Dick Szlasa, whose Hall of Fame lacrosse coaching career was highlighted by a successful 10-year stint at Navy, died Saturday night at Autumn Lake Healthcare in Manchester after being in failing health for many months. He was 87 years old.
Szlasa was Navy men’s lacrosse coach from 1973 through 1982 and compiled a record of 85-44. He led the Midshipmen to a program record 10 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
Szlasa had the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Willis Bilderback, who led the Midshipmen from 1959 through 1972 and amassed a gaudy 131-26-2 record, including nine United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association national championships.
In addition to living up to the legacy of Bilderback, Szlasa also arrived at the Naval Academy at a time when military service was ridiculed in the wake of the Vietnam War.
Szlasa was hired away from Washington & Lee, which he transformed from a struggling program into a national contender. Ironically, Navy wound up losing to the Washington & Lee teams Szlasa had built in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament in 1973 and ’74.
Having two years to bring in his own recruits paid dividends as Szlasa led the Midshipmen to the national championship game in 1975. Navy upset No. 2 Cornell on its home field in the semifinals before losing, 20-13, to No. 4 Maryland in the final held at Homewood Field in Baltimore.
In an oddity, Navy played archrival Army one day later and won, 10-5. Szlasa was the recipient of the Morris Touchstone Memorial Award as National Coach of the Year in 1975.
Navy reached the NCAA Tournament semifinals five other times under Szlasa, who resided in Arnold throughout his tenure at the academy. He had a well-earned reputation as an outstanding recruiter and wound up developing 49 All-Americans while with the Midshipmen.
Attackman Jeff Long was among the many talented prospects Szlasa lured to Annapolis from upstate New York. Long became a three-time All-American and remains Navy’s all-time leading scorer with 233 career points. The 1978 academy graduate was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2009.
Navy had two national award winners during Szlasa’s tenure with Jake Lawlor earning the Schmeisser Award as the best defenseman in Division I (1975) and Mike Buzzell receiving the Turnbull Award as the top attackman (1980).
Other first team All-Americans during the Szlasa era were midfielder Bob Desimone, attackman Brendan Schneck and attackman Syd Abernethy.
“It was remarkable that Coach Szlasa was able to recruit the caliber of players he did during a time when service academies were highly unpopular,” said Tom McKee, a Navy defenseman who graduated in 1977.
Jeff Johnson, a goalie who was an honorable mention All-American in 1977 and ’78, said Szlasa focused his recruiting efforts on the Baltimore area, upstate New York and Long Island.
“He was a heck of a recruiter and brought in a lot of top-notch talent,” Johnson said.
Abernethy, an Annapolis High graduate who was inducted into the Chesapeake Chapter of USA Lacrosse last January, was among many Anne Arundel County products that played lacrosse at Navy under Szlasa. Others included brothers Ernie and Jeff Styron (Annapolis High), Tim Gavin (Glen Burnie) and Pete Sandford (Severn School).
“I think Dick Szlasa was the right coach at the right time for Navy lacrosse. His record and accomplishments speak for themselves,” Abernethy said.
Tom Hanna served as Szlasa’s top assistant from 1973 through 1976. He recalled Szlasa being shrewd enough to get Severna Park resident Jack Jones, the C. Markland Kelly Award winner as the nation’s best goaltender in 1954, to serve as a volunteer assistant.
Szlasa, who was a standout defenseman at the University of Maryland, oversaw that end of the field. Hanna handled the offense, while Jones worked with the goalies.
Hanna recalled that Hall of Fame coaches Joe Duff (baseball) and Glenn Warner (men’s soccer) were invaluable resources as he and Szlasa learned the inner workings of the Naval Academy.
“Dick appeared to be gruff as a coach, but he had a big heart and loved his players,” Hanna said. “Dick put his arms around everyone whether it was a senior All-American, an incoming plebe or the equipment manager. He cared about everyone involved with the program.”
Szlasa was ahead of his time in terms of implementing a science-based fitness program pioneered by Towson State professor Richard Slevin, a Severna Park resident. McKee recalls the coaching staff placing orange traffic cones around the perimeter of the practice field and the players having to do laps and sprints.
“Running the cones at the end of practice was brutal. Coach Szlasa was adamant that no team was going to be in better shape and wanted to develop mental toughness,” McKee said. “We fondly referred to Coach Szlasa as the ‘biggest thing ever.’ He was a larger than life figure in terms of both size and presence.”
Szlasa played multiple sports at Dundalk High, then lettered in both varsity soccer and lacrosse at Maryland. He served as athletic director at both Parkville and Perry Hall, starting the lacrosse programs at both Baltimore County high schools.
After serving in the United States Army as a member of the 101st Airborne Division, Szlasa became head coach of men’s lacrosse at Towson University in 1967. Szlasa left Towson to accept the same position at Washington & Lee in Lexington, Virginia. He completely turned around a downtrodden program that had just one winning season from 1959 through 1969.
The Generals posted a 30-8 record in their last three seasons under Szlasa, earning a berth in the first NCAA Tournament that was held in 1972. Washington & Lee went a combined 29-2 and reached the NCAA semifinals in 1973 and ’74 with players all recruited by Szlasa.
Towson High graduate Sam Englehart was among many Baltimore County recruits that Szlasa rebuilt the program with.
“Coach Szlasa saw Washington & Lee as a program with untapped potential. He went down there, rolled up his sleeves and turned it into a national power in just a few years through hard work and smart recruiting,” said Englehart, who was a three-time first team All-American. “He was old school with an unwavering focus on fundamentals and discipline.”
After leaving Navy, Szlasa served as athletic director and head lacrosse coach at Drew University from 1983 to 1990. It was during that time he was recruited to play Coach Gant in the 1984 movie “First Born,” whose title character was a lacrosse player.
Szlasa, who also had a short stint as athletic director at Wesley College in Delaware, was inducted into the Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2017. He is also a member of the Baltimore Chapter of USA Lacrosse Hall of Fame and the Dundalk High Athletic Hall.
“I’ve been flooded with calls, texts and emails from all sorts of former players who credit my dad with making a positive impact on their lives,” Steve Szlasa said.
Szlasa, who lived in Marriottsville then Westminster toward the end of his life, is survived by son Steve (Cindy) along with daughters Anne Szlasa and Michaelina Sarmiento (Santi). He is also survived by five grandchildren.
A funeral service and interment for Dick Szlasa, being held at St. John Catholic Church in Westminster, will be limited to immediate family. A Celebration of Life ceremony for Coach Szlasa will be announced in the near future.
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