W

hen Mike Pellegrino talked to Dave Pietramala over the weekend, everything seemed normal. 

Pietramala asked his former two-time captain how his preparations for the NFL Draft were going with the New England Patriots, for whom Pellegrino has worked since 2015 and is in his first year as the cornerbacks coach.

They also discussed the leadership talk Pellegrino would give to the Johns Hopkins lacrosse team on Zoom in two weeks.

"> Johns Hopkins Alumni Shocked by End of Dave Pietramala Era | USA Lacrosse Magazine

PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

Dave Pietramala and Johns Hopkins mutually parted ways on Tuesday.

Johns Hopkins Alumni Shocked by End of Dave Pietramala Era


W

hen Mike Pellegrino talked to Dave Pietramala over the weekend, everything seemed normal. 

Pietramala asked his former two-time captain how his preparations for the NFL Draft were going with the New England Patriots, for whom Pellegrino has worked since 2015 and is in his first year as the cornerbacks coach.

They also discussed the leadership talk Pellegrino would give to the Johns Hopkins lacrosse team on Zoom in two weeks.

“Nothing was different,” Pellegrino said.

Which made Tuesday’s news all the more disorienting.

Pietramala, whose 20th season at the helm was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, will not return for a 21st. The school announced that they had “mutually and responsibly agreed to part ways,” a move that stunned a community of former players who are fiercely loyal to the Blue Jays’ all-time winningest coach and a fan base that still fondly remember his days as one of the greatest defenseman ever to play the game at Homewood Field — or anywhere else on the planet.

Pellegrino was busy “grinding away,” so he initially didn’t pay attention when his group chat with around 40 former teammates started blowing up with notifications on his phone. He soon noticed a link to a press release issued by the university. 

“At first I just didn’t believe it,” Pellegrino said. “I really didn’t. I am just in shock that it is actually happening.”

Those sentiments were echoed by several other members of the Hopkins lacrosse family as they tried to grapple with the end of an era.

“When you think of Hopkins lacrosse, you think of the big Italian guy screaming from the box," said Ryan Brown, the three-time All-American attackman at John Hopkins who currently plays for the Premier Lacrosse League’s Atlas LC alongside a host of other former Blue Jays. "He’s been a staple of the program for so long."

“It’s impossible to imagine Johns Hopkins lacrosse without Dave Pietramala at the helm,” added Matt Bocklet, a one-time Fairfield transfer who won an NCAA championship as a defenseman at John Hopkins in 2007 and current team president of Major League Lacrosse’s Denver Outlaws. “As if there wasn’t enough chaos in college lacrosse right now, then this goes and happens. It’s tough.” 


“It’s impossible to imagine Johns Hopkins lacrosse without Dave Pietramala at the helm.” — Matt Bocklet


Pietramala did not immediately respond to US Lacrosse Magazine’s request for an interview, though he did respond on Twitter to supportive posts by Johns Hopkins luminaries like Terry Riordan, Kyle Harrison, Paul Rabil and Bocklet, telling those he coached that he loved them.

For the past 20 years, the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame player roamed the sidelines as a larger-than-life coach at Homewood Field. You could hear his instructions, usually hollered, above the din of the Charles Street traffic and the Hopkins fans cheering, “We want more!”

One of the best defensemen in the history of the sport, Pietramala took the head job at his alma mater in the summer of 2000. The Blue Jays earned the No. 1 seed entering the NCAA tournament every year for four straight years starting in 2002, and capped an undefeated season in 2005 when they won their first national championship since 1987 — Pietramala’s sophomore year. The victory made Pietramala the only person in Division I lacrosse history to win a championship as a player and a coach. The Blue Jays did it again in 2007. Their eighth and most recent appearance on Memorial Day weekend was in 2015.

Under Pietramala, Johns Hopkins missed the NCAA tournament just once. He compiled a record of 207-93 with 18 NCAA tournament appearances, seven trips to the final four, four appearances in the championship game and those two titles.

Pietramala also was instrumental in securing a national TV agreement with ESPN, building the Cordish Lacrosse Center and getting Johns Hopkins into the Big Ten Conference as its only affiliate member in any sport.

Most former players found out about Pietramala’s ouster before noon yesterday, when a screenshot of the email sent by John Hopkins athletic director Jennifer Baker to current players circulated in their various group texts. “Jays,” Baker wrote, “I am writing to share the news that Coach Pietramala will be moving on from his coaching role at Johns Hopkins effective today.” 

A half-hour later, the university issued the press release.

“It knocked me off my feet a bit,” said Jesse Schwartzman, who started in goal on both the 2005 and 2007 NCAA championship teams and also played under Pietramala when the latter was the defensive coordinator for the 2014 U.S. team.








The move struck many as particularly ill-timed. Hopkins was 2-4 this spring before the season was cut short because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The team’s best player, Joey Epstein, was sidelined or limited for most of those games. Many former players noted how Pietramala’s teams always seemed to find another gear when the calendar turned to April and conference play got underway. Last year, Hopkins rattled off two consecutive wins against Maryland before falling to No. 1-ranked Penn State 18-17 in overtime.

"In the past, typically when we started out a little slower, we ended up doing pretty well," said Wells Stanwick, who was a senior on the 2015 team that won the Big Ten tournament title and advanced to the final four after dropping six of its first 10 games. 

