On The Job - Chris Bates Feature
The new guy walks in, pulls up a chair and starts talking about the old days.
He talks; you listen.
For an hour, this goes on.
He talks about his life, all of it, about his parents, how he first came to the sport of lacrosse, all those bad jobs he had when he first graduated college. About how uncomfortable those shoes were that one day. About how much he hated cold-calling while trying to sell magazine ads.
Eventually, more than halfway through, he gets into the part about how he first came to coach lacrosse, and then the story builds from there. How he got into college coaching. How he met his wife, how it came to be that he took her to Subway for their first date. How he became a head coach. What that was like back then. What it's like for him now.
And eventually, you reach the point where he's talking about how he came to sit in this chair. And about the guy who used to come in sit in that chair, and how he isn't that guy, doesn't want to be that guy, isn't trying to be that guy.
All the while, you're listening, trying to figure him out, trying to come up with the best words - or maybe just one word - to describe him.
The old guy? You knew everything about him. You had all the words, all the stories. You could write about him forever, and honestly, it seems like you have.
The new guy? After listening to this, you realize that you've known him for months, and yet you haven't really known him at all. Until now. Until this hour, when it's all come out, the good times, the bad times, the funny times.
And then it's time to sit down and write about him. So you think for a few minutes, trying to figure out how to describe him.
And then you start, and you come up with this:
Chris Bates seems like he can handle pretty much anything that comes his way.
Chris Bates is "the new guy" with the Princeton men's lacrosse team. He became the head coach of the Tigers in the summer of 2009, when Bill Tierney left the program after 22 years to become the head coach at the University of Denver and after Bates had spent the last 10 years as the head coach at Drexel.
"I get asked about it all the time," Bates says. "There's no doubt it hovers. It's definitely there ... But this is a new era. And we have confidence in what we do and how we do it."
Bates is right when he says it's a new era - and that the old era hovers.
Tierney's 22 years at Princeton included six NCAA championships, eight NCAA finals, 10 Final Fours and 14 Ivy League championships, accomplishments that earned him a spot in the lacrosse Hall of Fame.
And then he was gone, off to Denver to grow the sport in the West. And in his place comes Chris Bates.
"Chris Bates is a great coach," Tierney says. "There are a lot of fine lacrosse coaches, but the athletes at Princeton deserved to be coached by a great person as well. There is no more caring, talented and capable man in our profession than Chris. I was thrilled that he took over the Princeton lacrosse program."
Take over it he did. Right from Day 1.
"We all default to what we know," Bates says. "It's hard to get people out of that mode. You can push yourself out of your comfort zone, but you get back to it eventually. It was a hard transition for them. They had to learn to do things differently. Simple things, like how we warm up or how we run a drill. I told them that I knew it was different for them, but I'm not going away. This is how we're going to do things."
Bates' way of doing things dates back through a lifetime of making adjustments, of not being afraid to try things a little differently, of following his instincts, of overcoming major setbacks, of facing challenges, of being told "no," and now, on the eve of his debut with the Tigers, of reaching the top of his profession. And even that hasn't been without its really, really rough patches.
Chris Bates grew up in Katonah in Westchester County, where his father was a high school guidance director and his mother was a Spanish teacher first in the Yorktown district and then in the John Jay district. Bates played football, basketball and baseball as a kid, until he was introduced to lacrosse in the sixth grade by a high school student who told Bates' father that he would come and teach him to play.
He was a running back in football and an attackman in lacrosse at John Jay before graduating in 1986, and he was actually recruited by Princeton as a football player. He was also recruited by several Ivy schools, as well as Virginia, for lacrosse, and he ultimately chose to go to Dartmouth.
"I was 5-8 and 165 pounds," he says. "Actually, I wish I had played football, at least for a year. The Ivy League still had freshman football back then. But I figured I'd be able to make a mark in lacrosse. When I got to Dartmouth, I loved the campus. For that time in my life, it was a perfect spot."
