It was 1979, a landmark year in the world of sports. Willie Mays was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Larry Holmes won the undisputed heavyweight championship while Muhammad Ali retired (but not for good). Magic Johnson and Michigan State beat Larry Bird and Indiana State for the NCAA basketball championship. Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert to win the women’s Wimbledon crown and Spectacular Bid won the Kentucky Derby.
Also, Earl Weaver won his 1,000th game as manager of the Orioles, Dallas Green replaced Danny Ozark as manager of the Phillies and Billy Martin was fired as manager of the Yankees after he punched out a marshmallow salesman in a bar. Pitcher Nolan Ryan signed a record contract with the Houston Astros, $4.5 million over four years, which, of course, couldn’t buy you a beat-up utility infielder today. Meanwhile, Wayne Gretzky scored his first NHL goal and Roger Staubach played in his final NFL game.
And even though it didn’t quite generate those kinds of headlines, a significant sports event happened in Newark, Delaware, when Bob Shillinglaw was hired as coach of the University of Delaware’s lacrosse team.
Now it’s 2017 and Shillinglaw is stepping down from the position he’s held for 39 years. Only one coach in Delaware’s history had a longer tenure – Roy Rylander, who was the men’s tennis coach for 41 years.
Here’s another way to put Shillinglaw’s long reign into focus – many of his first players are grandfathers. Now, that’s a legacy.
For the most part, Shillinglaw labored in obscurity, simply because most people don’t consider lacrosse to be a major sport. But nobody can argue about the major impact Shillinglaw has had on lacrosse. For one thing, he’s coached in more college games, as an assistant and as a head coach, than anybody in history – 639. He also won more than 300 games as well 15 conference titles.
Another perspective – Shillinglaw’s teams have advanced to the NCAA Tournament four times. The first time was in 1984 and the last time was in 2011, so he wasn’t just good at what he did, he was also consistent.
The pinnacle of his coaching career came in 2007, when Delaware went to the Final Four for the only time in history, beating No. 1 ranked Virginia along the way. Granted, lacrosse’s Final Four isn’t as prestigious as basketball’s Final Four, but it’s still an impressive thing to put on your resume.
But, as with anybody who coaches for that long, Shillinglaw’s real legacy is the impact he’s had on hundreds of young men who became better men because of his subtle, yet strong influence. Shillinglaw has always been a teacher more than a yeller and screamer, and the lessons he’s taught over all of these years – mostly subconsciously – mean much more than wins and losses.
Now he has just a couple of regular-season games left to coach and then the CAA tournament. Shillinglaw’s latest and last team is pretty good, but the odds of it making it back to the NCAA Tournament are slim – the Blue Hens are 7-6 overall and 0-3 in the conference. Naturally, it would be nice if the coach went out with a bang and even make it back to the NCAAs. But Bob Shillinglaw’s legacy has never been about the games he won or lost, and nothing that happens in the next couple of weeks could ever diminish that.