Harvard head coach Gerry Byrne knows that life is not a straight line. It’s more interesting when it zigs and zags, and his life has taken him down a fulfilling, sometimes unexpected path.
Byrne spent 16 years (over two stints) as an assistant coach at Notre Dame, where he was regarded as one of the best defensive coaches in the college game.
He also coached at Souhegan High School and Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire — “Quick shout-out to Saint A’s for making the NCAA tournament for the first time,” he interjected during the taping — before getting hired to run the Harvard program in the summer of 2019.
The former UMass and pro standout was inducted into the New England Lacrosse Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 1999 (alongside “Chasing The Goal” host Jack Piatelli). He joined Piatelli to talk about coaching strategies, life’s twists and what he values most in a recruit.
The full podcast can be accessed below.
Jack Piatelli: Did you always know you wanted to get into coaching?
Gerry Byrne: I was saying this to someone recently: I never foresaw that as my career. A lot of people think they have their life planned out and it’s going to be this linear trajectory: You’re at point A, you’re going to get to point Z, and then you retire. Life intercedes and changes happen that you don’t see coming.
I was in the corporate world for 15 years in different management and sports marketing roles. I had a great position. Right at the time that things were going well for me, the company I was working for was going through some financial challenges and I lost my job, but I got a one-year severance package. Right at that moment my wife and I adopted two African-American boys. Next thing you know your life is completely different.
I had the freedom to figure out what my next step was going to be. I volunteered to coach the high school team in Amherst (New Hampshire), Souhegan High School. They needed a coach. That was really how I got back into coaching. I didn’t have to work for a year and I wanted to give back to the town we were living in at the time. That led to reconnecting with it.
JP: What kind of players are you looking for to play for you at Harvard? Is it similar to the kind of player you recruited at Notre Dame?
GB: One of the things we’ve done in the last almost two years has been to be unbelievably transparent about what Harvard is all about, explaining the mythology around it, making it less intimidating. Because not a lot of people know someone who went to Harvard. What is Harvard about? What is the current state of our program? This is where we’re going and we’re looking for people who want to climb on that train. That is super-important before you even get to the evaluation.
As far as what we’re looking for in players, I’m looking for guys whose compete level screams off the film. If that doesn’t happen, I have a really hard time recruiting guys. To me, that’s a gateway. Obviously you want to see guys make plays that everybody recognizes, but I’m also hunting for plays where the only ones who’ll recognize it is either our staff or the guy who coached them, whether it’s how they substitute or how they celebrate with their teammates or can they get tough groundballs. Everybody wants to make the play that their girlfriend recognizes. If that’s all you want you better be unbelievable at it. If that’s all you do, I don’t know if I can coach you to be more competitive.
JP: Compete level is so important to you, right?
GB: I don’t think there’s anything more important than developing your competitive juice and level. I think it’s harder in this generation because everything is so structured. I grew up playing basketball on a driveway in Levittown (on Long Island). You had no choice. If you wanted to get to the rim you had to be elbows first; you might have to take a couple of your teeth and someone else’s teeth out. You’re not throwing up a hook shot; it means you’re going to the rim and probably getting thrown into the garage door.
It’s not easy to find people like that. I can teach someone how to shoot and how to cover somebody, but you can’t coach compete level.