Of Love and Lacrosse: A Conversation with Dom Starsia and Lars Tiffany

What started as a player-coach association more than three decades ago has turned into an enduring professional and personal friendship.

And it all came full circle last Memorial Day, when legendary former Virginia men’s lacrosse coach Dom Starsia, the author of four NCAA titles, 13 final four appearances and 274 victories over 24 seasons in Charlottesville, saw the UVA championship torch passed to third-year Cavaliers coach Lars Tiffany, who guided the team to a 17-3 finish and its sixth NCAA title with a 13-9 victory over defending titlist Yale in Philadelphia.

Ever since, in 1986, Starsia convinced a lightly recruited defenseman named Tiffany from Lafayette (N.Y.) High School to play for him at Brown, the pair has been linked.

Both men played and coached lacrosse at Brown, where Starsia, a 1974 graduate, had rebuilt the program impressively enough that, just two years after Tiffany graduated in 1990, Starsia left Brown to inject new life into the Virginia program.

While Starsia was collecting eventually more victories than any Division I head coach in NCAA men’s lacrosse history, Tiffany was learning the coaching ranks as an assistant at Le Moyne, Washington and Lee, Dartmouth, Penn State and Stony Brook.

The two remained consistently in touch with each other, and history would connect them once more. Following the 2006 season — which ended with Starsia coaching Virginia to its third national crown under him and the last undefeated season in Division I history — Tiffany returned to Providence to take his first head coaching job at Brown.

Starsia had coached there as an assistant before becoming a first-time head coach in 1982. That was the start of a 10-season run, during which Starsia earned two national Coach of the Year awards and led the Bears to two Ivy League titles and four NCAA tournaments.

Tiffany also ran the Brown program for 10 seasons, and the Bears’ NCAA tournament run to the final four in 2016 catapulted Tiffany into the coaching job he could not have imagined himself accepting years earlier – the replacement for Starsia, who was fired after the 2016 season.

Tiffany, who lives close to the Virginia campus and just a few miles from Starsia, recently stopped by the home of his close friend, advisor and mentor. Both coaches sat down for an extended chat with US Lacrosse Magazine writer Gary Lambrecht.

Tag: 
Category: 
College
Author: 
Gary Lambrecht
Body Section One: 

Change of Command

LAMBRECHT

Lars, in your opening statement at the post-game press conference on Memorial Day, you tipped your hat by making your remarks all about Dom and his coaching and recruiting work that preceded you in Charlottesville. Was that rehearsed, in preparation for such a moment?

TIFFANY

Immediately after the game on the field, when [ESPN commentator] Paul Carcaterra had the microphone in my face and was trying to capture the emotion of winning it all, I said what I said, and as soon as Paul walked away, I realized I hadn’t said a thing about Dom. I really felt remiss about that. There is no question I became a coach because of Dom. I followed his path. I didn’t replace him [at Virginia]. I followed him. So much of the adventure this year was because of him. I had to make sure I got that right in the press conference.

LAMBRECHT

Did those words of appreciation hit the mark?

STARSIA

First of all, in terms of what happened right after the game on TV, people don’t understand what your head is like in that spot. Just to be able to speak in complete sentences on the field is an amazing accomplishment. I was a little taken aback by how gracious Lars was. That was above and beyond [the call of duty] in such a great moment for him.

LAMBRECHT

Did you watch or have you watched the championship game?

STARSIA

No, actually. I was prowling the property during the game, and I didn’t watch the recording of it all of the way through. But I saw enough and heard enough and read enough. It was very gratifying, the way they won it. It’s how I would have wanted any of my Virginia teams to have played. They played hard. They kicked ass.

LAMBRECHT

Does the old competitor in you believe you could have won your fifth NCAA title, had you to been around to pursue it at UVA?

STARSIA

I’d be lying if I said that thought hadn’t occurred to me — not that often but maybe while driving somewhere for hours or cutting the grass. Couldn’t we have done that? I felt we had turned the corner in recruiting. There were players of real talent and character coming into the program. But I quickly came to the easy realization that it doesn’t mean it would have happened. Lars and his staff and players made it happen. They deserve all of the credit.

TIFFANY

The fact is, this was a team Dom recruited for the most part. How fortunate were we stepping into a program with Mike Kraus coming in and starting his first year, with Dox Aitken and Jarred Conners starting in their first years? Dom prepared this chair very well for me.

LAMBRECHT

As Brown University alums and fellow head coaches there, you’ve had a relationship that has lasted more than three decades. Was that tested at all by the change in command in Charlottesville?

STARSIA

It really didn’t matter who was going to be the coach. There was going to be some awkwardness. My wife was hurt by the whole thing as much as I was — or more so. It will probably get easier as more of the guys I recruited have moved on from Virginia. And it did get easier when they won — less attention on me, more on Lars and his team. Lars and I have stayed in touch over many years. Sometimes we wouldn’t talk for weeks or months during our busy times, but we’ve always been in touch. His hiring has definitely helped me stay connected to the program.

