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Longtime MIT lacrosse coach learned perspective from his players - and taught them a little bit, too

By Walter Alessi as told to Brian Burnsed

Walter Alessi addresses the crowd at his September 2017 retirement ceremony
Alessi addresses the crowd at his September 2017 retirement ceremony. Massachusetts Institute of Technology photo

I was influenced by some teachers and coaches at my high school and felt that it would be a nice career — work with young people, teach and coach. I played four years of lacrosse at Massachusetts, was captain of the team and graduated in 1968. I was a physical education major. 

I was teaching and coaching at a local high school, and my dad saw an ad in The Boston Globe that MIT was looking for a lacrosse coach in 1975. I said, “Dad, I don’t have that much experience.” He said, “You’ve got nothing to lose.”

I thought, at MIT, it was going to be all nerds. It turned out to be completely different. They’re people who I would have wanted as my son or my son-in-law. They’re great young men — who just happen to be a lot smarter than I am.

They had lost about 28 consecutive games in lacrosse before I got there. At one of the first practices I went to, only four kids showed up. A few days later, the team captain had rounded up about 18. I said, “It’s not the best number we’ve ever had in lacrosse, but at least it’s better than four. We can do something.”

In high school, we were used to pushing the kids hard: Have them stay late after practice, come early to practice, maybe watch some film. But at MIT, the time was so limited with the academics that it was a pretty strict two hours a day for practice. You can only practice between 5 and 7 p.m. If they had a class that ended at 5, there’s no way they could be out at practice in time. I had to bend my rules before I even started.

It was really impressive to see how much they could do and how much they would bring to the field, even though they maybe had an all-nighter the night before. They really looked forward to their two hours. And I found it inspiring that they could be so committed to school and still commit to a sport. They played because they loved to play. If we got crushed, it was: “Coach, I’ve got three tests tomorrow,” or “I’ve got a problem set due tomorrow.” They just had everything in the proper perspective.

We had my retirement party in September. I told my wife I expected 50 or 60 guys. Three hundred people came. I never realized the impact I had on these guys. Some former players who came to this reunion were guys who hardly ever saw the field. They were the backup to the backup, but they made the trip. They were all thanking me, but at the end I said, “The reason I stayed for so long was because of all of you, so I need to thank you.”

I was overwhelmed that I had this kind of an influence over guys who are now doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists — here’s the little PE guy from UMass who had some kind of an impact. It made me feel pretty good.

MIT lacrosse coach Walter Alessi retired at the end of the 2017 season after 43 years at the helm. He also coached the Engineers soccer team for 32 years. At a retirement ceremony in September, the school announced the men’s lacrosse coaching position would be endowed and named in his honor.

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.