25 Years: Who is the best head coach in National Lacrosse League history?

Bartley won seven MILL/NLL titles between the Bandits and Rock during his storied coaching career. (Photo: Graig Abel)
Bartley won seven MILL/NLL titles between the Bandits and Rock during his storied coaching career. (Photo: Graig Abel)

In this week’s poll looking back at the absolute best-of-the-best that have ruled the National Lacrosse League leading up to the loop’s 25th birthday, we took a jump over the boards, asking our group of past and current players, coaches and media, “Who is the best head coach in National Lacrosse League history?”

And just like last week when only Dallas Eliuk and Bob Watson’s names were scribbled down when we attempted to crown the sport’s greatest ever goalie, this week’s Q was narrowed down to just a select few again. So after the jump, check out which coach topped this week’s question, what our esteemed panel had to say about their impact and legacy, and let us know who you like for all-time best NLL bench boss.

LES BARTLEY

80% of votes
Buffalo Bandits (92-97), Ontario Raiders (1998), Toronto Rock (99-03)

Les Bartley instructing his bench prior to retaking the floor at the ACC. (Photo: Toronto Sun)
Les Bartley instructing his bench prior to retaking the floor at the ACC. (Photo: Toronto Sun)

Skinny
First serving as an unpaid scout with the Bandits, Bartley would take over Buffalo’s coaching reigns during the 1992 Major Indoor Lacrosse League season after the team stumbled out to a lackluster 0-3 start. From there Bartley led the Bandits to a still standing 22-game unbeaten run that would extend all the way into the 1994 campaign, two league championships coming during those first two seasons. Bartley and his Bandits would go onto win another title in 1996 before Les packed his bags for closer to home to lead the expansion Ontario Raiders, later of course transforming into the Toronto Rock after a lone year in Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum. Bartley, known for his motivational and team building approach on and off the floor, would again bring gold to his franchise, the Rock winning four Champion’s Cups in the span of just five seasons, leading the budding Rock to a 51-19 regular season record during their first five years in Toronto. After the 2003 season, Bartley stepped down as the Rock’s head coach and GM in order to fight a war off the rug after being diagnosed with colon cancer, a battle that lasted 18-months, Bartely passing away less than 24 hours after Toronto’s 2005 Cup win at his home in St. Catharines, Ontario. The league would later name their Coach of the Year Award in honour of Bartley, who was also inducted into the NLL’s original Hall of Fame class in 2006 shortly after his death. Bartley, who worked as a highly respected union rep with General Motors, was also credited as being a monumental difference maker during league labour negotiations leading into the 2005 season, one which appeared to be on the ropes previous to his inclusion in the process.

Thoughts
Tony Resch deserves honourable mention for his winning record, four championships during his eight years as a head coach of the Wings, and guiding Team USA to a major upset of Team Canada in the first Heritage Cup of box lacrosse. However there is no doubt that Les Bartley was the best coach over the last 25 years. In 12 years as a head coach he went to the championship ten times, winning seven. Some people didn’t give him the respect he deserved during his Buffalo days because he had a super stacked team, but when he left Buffalo, he started the Ontario Raiders with one franchise player (Jim Veltman) and a bunch of “leftovers” and quickly turned the Toronto Rock into a dynasty. With that, he won over all of his former critics and sealed his legacy as the greatest coach in the NLL. It’s also a testament to Bartley that so many of today’s best coaches (Kilgour, Keenan, Comeau, Cordingley, Hamley) all played for, or coached with Bartley.” – Brian Shanahan

“I had the honor and pleasure of playing for Les Bartley.” – Bob Hamley

“No doubt Les “Bart” Bartley for sure.” – Johnny Mouradian

Les Bartley being honoured alongside his longtime captain and friend Jim Veltman in Toronto. (Photo: Graig Abel)
Les Bartley being honoured alongside his longtime captain and friend Jim Veltman in Toronto. (Photo: Graig Abel)

