The sudden departure of Dave Pietramala from Johns Hopkins, where he was among the best players and the most successful coach in the long decorated history of the men’s lacrosse program, sent shockwaves through the sport on Tuesday. For his fellow Long Islanders who followed him to the Baltimore school to play for him, the news was especially hard to process.
“Dave Pietramala is Hopkins lacrosse,” said John Crawley, a Port Washington product who played at Hopkins from 2014-17 and is now an assistant coach at Lehigh. “I don’t know if there is a person who eats, sleeps, breathes Hopkins lacrosse -- or does that for any program really -- more than him… It’s crazy to see that that era is no longer.”
Hopkins director of athletics Jennifer S. Baker said on Tuesday that Pietramala and the school “have mutually and responsibly agreed to part ways” and that Hopkins “looks to move the program in a different direction.” Pietramala had signed an extension on his contract in 2015 that ran through the 2020 season.
Pietramala is a member of the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame. The native of Hicksville who played at St. Mary’s High School before attending Hopkins is 53.
“For two decades, Dave Pietramala guided our men’s lacrosse program and we are truly thankful for his tireless efforts and the leadership he provided to the young men who represented Johns Hopkins at the highest level on and off the field,” Baker said. “Very few great players have demonstrated the ability to become great coaches; Dave Pietramala has done that and his legacy as a player and coach is virtually unmatched in the world of college lacrosse.”
Pietramala took over as coach of his alma mater in 2001 and compiled a record of 207-93 with 18 NCAA Tournament appearances, seven trips to the final four, four berths in the national championship game, and a pair of national titles coming in 2005 and 2007. The Blue Jays, long an independent program, joined the Big Ten in 2015 and won the conference title in 2015 and 2018.
As a player, Pietramala was a member of the 1987 Hopkins team that won a national championship. He won the Schmeisser Award as the nation’s top defenseman in 1988 and 1989 and the Enners Award – at the time the lacrosse version of the Heisman Trophy -- as the nation’s top overall player in 1989. In the 1989 championship game against Syracuse he was matched against Gary Gait, a clash between two of the sport’s top offensive and defensive players of all time.
“He was the best defenseman that I have ever seen or played with,” said Seth Tierney, now the head coach at Hofstra, who was at Hopkins from 1988-91 and on Pietramala’s coaching staff from 2001-06. “There was never a doubt who he was covering and how it was going to go.”
He also won two world championships playing for the United States and was named All-World in 1990 and 1994.
For many who competed there during his tenure, the allure of playing for Pietramala was greater than simply playing for Hopkins.
“Growing up I always wanted to be a Blue Jay, but more importantly I wanted to play for Dave Pietramala,” said Mike Pellegrino from Connetquot, who played there from 2011-15 and is currently a defensive backs coach for the New England Patriots. “I was just a little kid watching TV, watching Hopkins win national championships, and I remember turning to my dad and saying ‘I want to play for that guy right there.’ He was really getting after it on the field and I loved it. From that point on, I was a Hopkins fan through and through, I told everybody I wanted to go there, and when he recruited me it was like a dream come true.”
In some ways, Pietramala and Hopkins fell victim to their own high standards.
“At Hopkins, it was final four, national championship or bust,” said Eric Schneider, a Massapequa product at Hopkins from 2010-15. “That’s just the expectations you have and that’s what makes that place great is the expectations. But we’ve made one final four [since 2008]… It’s really sad. It just comes with the expectations of the job.”
The Blue Jays were 2-4 and unranked when the 2020 season ended last month because of the spread of the coronavirus last month.
Pietramala was not always easy to play for, his players said, but he was also caring and compassionate off the field.
“People who haven’t interacted with him just see him on the sideline and he’s an intense guy, but I can’t even tell you the countless conversations I’ve had in his office off the field talking about my personal life and sharing tears when we were not playing well,” Schneider said. “Not a lot of people are like that man. He was intense, he was tough to play for at times and he demanded a lot from you, but he had your back no matter what and he would do anything for any of his guys. A lot of people say that but he really embodied it.”
“He had every single player’s back and would go above and beyond for his guys,” Crawley said. “That’s kind of the resounding impact that he’s had on so many guys.”
Several players chuckled at their own emotional words on Tuesday as they spoke and texted their Pietramala memories as they would for an obituary or eulogy. They had to remind themselves that he is still very much alive, still healthy, and still relatively young.
What they were mourning was not necessarily the coach, but the marriage of coach and school that had always seemed so… eternal. Until Tuesday.
“Pietro will find himself on his feet,” Tierney said. “That’s what winners do.”
But now someone else will look to carry on that tradition at Hopkins. The school said it will begin a national search for Pietramala’s successor immediately. As for Pietramala himself, it’s unclear whether he will want to coach again right away or be given the opportunity to do so. If he does, though, it won’t be at the school he has been identified with since the mid-1980s.
“He’s such a Hopkins guy, I just can’t see him coaching anywhere else,” Schneider said. “I think it would be weird seeing Coach P in another uniform. I wish him the best, but it will be odd to see the big guy wearing other colors.”