Stanwick grew up within walking distance of Homewood Field and frequently shot around with his family on lacrosse’s version of Fenway Park. “There’s Petro, there’s Petro,” Stanwick’s older brothers, Tad and Steele, would remark when they saw Pietramala park next to the field.

Wells thought Petro was Pietramala’s name because that’s what everyone called him. During his recruiting process, Stanwick soon learned the passionate and intense coach he used to watch on Saturdays was interested in more than lacrosse. Conversations that started out with X’s and O’s soon shifted to family, friends and relationships. 

“Everything on the field went away,” Stanwick said. “You felt like you were hanging out with one of your buddies.”

Several of the alumni praised Pietramala’s transparency. “What you see is what you get,” was a refrain used by many of them when reached by US Lacrosse Magazine on Tuesday. For the team that broke every huddle with “1 … 2 … 3 … Family,” many former Blue Jays considered Pietramala a father figure. 

Pietramala reminded Pellegrino of his dad, a retired NYPD officer. Growing up, Pellegrino dreamed of playing for Johns Hopkins and, in particular, Pietramala. Pellegrino credits his work ethic to his four years in Baltimore.

“He's a hard coach, but he loves you,” Pellegrino said. “He's going to do anything he can for you. That's something that gets lost in today's society. Just because someone seems like they're hard, doesn't me they don't love you.”

Bocklet recalled coming back to campus out of shape after enjoying the summer off following the 2007 championship run. Pietramala demoted him to the second string until he earned his way back into the starting rotation for his senior spring.

“I had a practice where he put me in tears. I wasn’t performing up to his standard and he chose me that day to be the guy he critiqued — that’s the word I’ll use — nonstop,” Bocklet said. “The thing with him was, that was on the field. You could always walk into his office and have a conversation with him. He’s just going to lay it out there and be completely honest.”

Bocklet said he now realizes he was not living up to his potential and that Pietramala was getting him ready for the “real world.” 

“Even on my worst days, I could always sit down with him face to face, and it was a conversation,” he said. “It was like you disappointed your dad. He’s not mad, just disappointed. He just told you how it was and made you realize you weren’t bringing it that day, that you didn’t use that opportunity to make yourself or the team better. Behind closed doors, you could always have the conversation with him where you did get to see the human side and how much he truly cared.”




PHOTO BY KEVIN P. TUCKER

Jesse Schwartzman won national titles with Johns Hopkins in 2005 and 2007.


After John Ranagan threw a “temper tantrum” on the sidelines after his Yorktown team lost in the New York State Semifinals his junior year, he thought he might have ruined his college prospects. That night he received an email from Pietramala. “Call me in the morning,” it read. 

Ranagan feared the worst. Instead, Pietramala explained that he could channel his intensity to play smarter. 

“He was the only coach that saw me and he said he liked what we saw,” Ranagan recalled. “He actually wanted to raise my scholarship offer after that. I didn’t even let him hang up, I said ‘Coach, I’m coming. You’re the type of guy that I want to play for.’ He’s ultra-passionate about the game and those are the types of guys he wants to surround himself with, guys that want to compete and love playing. When he told me that, I knew that would be a place to be to have a great college career.” 

The lessons went beyond riding or the intricacies of defense. 

“He prepares you for life after lacrosse,” Stanwick said. “He teaches you how to work hard, how to be a competitor and how to get things done.”

When two-time Schmeisser Award winner Tucker Durkin took a job as an intelligence analyst at Exelon after he graduated from Johns Hopkin in 2013, he remembered a lot of colleagues “freaking out” over the everyday conflicts that arise in the workplace. Durkin remained unfazed. “This is nothing,” he thought, compared to the intensity of a Pietramala-run practice on Homewood Field.

“He would prepare you so well,” Durkin said. “The pressure and intensity with which you’d play in practice, it was like, games were just fun. That’s what he got out of his players. You couldn’t take a day off.”

Earlier this month, Pietramala sat down for a Big Ten Network interview with Mark Dixon. The conversation soon turned to the future, when the pandemic’s curve flattens enough so that sports and other normal life activities resume.

“It baffles me to even consider that I couldn’t be around my guys for five hours or five days, let alone five months,” Pietramala said. “So we’re trying to help them figure out what they need to do to prepare for when that day comes.”

Pietramala will no longer be there to guide them. 

Joel Tinney, a three-time All-American midfielder at Johns Hopkins who graduated in 2018, was among the throngs of former players who came to Pietramala’s defense on Twitter on Tuesday. He caught himself speaking in the present tense midway through an interview with US Lacrosse Magazine

"No one bleeds black and blue more than Coach Petro. The passion that he has for the program is … was second to none,” Tinney said. “It's sad. We wish he was still there, but if anyone knows how to get back on their feet and tough through things, it is Coach Petro. That's something that he always taught us. Whether it was a tough loss or something that is going on in our personal lives, he always told us to put one foot in front of the other and keep plugging along.”

Inside the Cordish Lacrosse Center at Johns Hopkins, there’s a sign that reads, “If you can’t find a way, make a way.” 

“It might not seem like there is an answer at the moment, but there is, you just have to work harder,” Pellegrino said about the phrase’s meaning and Pietramala advice.

At the moment, Hopkins is left searching for an answer about who will fill the void of arguably the most magnanimous figure in the lacrosse program’s rich and storied history.

— Matt Hamilton also contributed to this story.