Nina Mandell
Thursday May 8th, 2008

Down by three against Georgetown in the finals of the Big East tournament, the Syracuse Orangewomen ran to the sideline for a timeout expecting the worst. Their coach, Gary Gait, a three-time national champion as a player (seven-time as a coach), four-time All-America and "Michael Jordan of lacrosse" did the unthinkable: he laughed at them.

"He looked at us and said: 'Guys don't be so tense,'" said captain Kristin Brady. "We're going to win."

As they did in all but three games this season, the Orangewomen prevailed 12-6 to clinch their second straight Big East title and secure a NCAA home game for the first time in program history.

"I think there's a point in every game when you just need to relax," Gait said later. "I made a conscious decision to act that way."

When he first arrived at Syracuse in 1988, Gait made a generation love the game when his theatrical style, summarized by the "Air Gait" (where he jumps over the goal to score) and brought a new form of excitement with highlight-reel worthy moves to the game. During his time Syracuse won three consecutive nation titles.

More than 15 years after he broke every offensive record at Syracuse, with his celebrity firmly established as one of the most influential people in the game, seeing Gait back on the Orange sidelines begs the question: why is he back? And why is he coaching a girls' team?

After longtime coach Lisa Miller left for Harvard, Syracuse called Gait, who at the time was vacationing in Puerto Varas with his family, to ask him to come back to his alma mater. With his oldest daughter getting ready to enter high school, and many old friends still in the area, part two of the Gary Gait era at Syracuse began.

"[Since he came] everybody eats, sleeps and breathes lacrosse," said senior midfielder Bridget Looney. "He's made us remember why we love the game again."

After graduating from Syracuse in 1991, Gait was an assistant on Cindy Timchal's staff at Maryland, where he helped the Terps win seven national championships during his tenure, thanks in part to his tutelage of players like Jen Adams, the first-ever Tewaaraton trophy winner and four-time All-America Kelly Amonte (who is going for her fourth straight championship as the coach at Northwestern). Adams, now an associate head coach at Maryland, credited Gait with teaching her the stutter-step that eventually made her the NCAA all-time leading scorer, telling her "if you can get this down, it will make you famous."

"It was like Michael Jordan teaching you how to play lacrosse every day," Adams said. "Whenever I teach the stutter-step in a clinic, I tell them this is what Gary Gait taught me."

What Gait's emphasized this year with the Orangewomen is basic stick skills and footwork, making everyone comfortable enough to push a fast-paced offense. This season, Syracuse led the NCAA in goals scored and scoring margin. Gait uses practice as his own form of a lacrosse lab, encouraging his players to be comfortable enough to make up their new moves in the same way he made up his years ago.

"Gary's success is that his coaching philosophy is to give players the tools and allow them to excel," said Timchal. "He has this open mind that sees the game in the simplest terms and you can be creative."

His current team also believes his coaching style is a major reason for their success. Just as he taught the game at Maryland, Gait's done a lot to loosen up the atmosphere at Syracuse; he's known to occasionally toss a backhanded shot when he's facing the opposite direction at the team's goalie during practice when he's talking, just to see if she's awake.

"He expects so much out of us and that we'll be working so hard all the time," said Brady. "He just doesn't really feel the need to yell at us to make us do it."

Though his team enjoys ragging on him for the short-shorts they find in old YouTube clips of their coach, Gait has grown from the quietly dominating lacrosse college kid to a spokesperson for the game. With gray hair and slight Canadian accent he is no longer the soft-spoken star that transformed the Syracuse men's team in the early '90s. Reluctant to talk about his past, he'll claim memory loss when asked about coaching former players like Adams ("She talks funny," he says of his Australian-born former player) or his own accomplishments.

And when asked why he left a professional coaching job with the Colorado Mammoth, where players said they would "do anything to keep him", he says: "I came back to coach the women's lacrosse team."

But perhaps, being as Gait has already revolutionized the game on every level, maybe more importantly than why he's back, is exactly what he'll do next.

"I was excited when I heard he was coming back to college," said Adams. "But I was in a little bit of fear because I thought -- he's back, and he's coaching another team."

Gait's not the only celebrated player back in the game -- along with Amonte Hiller (Northwestern) and Adams, Kerstin Kimel's built a competitive program at Duke, 1992 NCAA Attack Player-of-the-Year Jenny Levy built the UNC women's team from scratch, former William & Mary star Amy Bokker revived the George Mason program and former national team player Liza Kelly coaches at the University of Denver. But he is the only one at his alma mater, and perhaps the most famous.

"I think it's a real tribute to the women's game that Gary's back," said Timchal, who now coaches at Navy. "The sky's the limit for Syracuse in the tournament this year."

The Syracuse men's team -- which gets shooting and stick skill lessons from Gait -- he still has it on the field. "He made me look kind of stupid," said John Galloway, the freshman starting goalie for the Orangemen who had to face Gait shooting on him one day in practice. "He can still put some heat on the ball."

And when the NCAA tourney kicks off May 11, Gait hopes to bring enough heat on the sidelines to lead the Syracuse women to their first national title.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.