UMD men’s lacrosse undergoes coaching changeThe 45-year-old Rob Graff, who lives in Bloomington with his wife and four athletically inclined children, has no second thoughts about walking away from the Bulldogs.
By: Louie St. George, Budgeteer News
Rob Graff first set foot on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus in 1993. A Harvard grad and Twin Cities lawyer, Graff’s trip to Duluth centered around helping a couple diligent UMD students start a club lacrosse program.
Seventeen years later, Graff is ending his formal association with the program, which has blossomed into a high-profile and victory-obsessed outfit. Graff retired last month as UMD’s head coach, thus capping a brilliant tenure that included 13 Upper Midwest Lacrosse League titles.
The 45-year-old Graff, who lives in Bloomington with his wife and four athletically inclined children, has no second thoughts about walking away. The lacrosse program was a perpetual tug on his time, whether it was a 150-mile trek to Duluth or a cross-country flight for a prestigious tournament.
“No,” Graff said simply when asked if he wavered in his decision to retire. “My wife has been a saint for a long time in supporting this. There comes a point where I would like to be home. I’m comfortable doing it now.”
Graff gives way to longtime assistant coach, Frank Clark, who’s been with the Bulldogs for nine years.
Clark, 33, was groomed for this opportunity from Day 1.
“Nine years ago when I met Frank Clark, I knew he was a guy who could take over the program when I retired,” Graff said. “He’s an unbelievable coach.”
Clark is just as quick to highlight his predecessor’s penchant for winning and ability to craft a dynamic program from scratch. The Bulldogs remain a club team today, though their travel, accolades and visibility suggest they’re closer to a “virtual varsity program.” UMD travels across the country, has competed against other club teams from Florida State, Colorado, Oregon and BYU — the Bulldogs beat BYU on the road in a match that was televised — and has hooked up with Division I foes West Point and Notre Dame.
UMD also hosts a camp each summer that, because of its popularity, boasts a waiting list.
A consistent top-seven program nationally, the Bulldogs attract recruits from far-flung locales, including California, Florida and Canada. And it’s a rite of spring for Minnesota’s Mr. Lacrosse to commit to UMD.
And, to think, Graff built this thing as a volunteer coach. Clark, a St. Louis Park resident, is also a volunteer.
Call it a labor of love.
“There’s a selfish part: the competitiveness,” Clark, 33, said. “I enjoy competing with these guys and [trying] to put the best team out there to represent the university and the state. So there’s that part of me. And it’s a lot of fun.”
That word surfaced frequently in talking with both Graff and Clark. Fun, they said, is working with motivated student-athletes who take a stunning amount of ownership in the program. Like Graff, Clark won’t be at every practice. He’ll review film from his home in St. Louis Park and communicate online with his captains. But it’s up to the team leaders to ensure practices and workouts are productive.
“We provide guidance, but they make decisions,” Graff said. “This is their program.”
Literally. Team members pay a $2,000 participation fee. That financial commitment is a huge chunk of the Bulldogs’ operating budget, which reaches six figures.
And it is, perhaps, a key reason the players are so steadfast in maintaining a tradition of success — as well as a sparkling reputation — that began nearly two decades ago.
Graff, who expects to remain active with lacrosse in the Twin Cities, doesn’t anticipate any glitches in the coaching transition.
“[Clark] brings a lot of energy,” Graff said. “That’s where I was 15, 16 years ago. I’m still excited to do it, but there’s a difference. And that’s where he is. I think this program will continue to become more and more professional, and continue to play kicka-- lacrosse.”
• UMD’s football team was ranked No. 2 in this week’s American Football Coaches Association Division II poll. The Bulldogs (1-0) play at Upper Iowa this weekend.
• St. Scholastica rallied past Lawrence University 31-24 for a non-conference football win last weekend at Public Schools Stadium. It was the first season-opening victory in the Saints’ abbreviated history.
• The NFL season is officially underway. Two predictions: The Vikings will stumble to an 8-8 record after a magical season in which they advanced to the NFC Championship Game. Even worse for Vikes fans: That team from Wisconsin is going to beat the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl. I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.
Louie St. George can be reached via email@example.com.