TIFFANY

That awkward feeling was there. But while Dom and I were in this restaurant in Washington, D.C., before the Tewaaraton Trophy ceremony [where Brown’s Dylan Molloy won the award in 2016], Dom looked across the table at me and said I should think about going after his old job. I told Dom that yeah, I was thinking about it, with all of my heart. Coming from somebody who was my mentor, who is the reason why I chose to make [coaching] a career, that statement essentially gave me permission.

LAMBRECHT

It was widely assumed that [longtime Notre Dame head coach and UVA alum] Kevin Corrigan was the first choice to replace Dom. After Corrigan declared he was staying in South Bend and [longtime Notre Dame assistant] Gerry Byrne did the same, did you feel your chances of landing in Charlottesville were very good?

TIFFANY

I’m not sure if I ended up as the second, third or fourth choice. Most of the jobs I’ve gotten in coaching, I have not been the first choice. After the hiring process entered the next stage, [former Virginia athletics director] Craig Littlepage called me while I was recruiting at a club tournament on Long Island. Next thing I know, we’re having a clandestine meeting for a couple of hours at a Marriott in Melville, N.Y. He flew me down to Charlottesville a few days later.

LAMBRECHT

And things progressed quickly after that?

TIFFANY

Very quickly. Craig was very hands-on. He wanted to keep it quiet. At one point during my UVA visit, he drove me over to see the Rotunda and the Lawn. I was enjoying that, and as we were jumping back into Craig’s car, I hear someone yelling, “Lars! Lars!” Turns out it was a Brown women’s lacrosse alum in town for a wedding. She’d recognized me and asked what I was doing there. Craig told her it was of the utmost importance that she kept it quiet. I think she put two and two together. It only took about 30 minutes before my phone started beeping with texts of, “Hey, I hear you’re in Charlottesville.”

STARSIA

Littlepage was scrambling at that point. He needed to get it done. When he found the right guy, he wasn’t bringing anybody else in [to interview]. UVA had to wrap that up. Somebody had to get the job. I think Lars was the best guy he could have hired. Lars and I spoke a couple of times about his contract toward the end [of the hiring process].

TIFFANY

Dom was treated very unfairly at the end. The whole process was done poorly. But I’ll always admire how he stayed above the fray and moved forward, looking long-term. He helped me as much as possible settling in here. I spent my first month here living in Dom’s house [while Starsia relocated for an annual August family trip to a summer home in the Adirondacks]. You talk about a seamless transition.

LAMBRECHT

That must have been a surreal beginning to the best coaching job you’ve ever had.

TIFFANY

Yes, I definitely experienced some moments of, “Wow, how did this happen?” I grew up on a farm in Buffalo, so seeing horses and the [Blue Ridge] mountains every day made me feel connected. I spent 10 years as the head coach at Brown trying to figure out where to live in a place that’s part of the Boston sprawl. It’s hard to find land there. [Charlottesville] just feels like who I am.

STARSIA

When we got back after that month, Lars told me, “This is what I want for myself.” Maybe I’ll sell it to him one day.

TIFFANY

And the annual opening day team barbeque for the freshmen moving in, which Dom had hosted forever — well, my first season starts with Dom, who of course is no longer the coach, hosting it at his house again. Most people in his situation would not have done that.

Quote: 
“He did not guide with a whip. He taught the game in a way that made you let him lead you. You followed him because of how much he loved you.” — Lars Tiffany on his college coach, UVA predecessor and mentor, Dom Starsia
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Body Section Two: 

A BOND TAKES ROOT

LAMBRECHT

How did you end up playing at Brown?

TIFFANY

A friend of mine, Joe Solomon, who was the goalie on our high school team, was on Dom’s radar. As Dom’s home visit at Joe’s house was ending, Dom asked if there was anyone else he should be looking at around here. Joe’s father, Bo, mentioned there was this pretty good defenseman with good grades you might want to check out. I was a senior, leaning toward [Division III] Clarkson at that point.

STARSIA

I don’t even remember what I did to corroborate what the father told me about Lars. But I called Lars the next day and made a couple of other calls about him, and we brought him in for a visit [in February of 1986]. It was done quickly. Recruiting was a whole lot different back then.

LAMBRECHT

How did the bond between the two of you take root?

STARSIA

I know I’ve been blessed by having great guys around me throughout my life. In Lars’ case, the fact that he was a two-time co-captain [in 1989 and ’90] speaks a lot to the kind of person he is and the kind of relationship we’ve had. We’ve always felt that respect between us.

TIFFANY

Getting to play for Dom was a really big deal to me. He did not guide with a whip. He taught the game in a way that made you let him lead you. You followed him because of how much he loved you and cared about you. I think he raised his voice [in anger] to me once in four years. The voice I remember is Dom urging you on — “Bend your back! Get this next one!” Things like that. He had this passion that would get you to believe in yourself.

