Utah men’s lacrosse coach Brian Holman takes in the view during a team hike in the Wasatach Mountains.

All-Access with Utah Men's Lacrosse: This Must Be The Place

Long after Utah’s Team White narrowly finished off Team Red, 14-13, in an intra-squad scrimmage — after coach Brian Holman had his team run a set of suicides across the field as the crowd of hundreds fled from the turf — the Utes huddled together in the southwest corner of Central Garage Field.

With the hazy Wasatch Mountains watching over them, Holman kneeled in front of his players and spoke softly.

“This whole process is going to be one of the greatest challenges in our lives,” he told them. “You gotta have passion. You gotta have passion in life, passion for friends, fine food and good wine, books, music. Passion will carry you a long way.”

Holman talked of mistakes — making them, learning from them, repeat. All eyes were on the coach as his intonation changed.

“We will continue to knock on that door until that thing is knocked down,” Holman said. “I honest to God don’t know when that’s going to come. I promise you, though, one thing. We will never stop pushing and knocking and prodding and pulling and kicking and clawing and scrapping until that door goes down. Until it goes down.”

The figurative door manifests itself in many different aspects of the Utah men’s lacrosse program as it heads toward its inaugural varsity season in 2019. It could stand for small day-to-day improvements, the quest to compete in Division I, or, eventually, bringing home a national championship.

Ever since he took control of the Utes’ club program in 2016, Holman has been fixated on making the school a Division I powerhouse in men’s lacrosse. You’d be hard pressed to find someone on campus that doesn’t believe in him. He’s already knocked down a few “doors” over the past two years — making the move to Salt Lake City, taking down MCLA No. 1 Chapman in his first game at the helm and solidifying Utah’s move up to the Division I ranks.

Holman won’t stop now.

“Once we knock [the door] down, we’re going to pick it up, nail it to the wall and look for what?” he said. “The next door. You got it? That’s the mentality we have to have.”

“The ultimate end of the journey for me, in my mind, is building a national championship-caliber program and then to be in the national championship and the final four.” — Brian Holman

Recruiting the Coach

Brian Holman speaks of his Utah team and those that
comprise it with unbridled passion.
His off-the-cuff answers are often long-winded. He has a lot to say about the program he took over in the summer of 2016.

And his speeches. His speeches can get players motivated for anything.

“You get really fired up to go to class,” goalie Liam Donnelly said. “Not too many people can get you excited to go to class, but he can.”

Holman lives and breathes Utah lacrosse. But as much as he’s now a fixture on campus, it took some convincing to get the former North Carolina assistant to Salt Lake City.

The recruiting effort was spearheaded by David Neeleman, founder of four commercial airlines (Morris Air, WestJet, JetBlue Airways, Azul Brazilian Airlines). Neeleman’s son, Seth, picked up lacrosse in Connecticut and played for the club team at Utah. Watching his son play, Neeleman saw value in the sport for the university.

“I really thought lacrosse was a good way to get Utah known,” he said. “There are people that play football and basketball, but there aren’t as many people that play lacrosse. People who follow lacrosse could be introduced to the University of Utah if we had a Division I program.”

Neeleman set out to find a high-caliber head coach for Utah’s club team, which competed in the MCLA, with the hopes that the right candidate could usher the program to Division I in a matter of years.

Holman was among the top names on his list. As an assistant under Joe Breschi, fresh off helping to lead North Carolina to the 2016 NCAA title, he had considered several head coaching opportunities. But not Utah.

“At first I was like ‘Nah, that doesn’t feel right to me. We love Chapel Hill,’” Holman said. “I felt like, after being [at UNC], I could be a head coach at a high level of lacrosse. Then the question is A) can this happen and B) if it does happen, it had to be at a place where we could have a large impact.”

After speaking with Neeleman over the phone on multiple occasions, and with the encouragement of his wife, Laurie, Holman agreed to visit the school before making a decision. As soon as he stepped foot in Salt Lake City, he knew it was special.

The mountains were beautiful. The facilities were top-notch. He could see a Division I program thriving here.

Laurie Holman and their daughter, Sydney, made the trip to Salt Lake City soon after. Holman picked up his wife and daughter up at the airport when they returned. Sydney Holman hopped in the front seat and shot a look at him.

“‘Dad, if you don’t take that job, you’re frigging crazy,’” she said.

“The opportunity was just too good to be true,” Laurie Holman said. “You can’t turn something like that down.”

“I’ve been married for 31 years now,” Brian Holman said. “You learn at times you should just listen to your wife.” 

The Drum and Feather

The team was scheduled to take a hike through Park City on Oct. 12, but snowfall made conditions unsafe. It was only a small disappointment. Holman had another activity in mind.

Players huddled early that morning in Utah’s Varsity Room — a meeting place for the school’s athletic teams. The black walls were decorated with the names of each varsity program. Sandwiched between swimming and diving and gymnastics on one side of the room, and slightly below beach volleyball on the other, was men’s lacrosse. In the front of the room, a white wall plastered with the words “It’s a Great Day to be a Ute” stood prominently. 

Built in 2017, the Varsity Room was one of the first indicators that Utah was on its way — a sliver of evidence that lacrosse had arrived in Salt Lake City. So it was a fitting venue for yet another initiation. Players received their new helmet stickers — equipped with the full drum and feather customary with Utah’s varsity athletics logo. Up until this fall, the club team had played with a red block “U” on their helmets. 

The drum and feather are sacred images that pay respect to the Ute tribe, native to the southwestern U.S.

