Bill Tierney 'Totally Sure' He's Ready for Retirement

TOWSON, Md. — In 49 years of coaching, two things have remained constant in Bill Tierney’s professional life.

He’s won — a lot. And as much as he’s loved practice and the process of making teams and players better, he’s never entirely savored the game-day experience.

So here is Tierney in a hotel lobby Thursday morning, about 10 hours away from what could end up one of the last half-dozen or so games in his career doing what he can to ignore the angst of what’s to come.

He announced his retirement effective the end of the season in January. Denver feted him with Bill Tierney Day on Saturday, complete with a 12-6 defeat of Villanova and a postgame banquet. Yet if there’s a countdown on, it’s not something Tierney is encouraging besides mordantly observing his last delayed flight as a head coach might be in his past.

“There are things that pop up that make you think about eight more, seven more, six more, but in a good way,” Tierney said. “And then other things that have totally confirmed it’s the right time and the right thing to do.”

Nothing that happened Thursday at Towson — where the Pioneers earned a 12-10 victory — changed his sentiment. The same will go for Saturday’s trip to St. John’s, next week’s home finale against Providence and so on.

“As many things happened in my career ... this year has reminded me of all of it.”

— Bill Tierney

The net effect is an internal sense Tierney’s final ride usually has felt the same as the dozens preceding it.

“He’s done a phenomenal job of staying focused on us and not allowing this being his last year to affect how he’s coaching us,” junior midfielder Jack Tortolani said. “He’s continued to just be all-in with our success and knowing this is our journey and our season. I don’t think he’s trying to make it any different than he would five, 10 years ago.”

If there is a contrast to be made, it’s probably with the last couple seasons. The pandemic discombobulated every program to some extent, and Denver was no different.

An expanded roster thanks to fifth-year players and graduate transfers was an unusual challenge to juggle for two years, and Tierney acknowledged in January he thought the Pioneers’ culture wasn’t where it needed to be when last season concluded. By the end of fall ball, his opinion had changed.

“I would say he’s been dialed in, but I think he’s really appreciated this group of guys that we’ve had,” associate head coach Matt Brown said. “We have such a strong leadership group that is pushing this program, this team forward. I think that was a big part of why he decided this was the right year, knowing the people we had at that top and the type of character they had, this is the right group. He wanted this group to be his last group.”

Midstream, it’s a belief that helped Tierney remain unwavering about his decision even as the Pioneers wind through an entirely unpredictable season.

“No doubt. Win or lose,” Tierney said. “My wife said to me last night on the plane, ‘You sure about this thing?’ I’m totally sure about it. But I want to beat Towson. And that’s what makes me most comfortable.”

He got what he wanted Thursday night. The Pioneers (6-4) scored the first six goals on their way to back-to-back victories for only the second time this season as JJ Sillstrop had five goals and an assist.

But it wasn’t like Saturday in an important sense. Tierney was the center of attention whether he wanted to be or not. He had a speech to give to about 350 guests whether Denver won or lost, a fact both he and his players were acutely aware of all week.

No one ever wants to lose. But there was a special form of dread about how things might have turned out had Denver not uncorked one of its best games of the season — one Tierney later told his team was evidence the Pioneers could go all the way.

What he said the day before was a little less memorable.

“I’ve never given a worse pregame speech in my life,” Tierney said. “I think it was something to the effect of, ‘We sucked on Wednesday. We sucked a little less on Thursday. We still sucked today, but maybe tomorrow we can be pretty good.’ I mean, what a lousy speech. Again, I’m so proud of our guys for what they put up with this year — and what they put up with playing for me — knowing this thing was going down.”

Which is not to say things have been smooth. Denver clobbered Utah in its opener, only to lose the next week at Air Force. It took Duke to overtime, then slogged its way past Merrimack. And that was just in February.

The Pioneers were all over the place the next four games, too, winning at North Carolina and then sputtering at Yale. It dropped 17 goals on Ohio State, only to manage just six in a loss at Georgetown despite two weeks to get ready.

“Ever since I’ve been at Denver, it’s been interesting: We’ve handled adversity much better than handling success,” Tierney said. “This season seems to be a microcosm of my career here. … As many things happened in my career when it comes to games, this year has reminded me of all of it. All the highs, all the really lows. It’s been pretty amazing.”

The symmetry of Tierney’s career is perhaps best exemplified on this Denver team by Tortolani. His father Justin was Tierney’s first foundational recruit at Princeton and a major piece of the Tigers’ 1992 championship team.


Three decades later, the younger Tortolani is a regular contributor under his dad’s coach. Yet it’s not as if Tierney wasn’t an influence even before Jack Tortolani chose to attend Denver. So many of the things the coach emphasized then — how to treat people, how to be a good teammate — are the same messages he still imparts.

“It’s cool for me and cool for my family because my dad was there at the beginning and now I’m there at the end,” Tortolani said. “It totally comes full circle. A lot of the stuff my dad really pushed on me growing up was stuff he got from him. In a way, I’ve been kind of raised by a lot of the ‘T principles.’”

However timeless those “T principles” are, Tierney didn’t oversee seven national title teams and pile up 435 victories by rigidly remaining the same. The mix of adaptability and consistency remains on display into the final weeks of his career, something that continues to impress Brown after working with Tierney for 14 seasons.

But that’s only a portion of why Tierney has remained effective to the very end.

“He puts a lot of trust in his staff, and he puts a lot of trust in his players and he wants to evolve,” Brown said. “I really think that, combined with how he makes people feel and the way he makes them feel important and wanted, that’s his secret sauce. That’s why he’s been so successful over the course of forever.”

Even forever ends, at least in this case. Maybe it comes the first week of May, though Tierney hopes the Pioneers’ Thursday/Saturday sequence this week will prove beneficial in the Big East tournament. He’s still trying to get his team to understand how important it is to be confident, to truly experience going on a run and to be careful not to stifle enthusiasm because of his own past experiences.

He’s a coach, so he remembers the losses and the missteps more vividly than most of the triumphs. He thinks about what he might do in retirement, if only because he gets asked about it a bunch.

Critically, though, Tierney still has a game to coach and another game plan to prepare. Then another. Interspersed will be heartfelt tributes, such as Towson coach Shawn Nadelen’s taped pregame ode on the video board to his former boss at Princeton on Thursday.

Yet even with some fanfare throughout the sport and his own willingness to think ahead to what’s next, Tierney doesn’t seem interested in dwelling on the farewell portion of the farewell tour. There is still more gameday angst — and, no doubt, victories — to come.

“Our profession is full of great guys, and I look forward to watching from a little bit more of a distance,” Tierney said. “I don’t look at it like [it’s a last time] at all. Maybe when it comes up in a few weeks, maybe I will. And maybe walking off the field that last time, maybe I will.”


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