He would become a two-time All-Ivy League selection on teams that came close to beating some top 10 teams but ultimately never reached .500 overall.
After graduating with a degree in psychology in 1990, Bates left Hanover and headed out to begin his career as a, well, uh ... that's where his story starts to get pretty funny.
During the next five years, Bates would work for a major advertising agency in New York City, drive cross country watching Major League Baseball games, take a series of really dead-end temp jobs, become a professional lacrosse player, start a high school lacrosse program, earn a master's degree in school psychology, get a spot on the Drexel coaching staff - and meet his future wife in a hurricane while at the Raleigh-Durham airport.
"I was going to take a job with the English Lacrosse Union out of college," he says. "I knew I wasn't a corporate guy, but coming out of Dartmouth, I figured I should investigate. That July, I got a call from an ad agency in New York City. Saatchi and Saatchi. I was there for a year and nine months, and for the last year and six months, I knew it wasn't for me. Eventually, they were going to promote me, and that's when I quit. I knew I didn't want that career path."
From there it was off on a cross-country trip that included 32 Major League games and then a summer of club lacrosse with the New York Athletic Club, a powerhouse in the days prior to Major League Lacrosse.
That experience convinced Bates to try out for New York Saints of what was then the Major Indoor Lacrosse League and is now the National Lacrosse League. The Saints weren't interested, but Bates was able to get a look from the Philadelphia Wings.
"I went to a concert at Madison Square Garden on a Friday night," he says. "Then I had my tryout at 8 in the morning in Philly, and I made the team. I ultimately relocated to Philadelphia. I had some friends there, but I wasn't sure what else to do. I had some odd jobs in sports marketing. I sold ads for the Phillies' scorebook. I was cold-calling people who wouldn't return my calls, and that was an affront to me. I mean, just call me back and tell me to go away. How hard would that be?"
That wasn't his only job at the time.
"I had a temp job delivering office catalogs around the city," he says. "The first day, I wore brand-new shoes and my feet were done by the end of the day. The second day I wore softer shoes. The third day I quit."
He tried his hand at coaching for the first time in 1993, when he saw an ad in the newspaper for a head coach at Archbishop Ryan High School in Philadelphia.
"They were just starting the program there," he says. "They didn't even know how to line the fields or anything. But for $600, I got to help start the program there. To be honest, if I'd taken a teaching job there at the same time, I'd probably still be there."
That first season, 1993, was his only one at Ryan, but it hooked him on coaching.
"I was a brand-new player that year," says Jamie Huber, a member of that 1993 Archbishop Ryan team and now the head boys' lacrosse coach at Pennsbury High School, about a half-hour from Princeton in Lower Bucks County, Pa. "I had never seen an outdoor lacrosse game before. Chris was brand-new, but he never had a problem teaching the game to us. He's one of the greatest coaches I've ever known, and he's really helped drive the passion that I have had for the game. He's been a great mentor and great friend. He's someone I really admire."
Bates left Ryan to become the assistant coach at Drexel for the 1994 season, but his position was a part-time one.
"I thought I wanted to get into coaching, but there weren't many full-time assistant positions yet," he says. "I figured I would end up coaching in high school, so I went to get my master's degree in school psychology. I went to North Carolina, and I played for the Charlotte Cobras indoors while I was there.
"Then, after a year and a half, the Drexel assistant job became full-time. I spent the fall semester in North Carolina going to school and recruiting and coaching on the weekends."
It was during one of his weekly trips on U.S. Airways that Hurricane Fran came along and wiped out all of the flights out of Raleigh-Durham one Friday. While waiting it out, Bates noticed a young woman who was also trying to reschedule a flight.
"I tactfully ended up behind in the line," he says. "We talked for about 45 minutes. She had no way to get home, so I offered her a ride. I asked her if she wanted to get something to eat, and we found the only place in Chapel Hill that was still open because of the Hurricane. It was a Subway. The first time I brought her to meet my family, my father scolded her for taking a ride from the airport from a stranger."