“I’ve been a Utah fan my entire life,” said Seth Neeleman, one of the team’s four captains. “I love watching the Utah football games. I went to the Fiesta Bowl when we beat Pitt. I watched the Sugar Bowl when we beat Alabama. To actually wear the logo means a lot to me. It means the world because I love this school. It feels like now we’re part of the family.”

“To a lot of people, it would seem like just a little thing. It’s really symbolic,” said Josh Stout, an attackman and Utah native. “Putting the drum and the feather on was just symbolic, like, we’re here.”

After years of qualifying to everyone on campus that they were just club, the Utes finally felt on par to their varsity counterparts. 


Holman, the former assistant coach at North Carolina, was wooed to Utah by commercial airline mogul David Neeleman, father of Utes defenseman Seth Neeleman, pictured with fellow team captains Liam Donnelly (2) and Jimmy Perkins (4).

Living the Dream

A drizzle started to fall as Adam Ghitelman got out of his car at an overlook. Surrounded by the cascading red rocks of Zion National Park in Southern Utah, Ghitelman had a moment of clarity.

The Talking Heads song, “This Must be the Place,” played in his head, while he gazed on at the rock formations. 

“I just felt this great moment of peace knowing that I did the right thing,” he said. “This is exactly what I’m looking for in my life. I was sitting there thinking to myself, ‘This is the place.’”

Ghitelman was on his way from Los Angeles, where he served as the USC club coach, to his new home at Utah. There, he’d join fellow professional lacrosse stars Marcus Holman — Brian’s son — and Will Manny as assistants on the Utes lacrosse team.

Ghitelman had worked camps with fellow goalie Brian Holman in previous years, so the transition would be seamless. Manny, too, had a relationship with the head coach. So when he got a call before a Major League Lacrosse game with the Boston Cannons — Holman led with, “What do you think about the University of Utah?” — it didn’t take him long to commit. Marcus Holman trusted his father when he told him he was headed to Utah to build a Division I program.

The three lacrosse pros lived together in nearby Sugar House. For the better part of two seasons, the Utah club program had no offices. Their townhouse, and Brian Holman’s home closer to campus, became meeting places for the coaching staff.

“We’d have the whiteboard in the living room. We’d watch film,” Marcus Holman said. “Every day, there was a lacrosse game rolling on our TV. It was a home office for two years.”

Sometimes they met at the Corner Bakery near campus.

“We should be on the Wall of Fame there,” Marcus Holman said. “They’d recognize us. They’d have our table in the corner. It’s kind of cool. We should do that more.”

Ghitelman, Holman and Manny balanced life as pro players — all three signed with the Premier Lacrosse League, while Holman and Manny also suit up for the U.S. national team — with the demands of being an assistant coach at the Division I level.

“[It] is who I’ve become in a way,” said Manny, who had coached at Wagner for two seasons. “Knowing that those two guys were in the equation and knowing Brian and the things he’s done as a coach, it was a pretty easy decision.”

They have their own, albeit small, offices now in the John M. Huntsman Center. This must be the place.


Adam Ghitelman (above and first from left at right) joined fellow professional lacrosse players Marcus Holman and Will Manny to round out a formidable coaching staff at Utah. The three of them lived together in Sugar House.

Onward and Westward 

Brian Holman stood among his team during a Friday night practice at US Lacrosse headquarters on Oct. 19. His son, Matt, had just finished talking to the team, and Holman addressed the players once more.

Mid-speech, he turned his head to the Tierney Field scoreboard that read, “Welcome University of Utah.” It was real. Utah, on its first road trip as a Division I program, had completed the mission.

“It kind of hit me. We’ve been working two years for this,” Holman said. “Yeah, it’s emotional. I’m kind of emotional anyhow, so I definitely felt it.”

He wasn’t the only one that was caught off-guard the by occasion. Utah was in Baltimore to face lacrosse blueblood UMBC in a fall scrimmage.

“I’ll always have this moment in my memory of Brian just looking over,” Ghitelman said. “It was two years of hard, hard work and a lot of persistence and resiliency on our part. Our players, our staff, getting to this moment here where we can just dive in and go forward with what we want to accomplish at the Division I level.”

Holman and his staff have been fighting since 2016 for this coming spring. They fought for field space, sometimes practicing as late as midnight or as early as 6 a.m. when the schedule and weather permitted. They continue to fight for recognition on campus and from Utah’s administration as the new kids on the block.

When the Utes open the regular season Feb. 1 at Vermont, they will do so as the westernmost outfit in Division I men’s lacrosse. It’s an achievement that could send shockwaves through the sport, much like when Denver won an NCAA championship in 2015.

Could Utah’s success usher in a more thorough western expansion? That’s the hope.

“I hope Nike starts to think, ‘We can’t have an Under Armour team in Pac-12 lacrosse. They’ll have to get Oregon in there,’” Neeleman said. “I’d really like to get Oregon or Stanford. If we get one of those two, I think we’ll get a conference.”

It remains to be seen whether Pac-12 men’s lacrosse is realistic — commissioner Larry Scott has been on campus a few times to see the turnout for Utah games and the conference added women’s lacrosse to its lineup in 2018 — but a successful debut could move the needle. 

“We’re trying to prove to the lacrosse community that this can be done,” Brian Holman said. “My gut tells me we won’t be the only school out here standing in the next two to four years. There’s too much momentum around the game and excitement around the country.”

The future will come, but Holman is focused on 2019. There are 72 Division I men’s lacrosse teams and Utah is at the bottom.

“The ultimate end of the journey for me, in my mind, is building a national championship-caliber program and then to be in the national championship and the final four,” Holman said. “Is it feasible for all 72 teams to make it? I don’t know. But we think it’s feasible for Utah to make it. You can look at me four years from now and laugh. But what are we out here for?”