When athletic director Bill Gehling chose Mike Daly to coach lacrosse in 1999, there was plenty to like. Daly, A95, had starred for the Jumbos in both football and baseball, yet his resume lacked just one tiny detail: he had never actually played lacrosse. “I was in over my head,” Daly admitted. “But looking back, being an outsider was my biggest asset.”
The lacrosse style of the day required athletes who could win slogging, “ground and pound” games. Daly instituted a frenetic pace that constantly pushed the attack, and quickly proved successful. In the two years before Daly’s hiring, the Jumbos went a combined 3-25. In his second year on the job they produced a winning record. By 2010, Tufts had gone 20-1 and claimed the school’s first national championship in front of twenty thousand fans at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium.
After more titles in 2014 and 2015, Daly left to coach at Brown. He was replaced by former three-sport standout Casey D’Annolfo, A06, whose team opened 2017 with a school-record eleven wins. “We started this journey because I wanted these kids to have the same experience I did playing sports at Tufts,” Daly said. “When it finally culminated in that first championship, it showed what Tufts is capable of.”
New England basketball fans know Carla Berube. She sank the free throws that clinched the University of Connecticut’s first national championship in 1995. When she became the Jumbos head coach in 2002, her initial class of recruits considered her a celebrity. Sixteen years later, Berube’s name is no longer the selling point—“Kids are like, ‘My grandfather remembers you,’” she recalled with a laugh—but it doesn’t have to be. The draw is now her program.
The Jumbos entered the 2018 season with four straight Final Four berths and two appearances in the national title game. They haven’t lost more than four games in a season since 2012, and the last decade has produced the top two scorers in school history: Michela North, A17, and Colleen Hart, E11. Berube in part credits the university’s commitment to top-flight facilities. “When you bring a recruit in now, the campus is beautiful,” she said. “You come to the Tisch Sports and Fitness Center, it’s awesome—you don’t find a fitness center as nice at our level. Kids want to play for great programs and vie for national championships.” Perhaps nowhere is that goal now more realistic than on the hardwood at Tufts.
In the 2014 NCAA tournament, the Tufts men’s soccer team stood just one victory from its first-ever Final Four. Unfortunately, the powerhouse Messiah College team blocking its path had won thirty-nine straight games—and eight of the previous ten national titles. So when Jason Kayne, A16, scored less than a minute into the match, and goalkeeper Scott Greenwood, A17, made the goal stand in a 1-0 victory, the Jumbos realized they belonged. “We knew going in that was an outrageous Messiah team we’d have to run into in the Elite Eight,” said coach Josh Shapiro. “Then when you beat them you say, ‘Well why not? If we can beat that group, we can beat anybody.’” Two weeks later, Tufts claimed its first national championship, and then added a second title in 2016. The way Shapiro sees it, success begets success. After men’s lacrosse and field hockey blazed a championship trail, the other teams at Tufts have followed. “The ceiling was smashed, so let’s go for it,” Shapiro said. “The last few years have proven it’s all attainable, so let’s be ambitious and try to create best-case scenarios for teams to hunt championships.”
After winning three straight national titles, from 2013 to 2015, coach Cheryl Milligan’s softball program has become a national power. Along the way, the team has illustrated how athletics can enrich academics. “We get kids who choose us over the Ivy League because the Ivy League doesn’t win,” said Milligan, J95, N12, AG01. “Winning is very exciting, and if you go to Princeton, you’re not winning a national championship.”
That puts Tufts in play for student-athletes like Allyson Fournier, E15, who is quite simply the greatest pitcher in the history of Division III softball. Fournier, who these days is a chemical engineer, chose Tufts over Cornell and Williams in 2011, and rewrote the record books. Tufts went 115-5 during the four-time All-American’s career, including an unprecedented 51-0 in 2015.
“We had it on our list of goals for a long time to win a national title,” Milligan said. “We knew it would take time, especially with the NESCAC and our admissions standards, making sure you’re bringing in the right kids.” The result is a program with recruits hailing not just from the Northeast, but Texas, California, Florida, Colorado, and Illinois. Forget about being a regional draw—the Jumbos are now an athletic and academic force on the national stage.
Field hockey may be concentrated largely in the Northeast, but a case can be made that no team did more to lay the groundwork for Tufts’ athletic prominence at the national level. Before men’s lacrosse brought the school its first national title in 2010, it drew inspiration from the 2008 field hockey squad, which reached the national championship game under head coach Tina McDavitt Mattera, a former member of Team USA and a silver medal winner at the 2005 Pan Am Games. Then, in 2012, field hockey won a Division III crown of its own after defeating Montclair State in the championship game. Emily Cannon, A14, nearly broke her hand in that game, but stayed on the field because, as she recalled, “there’s no way I was coming out.” She considers the field hockey experience among her most cherished memories at Tufts, but believes the wins benefited more than just her teammates. They also lifted the university’s profile among potential applicants. “Even if sports aren’t a driving reason why someone goes to a school, it could be why you hear about it,” she said. “We have gotten a lot of press because of programs doing really well. Men’s soccer exploded. Field hockey are contenders. Lacrosse. Having that notoriety could open your eyes to the possibility of a school.”
The video tells the story of one of the most important days in Tufts football history: September 20, 2014. It’s the season opener against Hamilton and the home stands are sparsely filled. Tufts has lost thirty-one games in a row, the longest losing streak in the nation. Before long, however, Chance Brady, A17, scores and the Jumbos are ahead 7-0. Word starts to filter through campus. As Tufts opens a 24-10 lead in the third quarter, more students arrive to cheer on the team. They can sense that something big is about to happen.
“The guy who runs facilities texted me, ‘I don’t know if I can keep the fans off the field when the game ends,’” recalled then-athletic director Bill Gehling. “I told him, ‘Why would you want to?’” When the 24-17 win is complete, hundreds of students hop the fences at Zimman Field to celebrate. Victory chants can be heard from the Jumbos locker room.
To many, a school’s athletic renaissance cannot be considered complete without a legitimate football team. “I’ve always believed every single sport is important,” Gehling said, “but there’s a subset of alums that will never think you’re really successful unless that team wins, too.” Tufts has delivered under coach Jay Civetti. The former Division I assistant at Boston College built the Jumbos from the ground up, culminating in 2016’s 7-1 finish. Since 2015, Tufts has won 18 games, the team’s best three-year stretch in nearly four decades. And it feels like only the beginning.