, including each of the past four seasons.
Kelly says the coaches feed off the sustained success within the program.
“It’s people first all the time. It’s not a slogan,” she says. “We all take pride in each other’s successes, and we take a little responsibility for each other’s losses. I think success breeds success. So, when you are around greatness, you demand more of yourself.”