NCAA

What was on John Tillman’s Microsoft Surface?

At times on the sideline this season, 47-year-old John Tillman looked like a Millennial in an elevator: face down in an iPhone. Well, in his case, a Microsoft Surface.

Photo Courtesy of Jaclyn Borowski/Inside Lacrosse

The 2017 Maryland men’s lacrosse team’s legacy is no doubt cemented as the group of 50 that ended the program’s 42-year NCAA championship drought; the one that finally emerged victorious in the team’s fifth Memorial Day Monday appearance in their coach’s first seven seasons leading the Terps. (They even exorcised the ghosts of losses past by wearing the throwback jersey style of Maryland’s 1975 team, previously the last one to win a title.)

But when they look back at the highlights of their 9-6 championship game win over Ohio State – in the fourth quarter alone, Matt Rambo’s diving backhand goal that gave them an 8-3 lead with 10:36 left, Dan Morris’ low save with under two minutes to go that ended a Buckeyes three-goal run, Tim Rotanz’s empty-netter from beyond the box with 59 seconds remaining to ice it, and Jon Garino’s faceoff wins in between – there’s also bound to be a few clips of Maryland’s physically fit head coach tapping and scrolling on a black-encased piece of technology. He was looking at some of those same images, except almost immediately after they happened.

Yes, on the sideline throughout these playoffs and the spring, that was a Surface in Tillman’s hand, or tucked under his armpit, or in the back of his pants, or covered with plastic when it started to rain. If you witnessed other Maryland games or visited practice in College Park this season, you’d see assistant coaches Kevin Conry, J.L. Reppert and especially faceoff coach Chris Mattes using a tablet too, to make adjustments on the fly.

Even amid the Terps’ first championship celebration in four decades Monday afternoon in Foxborough, Mass., they were there. Tillman made sure not to drop his while he spontaneously hugged attackman Dylan Maltz, who had two goals and an assist, and told him, “I love you, too.”

Tillman is certainly not the first lacrosse coach to use video capabilities on the sideline. But, as a head coach and figurehead of a program using such technology liberally in the postseason, he may have become the game’s most visible user. And the Maryland program will be known as a trailblazer of sorts – taking advantage of the broad language added to the NCAA rulebook last offseason that allows for technology to be used on the sideline for coaching purposes.

In recent years in college lacrosse, assistants – like say, Mattes, could watch video specifically of faceoffs at practice, or in-game, though unofficially. Or, more likely, a team manager could queue plays up for halftime; or, in a tournament setting, for an early-morning review for coaches; or, longer term during the regular season, for a film session with players during the week, like most teams do. Levels of sophistication vary among teams and levels, with pro teams as recently as two years ago using social media clips for review material.

What close to 30,000 at Gillette Stadium and more than 400,000 watching on TV saw on Monday was the head coach of the new national champions watching almost live video between plays, during most every timeout or break. Just like NFL coaches do with their league-provided Microsoft Surfaces.

Photo Courtesy of Zach Babo/Inside Lacrosse

And this from an “old guy,” in Tillman, he says, who is not the most tech-savvy, and still has a VCR and a malfunctioning microwave in his campus office.

“You can basically watch parts of the game,” Tillman told me. “It’s fully legal by the NCAA. We looked into it. Any team could do it if they wanted to. You can’t get too caught up in watching because you won’t watch the game, and our game is really fast. But I try to pick my spots where maybe I can catch something.”

From the looks of it, that’s often. Earlier this season in April – in the Terps’ and Buckeyes’ first of three eventual meetings – a TV camera panned to Tillman in the immediate moments after Johnny Pearson’s overtime goal for Ohio State. He was head down in the tablet.

In a timeout with about seven minutes left in the late-stage tense moments of Maryland’s 9-8 semifinal win against Denver on Saturday, Tillman called over Rambo, fellow senior attackman Colin Heacock and freshman Jared Bernhardt after the Maryland offense had just failed to convert on a possession. Tillman demonstrated a pass, based on what he just watched.

Nearly every time a camera showed the coach during a break in Monday’s title game, he was browsing the technology before him, and showing a player, like Maltz or long-stick midfielder Matt Neufeldt, something.

The turnaround time from live play happening to when he has it available on screen in his hands is “pretty good,” Tillman said, meaning almost instantaneous.

