If the walls of the Nassau Coliseum could talk, it would tell the tale of when the Islanders made a coaching change during their first season back in 1972-73. But why in the world would an expansion team fire their coach in the middle of their first season? They’re an expansion team for a reason, so wouldn’t it be logical to give a coach more than just 48 games? Well that’s exactly what legendary Islanders General Manager Bill Torrey did when he let go of Phil Goyette and replaced him on an interim basis with Earl Ingarfield.
That quick decision by Torrey to make a coaching change set the stage for the hiring of Al Arbour for the 1973-74 season and the rest, as they say, is history as Arbour would eventually guide the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983. The point is that Torrey could sense that something was not right that first year and he had the conviction to make a change in the middle of the inaugural season in franchise history.
Could history repeat itself in the same building?
Time will tell, but the man in charge of the New York Riptide of the National Lacrosse League is hoping that the Bill Torrey magic within the walls of NYCB Live, Home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum can rub off on him. Rich Lisk, the Executive Vice-President of GF Sports, made a decision that could could certainly shape the present and the future for a franchise that went just 1-12 during their inaugural season that was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic. On Wednesday, the team announced that General Manager/Head Coach Regy Thorpe, along with the entire coaching and lacrosse operations staff, would not be retained for next season.
(GF Sports Executive Vice-President Rich Lisk)
And now the search is on for a new head coach.
“We’re starting the process (Wednesday),” said Lisk during a Zoom gathering with reporters. “It will be an exhaustive process and it will not be a quick one. I’m not going to just be flippant about it and be hasty with it.”
Some of the immediate reaction from around the lacrosse circles to the decision to jettison Thorpe and his staff was that of shock. After all, this was an expansion team with a good group of young players including Tyson Gibson, the first overall pick in the 2019 NLL Draft and the Riptide’s leading scorer during their first season. There were also strong performances this past season from the likes of Dan Lomas, Jean-Luc Chetner, Connor Kelly and Travis Longboat along with the leadership skills of veterans like captain Dan MacRae and assistant captain John Ranagan. When you have a record of 1-12, there’s not much to be happy about but the team does have talent, was competitive in many of the games, and will be the owners of the first overall pick in the 2020 NLL Draft.
(Riptide forward Tyson Gibson)
So why pull the plug on the staff, especially given the circumstances and also the COVID-19 situation?
Just like with Bill Torrey and the Islanders in 1972-73, this decision comes down to conviction. Lisk, who joined the Riptide and parent company GF Sports back in January, has observed everything in and around the organization from the time of his arrival to the point where he brought this decision to the ownership group for their approval. He met with the coaches and the entire lacrosse staff to get a sense of what direction the team was heading in and he also talked to all of the players.
Lisk, an experienced sports executive who has spent eight years in the National Lacrosse League with the Philadelphia Wings and the New England Black Wolves, had to do what he thought was in the best interests of the franchise regardless of what anybody inside the organization or anyone in the lacrosse community thinks about it. He was brought into the organization because of a resume that includes being the General Manager of a Philadelphia Soul team that won the Arena Football League championship in 2008.
Again, this decision comes down to conviction and Lisk is showing that with this move. In his mind, the team was in need of a change and now he will get an opportunity to pick a coach that believes can turn the Riptide into a playoff contender and a team that can eventually win a championship. But aside from the future success of the team on the field, Lisk is also responsible for putting butts in the seats at the Nassau Coliseum so that prompted me to ask him this question on Wednesday…
Do you hire someone with ties to Long Island, a hotbed for lacrosse in the United States, or do you hire the best possible candidate regardless of where he is from?
“I want the best possible candidate for this job,” said Lisk. “If that means that person is from Long Island and is living here and played lacrosse here then that’s great if that is the best person. If the best person is from Victoria, Canada then the best person comes from Victoria, Canada. If that person is in Ontario then it’s Ontario and if it’s Philadelphia then it’s Philadelphia. I don’t want to put any constraints on it because then that limits our pool and I don’t want to limit our pool so it’s a wide-open space.”
But aside from the coaching search and overseeing the rest of the staff including marketing, ticket sales, and community outreach efforts, Lisk is also paying close attention to what’s happening with COVID-19. The number of coronavirus cases and deaths continue to drop and Long Island is expected to reach phase two of the re-opening process next Wednesday. The planning for the 2020-21 season is already underway and that could mean that the Riptide will have to readjust the seating and the capacity for home games at Nassau Coliseum should fans be allowed to attend when next season is scheduled to begin this December.
Nothing is certain but all of the news has been good and time is on the side of the Riptide.
“I think my optimism will peak when I can go to a restaurant and have a nice meal and a glass of wine,” said Lisk. “We have eight months to see how things are going and I just read that New Zealand is opening up to have no restrictions on anything and starting to (have) stadiums filled there for some of their sporting events. That’s a good sign. All of those things are great signs for us and again we have eight months to look forward to that and I am getting very optimistic about it.”
But right now, the first thing on Lisk’s to-do list is to find a new coach and he already has a list of individuals that he’d like to talk to. It’s not a decision that he has to make right away and he doesn’t have an exact timetable, but he’d like to have a new coach in place sometime early this summer so that the Riptide can be prepared for what is expected to be a busy off-season. This decision is going to shape the immediate and potentially the long-term future of the franchise so Lisk is going to take his time and do all of the necessary homework before making a choice that will also potentially define his legacy with the organization.
“In my mind, I’m thinking sometime in that July-ish time frame,” said Lisk. “That still gives us enough chance to get ready for the draft and things even though the people that I’ll be interviewing I’m sure will be heavily involved in the draft and understand what is going on.”
If an executive running a sports franchise doesn’t have it, then he or she shouldn’t be running a sports franchise. You have to have your pulse on every aspect of the organization and you have to make tough decisions, even with circumstances like being an expansion team and dealong with a global pandemic. Rich Lisk has a proven track record at each stop he has made during his career as a sports executive and now he has brought that experience to Long Island and the Riptide.
Letting go of a coach and a staff after an expansion season and right in the middle of a health crisis has certainly raised some eyebrows, but business is business and Lisk has shown that he has the conviction to make a change. It worked for another team in the Nassau Coliseum 47 years ago leading to four championships for the Islanders. Now the hope is that Lisk’s conviction puts the Riptide into a new current that will bring them success and championship banners to hang in the coliseum rafters.