by: Scott Kemps, Michigan Media Relations
Oct. 4, 2013
On Oct. 26, Michigan head coach John Paul will be inducted into the Michigan chapter of the United States Lacrosse Hall of Fame, mainly for his commitment to the growth of the game of lacrosse in the state of Michigan. In his 26 years of lacrosse in the state of Michigan, he has had a front-row seat for the booming popularity and growth of the sport not only at U-M but around the state.
In 2000, Paul had an opportunity to step outside the state and spread the sport internationally in Tokyo, Japan. The relationship started when he was approached by former Northwood University and current Notre Dame Prep head coach Ron Hebert, who needed a coach and team to take over a partnership that he established where he would travel to Tokyo University to aid in the growth of the "fastest game on two feet" when the Northwood program was dropped in 2000. That is where Paul stepped up to make his first trip to Tokyo, a trek that has continued for the last 13 years.
The game was initially introduced in Japan by former Johns Hopkins coaches Bob Scott and Don Zimmerman (who is now the coach at UMBC) at Keio University. Due to their goodwill efforts, the sport has seen significant growth over the past 30 years just like in the United States, as Japan now boasts more than 100 men's lacrosse programs, with even more on the women's side.
"Overall, they are limited because their culture doesn't support college sports like we do here in the United States," said Paul. "As a non-funded club team, there isn't the history of fundraising, and there are still only a few high school programs. Big gains for players are hard since they haven't played in high school, but they really want to see the sport grow."
Naofumi 'Udo' Suzuki, head coach of the Tokyo University team and staff professor, echoed Coach Paul's statement saying, "The biggest difference is that coaches here are all unpaid volunteers, whereas over there lacrosse coaching is a profession. Also, during my visits to Ann Arbor, I was so amazed by the money involved in running college sports in America. That said, we are the same in that we deal with young men who are in the middle of very important transition period in their life."
Since Paul's arrival, Suzuki's practices have become drastically more structured and more efficient, from 4-5 hour marathon practices, to two-hour practices.
"JP has always helped us become more professional in running everything, however, on his last trip we went back to the basics," said Suzuki.
"What he taught us was that fundamentals are the most important, and we need to repeat, repeat and repeat to master them," Suzuki continued. "On a personal level, I get a lot of inspiration from just listening to his vision for Michigan lacrosse. I have my own vision to build a champion team here, and I get encouraged by his courage as well as the level of organization of everything he does. Also, he is a realist as well. As a coach, you need to have ideals, but your judgment needs to be realistic as well."
The commitment remains strong from a facilities perspective as well, as Tokyo University now boasts a pair of cutting-edge FieldTurf fields.
"The facilities are night and day from when I first started going over there," said Paul. "From mud and dirt fields, to the new cutting-edge surfaces. The type of setup that they possess is extremely rare amongst the Japanese teams."
There are only three high school programs, and all of them feed into Tokyo University and Suzuki's main rival, Keio University. Keio is one of the few programs in the country with its very own feeder system in Keio University High School. However, the Japanese national team has worked towards a top-five International program, as they are pushing England, Australia, and even the Iroquois Nationals.
"In the last 10 to 15 years, the game has developed so much," said Suzuki. "Players are now more technical and physically a lot better, which makes the games faster and of higher quality. You can see these things playing into the growth of our national team as well. They are more athletic now and more tactically sophisticated in part to the many teachings of Coach Paul."
As the quality of play for the Japanese teams has increased, the relationship and similarities between the Michigan squad and the Suzuki-led Tokyo University squad have gone hand in hand.
Starting in 2000, between four and six Japanese players have traveled to Ann Arbor to train with the team and immerse themselves in the U.S. lacrosse culture. Paul estimates that there are between 60-80 Japanese players and coaches who have visited Ann Arbor during U-M's time involved in the program. The program, since its inception, has allowed players and coaches to establish life-long friendships with former U-M players that continue to this very day.
"There is a lot of Michigan gear over there because a lot of kids take it back with them. They also use a lot of our team's terminology that I have installed or that they have picked up during their travels to the states because they are so embedded with us," said Paul.
Since U-M was elevated to varsity status, NCAA rules now prohibit the hosting of high school or university players, but coaches are permitted to travel over and observe; something that Udo took part in last season. For nearly two weeks, he observed practices, sat in on meetings and took in the second edition of the 'Battle at the Big House' versus Ohio State.
"What I have been learning from Coach Paul is not just plays and strategies, but the attitudes and philosophy to develop a champion team," said Suzuki. "I am confident that this is the biggest advantage we have over many other teams. We are building culture, which takes a lot more than imitating styles of play."
In the summer of 2015, it will be the Maize and Blue's turn to travel to Tokyo, as Suzuki and Tokyo University will play host to the Wolverines. When asked what he was looking forward to, Udo simply replied, "Everything. Hosting Michigan players would be massive for our players. Thinking about it again though, it would be nice to shake hands with Coach Paul before and after the game!"