The system is designed by and works through a third-party provider called DVSport, a Pittsburgh-based company that provides services for teams in many sports, as well as the instant replay technology for the ACC, SEC, Big East and Big Ten on busy football Saturdays. Most recently, the company was responsible for the software used for official replays for the 2017 college football national championship game, and ESPN’s broadcast.

On Monday, here was an unintended use of the software: With the Terps up 5-2 late in the first half, a Heacock shot ricocheted off the crossbar, down near the goal-line and back out to the field of play. Watching on their tablets before the next break in the action, Tillman and Mattes saw video that indicated to them the ball bounced past the goal-line (TV replays indicated that at least it was close as well), and that the shot should have been a goal. They yelled toward the officials in the substitution box as much, but it didn’t matter as the play is not reviewable under current rules.

“I wouldn’t say I watch a million things on it,” Tillman said, “but, for me, what’s helpful is [looking at] spacing. Sometimes when you’re on the field and you’re watching the far end [of the field], sometimes it’s hard to see how far guys are relative to each other. How far out was that shot? Are we spaced properly on offense? Little things like that. There’s some pros and cons to it. Sometimes the game is so fast, you just don’t have time to use it. Sometimes, it just confirms what you think.”

Maryland, and fellow final four team Towson, use DVSport’s suite of lacrosse-specific software to capture, log and view video and statistics, some of which is cloud-based, meaning you can get access to it from anywhere, even on the sideline of the game’s biggest stage in an NFL stadium. Like anywhere, you just need to make sure your connection is good. “It’s not 100 percent fool-proof,” Tillman said, “but the way those guys work and how much they really care, they’re going to work towards doing it. I think most football programs use it, or at least something like it.”

Imagine how valuable it is to see in almost real-time what just happened on the field to make a better-informed decision or adjustments on the fly, one that might be worth a goal or two that you would have had to wait days to see just a few years ago. On the other hand, one of the cons is, while doing that, you could miss another play in actual real-time while you’re busy looking at what already happened.

In one way, it’s a case of the rich getting richer. There are costs, logistics and time involved that other non-power-conference and lower division programs not named Maryland may not be interested in incurring. “And you got to be willing to get it set up, learn how to use it, and do it, and do it right,” Tillman said, mentioning the football program at Navy, where he used to work as a lacrosse assistant, as one program that uses similar technology.

The language specific to technology on the sideline entered into the rule book ahead of this season, after NCAA rules committee discussions last summer, is basic; only arguing calls by using your own video is prohibited. “The use of technology on the sideline is permitted for coaching purposes. Such technology shall not be used to dispute officiating decisions,” it reads, leaving a lot of room for implementation — and innovation.

“There’s not enough knowledge about it, or history of it, so it’s totally legal,” said Denver coach Bill Tierney, who as the Intercollegiate Mens Lacrosse Coaches Association’s rules rep sits in on the NCAA rules discussions. “We get the live feeds. We saw Coach Tillman’s watching them a lot and Chris Mattes as well, just like our guys do. It’s interesting. It’s another part of the game that brings it to the technological side which the kids like, and we got to use what we can use, if it’s legal, which it is, to help our guys.”

Photo Courtesy of Jaclyn Borowski/Inside Lacrosse

It’s hard to quantify exactly if or how Tillman’s Tablet directly contributed to Maryland breaking its championship drought. But it was certainly part of the story, important enough for the coach to protect his baby from sprinkles of rain like a teenager would shield a smartphone, concerned about missing a text message from a friend. It’s called FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. In Tillman’s case, he was worried was about missing a play that could have helped the Terps win the elusive title that they finally captured.

About Corey McLaughlin

Corey McLaughlin is a writer, editor and producer based in Baltimore, where since 2016 he has worked as a managing editor at The Agora. He previously spent two years as a sports reporter at Newsday (N.Y.) and six years at Lacrosse Magazine. He has contributed freelance pieces for The New York Times, Newsday, Baltimore magazine and other publications, and has appeared as a guest on national television and radio programs, notably ESPN Radio, Comcast SportsNet and CBS Sports Network. Originally from Bay Shore, N.Y., on Long Island, Corey graduated from Penn State University in 2008.

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