By 1999, they were Chris and Ann Bates. He was the full-time assistant at Drexel, and she was a pediatrician, having completed her residency in Chapel Hill.
A year later, he became the Drexel head coach; three years later, their son Nicholas was born.
In all, Bates would be the head coach at Drexel for 10 seasons, going 70-71 with 15 wins his first three years, 24 wins his next four years and 31 the last three.
He came extremely close to taking the Dragons to their first NCAA tournament in 2008, when Drexel led Hofstra 9-7 with less than two minutes remaining in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game, only to see the Pride tie it and then win it in overtime.
"I've come to peace with it," Bates says. "We were up two, and I started to think that Drexel was going to be in the NCAA tournament. Hofstra had recently lost Nick Colleluori (a former Pride player who died of cancer in 2006), and they had dedicated their season to him. When they won, it was very emotional for them. It was a devastating loss, but I thought it might have been part of some higher purpose for them."
By 2008, Bates and his family were no strangers to adversity themselves.
"We were playing at Ohio State in the spring of 2003," he says. "Ann said she had headaches and nausea. The doctor said she probably had a bug, but she said it was either a bug or a brain tumor. It turned out to be a mass on her brain. She had surgery two days later at Penn. Anytime since when I've seen the doctor, I've hugged him."
Ann Bates came through the surgery well, and follow up treatments took care of the tumor. Eventually, monthly MRIs became every three months and then every six months.
Unfortunately, the radiation and chemotherapy had an effect on her body years later, when her blood counts were thrown off and she was diagnosed with a pre-leukemia. Three days after Bates was named the Princeton coach, Ann Bates was back in the hospital and would ultimately receive a bone marrow transplant in mid-October at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City. She would be there from then until three days before Christmas.
"She's gaining her strength back," Bates says. "It continues to give me a changed perspective on life.
"I was trying to move into my office on the day students moved in, and they wouldn't let me up campus in my car. I told the guy at the security gate that I was the new lacrosse coach, and he let me up, but not before he said 'hey, you need to win the national championship.' With everything that's happened, with everything she's gone through, I'm realistic. I think I'm a good coach. I'm not intimidated by this job. I'm going to do my best. If that's not good enough, then I won't be here for 22 years."
Twenty-two years, the time Tierney was the head coach.
Bates might have stayed at Drexel that long. He hadn't pursued another opening until the Princeton job came open, though he was approached early on by Denver ("as it turned out, I don't think I could have gotten that job," he says) and his alma mater Dartmouth when they had openings last summer.
Bates was a sophomore at Dartmouth when Tierney took over at Princeton, and the Big Green defeated the Tigers 11-7 that year. A year later, it was 18-7 Princeton; his senior year it was 11-4 Princeton.
"I remember that game," Bates says. "I was playing attack, and we were down 7-0 before I touched the ball. I saw how that program was on a meteoric rise."
While he was still in college, Bates and his Dartmouth team practiced during spring break at St. Paul's in Baltimore, a school that at the time had a goalie named Scott Bacigalupo who would eventually come to Princeton and be the Most Outstanding Player at the 1992 and 1994 Final Fours.
The lacrosse field at St. Paul's is bordered by a steep hill. As the Dartmouth team was getting on its bus to leave, Bates was able to see Princeton, who was also practicing at the prep school, go through its drills.
"They must have done something he didn't like," Bates says. "I just remember how he stopped practice to make them run this big hill."
Bates laughs as he says this. It's a small, understated laugh.
He talks about seeing his team in its game jerseys for the first time, how all of the alums he's talked to love him "because I'm 0-0," how he's looking forward to coaching in NFL stadiums, all of what's involved with his new job.
This was early in your hour together, back when you knew he was the Princeton men's lacrosse coach and that was about it, back when you didn't know him at all.
Now you've heard his story, and now you've written his story, and now you're looking for the right ending, and you come up with this:
Princeton's men's lacrosse program is in good hands.
- by Jerry Price