LAMBRECHT

By the time Dom had moved on to UVA, you were moving from teaching and coaching at the high school level into the college lacrosse coaching ranks [at Le Moyne in 1994]. Did Dom give you some insight early on, as to what you’d be in for if being a college coach became a career pursuit?

TIFFANY

I was working on my master’s at Le Moyne, and my advisor convinced me that, since I already was working in coaching, I should pick a thesis topic related to coaching. I decided to get into the lifestyle of the coaching profession. I interviewed several coaches — Sid Jameison [at Bucknell], Dave Urick [then at Georgetown] and Dom. I remember asking Dom a litany of questions about his professional vs. family life and how do you keep them separate? Without hesitation, he said, “I don’t separate them. We combine the two. My family knows my job is a part of their lives. They come to the games, even on some recruiting trips with me.” Coming from a role model, that struck me, and it’s guided me since.

STARSIA

When I was an assistant at Brown, my wife [Krissy] was a nurse who worked nights and my young kids were with me during the day. I had a child gate across my office door, Legos all over the floor. If I hadn’t worked for somebody who was OK with that, I would have had a hard time staying in the profession. It’s not just that the family has to accommodate the job. The job has to accommodate the family. I realized early in my career it would take too much time to separate them. It was important that I married somebody who liked what I did for a living.

TIFFANY

That thinking carries over in my life now. I’m a dad with a 5-year-old [daughter]. Charlotte has been in the office many times. [Assistant] Kip Turner’s daughter was in the office today. When I’m home, I try to make sure I’m always present with Charlotte, even though the phone is ringing and emails are waiting and there is another recruiting call scheduled for 9 tonight.

Body Section Three: 

FOREVER A MENTOR

LAMBRECHT

You’ve said Dom is a constant resource for you. Go back to your first head coaching job at Brown. What kind of challenges had you looking for his advice?

TIFFANY

I was so exasperated at one point after losing another recruit to Harvard. I just kept losing them. Dom was arguably the best recruiter in the game. I just asked him, “How did you do it [at Brown]?” Dom tells me he never lost a recruit to Harvard. I told him that was B.S. But then he explained what he meant.

STARSIA

If a kid I was recruiting at Brown told me he was seriously interested in Harvard, I would get out of our recruiting relationship and wish him luck. If it ever came down to us and Harvard or if I found out the recruit’s father went to Harvard, same thing. Those are very different schools. My recruiting mantra was always, “Make it personal, but don’t take it personally.”

LAMBRECHT

You mentioned how, since Lars took your job, it has helped you reconnect to the program. How about a specific example?

STARSIA

Last year, I finally went to watch us play [at Klockner Stadium]. I went to the Brown game and came back for the Utah game. After the Brown game, when I walked through the parking lot, the Virginia parents were really nice to me. I sure appreciated that, but I was uncomfortable being the center of attention. Virginia lacrosse still matters to me. That piece of my life will never get back to what it was. But it will get to a manageable place.

TIFFANY

Dom and I have had lunch regularly since I’ve been here. There is always something I can bounce off of him. I kept in touch with him a lot during the tournament, especially the last week. The day after we beat Duke [in the semifinals], I called him at 7 a.m. and basically asked him, “What now? I’ve never been in this spot. We’ve got Yale tomorrow. What do we do today? Have an easy practice, a walk-through?” Dom told me our guys didn’t need anything. Whatever we did outside would be just satisfying some innate coaching need to get something done. I’d say he was right.

LAMBRECHT

In the moments that followed the sweet ending on Memorial Day, what words did you have for Lars?

STARSIA

About five minutes after the game, I sent him a text that said, “In 1999, after we won the championship [Starsia’s first at UVA], I was in Syracuse the next day [recruiting] at a high school sectional playoff game. I’m just saying.” A couple of days later, we talked on the phone. I told him you’ve got something on the mantel they can’t ever take away from you. Enjoy this, enjoy your family, enjoy your life. But all of these other guys are trying to beat your ass, so you’d better get out and find the next group of guys you’re going to need to keep this going. Turn around and go on.

Short Summary: 
What started as a player-coach association decades ago has turned into an enduring friendship.
Sub-Category: 
Photographer Main Image: 
PHOTO COURTESY OF DOM STARSIA (@DOMSTARSIAPLL)
Photographer Parallax: 
PHOTO COURTESY OF DOM STARSIA (@DOMSTARSIAPLL)
Photo Main Caption: 
From left, former Virginia goalie and current assistant Kip Turner, former Cavaliers coach Dom Starsia and current coach Lars Tiffany reunited at the UVA alumni game Saturday.
Photo Parallax Caption: 
Tiffany was a defenseman and two-time co-captain at Brown for Starsia. Tiffany's own coaching career led him to follow in Starsia's footsteps at Brown and UVA.

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