Maryland coach John Tillman respects rules. He sits on the NCAA men’s lacrosse rules committee. He served in the U.S. Navy and, among other coaching jobs over a life in lacrosse, he was an assistant at the Naval Academy for nearly a decade. You don’t do any of that without seeing value in standard operating procedures.
And Tillman, who has led the Terps to a pair of national titles in 2017 and 2022, also knows how to push the boundaries of the rules — in pursuit of the almighty win. A lot of coaches do this to some extent, but some are better at it than others. This was plain to see April 7 on a lacrosse field in Columbus, Ohio.
The then-No. 5 Terps were tied with Big Ten foe, then-No. 19 Ohio State, late in the fourth quarter of a hotly-contested game when it happened.
Initially, it was unclear what was going on, or why. With 2:09 left in the fourth quarter, the officials gathered and they emerged with a decision I cannot remember seeing before in more than 15 years covering all levels of the game, from high school to world championships. If so, it certainly didn’t occur on live television on the Big Ten Network, which amplified everything.
Illegal procedure was called on sophomore Ohio State faceoff taker Matthew Fritz, a technical foul that gave possession to Maryland. That’s a common call, but not for the reason given: The color of Frtiz’s gloves.
Of his gloves.
If you’re not an expert in lacrosse rules, your first instinct is right. Really? The color of his gloves? Well, yes. Turns out, Tillman admitted that he brought up the issue to the officials earlier in the fourth quarter.
That led to this with about two minutes left in regulation:
Glove colors shouldn’t have any influence on game action, but the NCAA rulebook says, “All players on a team shall wear gloves of the same dominant official team color unless safety reasons require a different color glove to be worn.” It’s one thing if a player is wearing colors that don’t match the school’s at all, or provide some kind of advantage, but that did not appear to be the case here.
Some Ohio State players wore gray gloves with scarlet and white trim. Others wore white with gray and scarlet trim. They were all wearing the same colors, though not a singular dominant one. It’s unclear whether this instance actually violated whatever the rule was supposed to regulate in the first place.
Either way, the more puzzling thing was for the call to be made at a critical juncture of an important game and at any time other than when an equipment issue may be initially noticed (like the first quarter). The outcome of the call certainly wasn’t in the spirit of the rules. Timely stick checks to measure pocket depth and stick head width have been a thing in lacrosse for a while, particularly with faceoff takers, and are rooted in reasonable competitive advantage claims, but slightly different glove color? Unless there’s a modification to the gloves, it shouldn’t matter — especially after most of the game has already been played.
So, Ohio State coach Nick Myers was irate. I don’t blame him — though shouting “Why don’t we play lacrosse?!” at the Terps’ players amid the dispute that followed was a little much, even if it was a valid point; it’s not like they made the call.
“It became a really awkward situation, to be honest with you,” Tillman said after the game, which Maryland won 12-11 in overtime to improve to 7-3 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten.
And the scenario wouldn’t have happened if not for Tillman encouraging it. After the game, in an extended explanation, he said he never formally requested an equipment check of any Ohio State player, but that he did ask a question of the officials earlier in the fourth quarter — ”Hey, don’t they all have to be wearing the same equipment?” — during the sort of discussions/complaining sessions that typically happen in competitive games.
“And there was dialogue,” said Tillman, in his 12th year as Maryland coach, “‘Well, do you want an equipment check?’ and the response was, ‘No.’ And those are the facts … People are going to blow up on this one little situation that happened, but I was there. The officials just started talking and they had a conversation.”
Even without a formal equipment check request, though, the sequence got attention because of the context. This would be like if wearing the wrong socks in an NFL game could be penalized during the game, and if possession was given to the other team, rather than a hefty fine handed to the player by the NFL a few days later. And it would be like if Bill Belichick decided to bring this infraction to the officials’ attention late in the fourth quarter of a tie game against a division opponent — and if, shockingly, the officials agreed it was a great time to call it.
“At the end of the day, they gave us possession. That was the decision,” Tillman said. “I didn’t ask them for it, I didn’t make a request … I’m not sure why things turned out the way they did.”
Well, the result could have easily been avoided if the subject were never broached with officials, but also with an appropriate judgment call. It would have been very reasonable for the officials to handle the situation differently on the field and ignore Tillman’s questioning given the point in the game and its irrelevance. Had that approach been taken, this story would likely be relegated to a handful of gripes in the parking lot at a post-game tailgate in Columbus.
But that wasn’t the case. One side was furious and the other side won, but it was overshadowed by a conflict caught on video that spread about the internet. “I hope you’re happy,” Myers yelled in the direction of the Maryland bench before play resumed after the decision. The Terps got possession. They didn’t score, thankfully, which would have made the entire situation even worse. Ohio State still had a chance to win in regulation, didn’t convert, and the game went into overtime, where Maryland won in what was a footnote to the attention-grabbing glove fiasco. You probably didn’t see the highlight of freshman Braden Erksa’s game-winner or know that Maryland erased a three-goal deficit to tie the game.
“As a coach, what are you supposed to do? You’re trying to teach these kids right and wrong and these are the rules,” Tillman said in response to a question about his feeling about stick checks, a closely related subject.
The lessons learned here were what exactly?
First — and most practically — a glove color violation is an obscure rule in college lacrosse that probably carries too significant of a penalty and shouldn’t influence game action. Second and more important, to call someone out on it is not cheating — in fact, this kind of thing is fully within the letter of the rule — but it doesn’t sit right in spirit unless you’re pointing out an unfair edge. And third, whatever the intentions or justifications are, the Maryland men’s lacrosse team probably didn’t make any new fans out of those who came across the story.
Games to watch
Now fourth-ranked Maryland is on the road at No. 10 Rutgers (8-3, 1-2) at 7 p.m. on Sunday in another nationally televised Big Ten game. Meantime, No. 7 Johns Hopkins (9-4, 2-1) hosts No. 17 Ohio State (5-6, 1-2) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Homewood Field, and No. 19 Loyola (6-4, 3-2 Patriot) is at Boston University (7-3, 4-1) for a league game at noon Saturday.
In Division III men’s action, No. 2 Salisbury (11-1, 3-0 Coastal Lacrosse Conference) is at Washington College (8-5, 2-3 Centennial) for the annual ”War on the Shore” at 4 p.m. Saturday.
The No. 10 Maryland women (12-4, 4-1 Big Ten), who fell to No. 18 Penn State on Thursday night, 12-7, are off this weekend and close out their conference regular-season slate next Saturday night at No. 2 Northwestern. No. 11 Loyola (11-2, 6-0 Patriot) hosts No. 15 Army (12-1, 6-0) in a big league game at noon Saturday.
The Navy men (6-6, 3-2 Patriot League) remain unranked but are coming off a pair of wins against top-25 teams Loyola and Boston University, both conference opponents.
In an 11-10 win over Loyola last Friday, senior goalie Pat Ryan had a remarkable 23 saves, the most in a game for Navy since Mickey Jarboe made 25 stops in a win over North Carolina in 1999.
The Midshipmen, who at one point lost six straight this year, have dealt with injuries to several starters, but are finding ways to win important games now.
“We say we’re about the team, the whole team, and nothing but the team around here,” Navy coach Joe Amplo said. “We weren’t playing great team defense, we weren’t playing great team offense — at least not enough, there were signs of it — and we just kept pushing and pushing, and these guys believed, regardless of how bad and gloomy it was. We just stuck with it.”
Navy hosts Lafayette this weekend then plays Army next Saturday at 7 p.m. in Annapolis.
Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.