“While there are many great coaches past and present in the NLL; Day, Kilgour, Hall, Resch, Cordingley – its apparent that this is a one horse race. Les Bartley is, was and forever will be the prototypical coach. Players loved to play for him. He brought passion, knowledge and a fire to win that pushed his players to that extra level. Even when he wasn’t behind the bench for the Rock’s last NLL title, you could tell the impact he had on that team.” – Ted Jenner

“The greatest coach in league history could only be between two coaches, the late Les Bartley and current Buffalo Bandits and all-time winningest coach Darris Kilgour. Both coaches knew how to get the most out of their players and their records speak volumes. Les was great at building confidence and focusing the team on the task at hand. He was the first coach I ever had that would prepare his teams mentally for games.” – Troy Cordingley

“I never had the chance to play for him, but based on his record and all that I have heard from his former players, I don’t think there is any doubt Les Bartley has been the greatest head coach in NLL history. In playing against his teams, you always knew they would be prepared for anything and he always knew how to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses.  The mark he made on the NLL is far greater than just his won-loss record.” – Pat McCabe

“I have had many great coaches, but it would be pretty hard to argue against Les Bartley’s success in this league!” – Colin Doyle

“I don’t think there’s any question about this one: Les Bartley, hands down. Seven NLL titles, including four in five seasons with Toronto, and three prior to that with the Buffalo Bandits, is the easiest way to measure his success. But that’s just a portion of it. The way he sold his system and got players to believe in him and teammates, to me, is the ultimate measure of success. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that just about any Canadian player today will tell you that Les Bartley was the biggest and most profound impact on their careers. Not just as players, but as people too. He didn’t just win games, he won respect, and that’s why he’ll always be remembered not as one of the best, but THE best.” – Bob Chavez

“Of course, like everyone polled I would guess, I’m going with Les Bartley. He completely changed the way the game was played in the NLL. He brought the league’s style closer to the Canadian indoor game by focusing on aggressive, tough defensive play. That said, he didn’t do it at the cost of scoring. His teams always had effective and creative offences that could put the ball in the net.” – Ty Pilson

From former Tom Borrelli Award winner Mike Koreen’s 2005 article, “A great human being”, in the Toronto Sun

“I was drinking sometimes. (Bartley) would sit me down and tell me to smarten up and I would listen. He took me to the side and we had good conversations. He helped me and put me in some good situations on his team. I would imagine he’s the best coach anyone has ever had. He was a great human being.” – Kim Squire

“Players sat in front of their teammates to talk about their lives and grown men would cry like babies, whether it was goalie Bob Watson describing the birth of his first child or ex-defender Craig Gelsvik describing a tattoo dedicated to his father. Bartley, who won his first 22 National Lacrosse League games after an unspectacular non-professional playing career, would make players who were scared of heights climb up walls and would organize team football games. It was summer camp for professional athletes and it worked so well.” – in Koreen’s own words

“He gave more than he took.” – Glenn Clark (Toronto Sun)

DARRIS KILGOUR

15% of votes
Washington Power (01-02), Buffalo Bandits (03-10)

Darris Kilgour brought back the glory days, previously ignited by Les Bartley, to Buffalo. (Photo: Jeff Folkins)
Darris Kilgour brought back the glory days, previously ignited by Les Bartley, to Buffalo. (Photo: Jeff Folkins)

Skinny
A former Bartley star pupil while suiting up for the Bandits, Kilgour immediately jumped onto the Washington Power’s bench after retiring from the floor with the Albany Attack after the 2000 season, his impact felt as a coach equal to if not past what he did as a hard nosed, leave it all on the floor, multiple NLL and Mann Cup winning leader during a Hall of Fame playing career. Kilgour guided the Power to the post-season during his two seasons in DC, taking over a previously stationed sixth place Pittsburgh Crossefire (franchise moved to Washington) team that failed to crack the playoffs in 2000. The Power lost both playoff games to Bartley’s Rock, the 2002 semi-final tilt a double OT classic that would be Kilgour’s last game leading the soon to be Denver bound franchise. A season later Kilgour would find himself leading his old team, and a handful of old teammates, in Buffalo, almost singlehandedly pushing the Bandits back to the top of the NLL leaderboard, the franchise not even qualifying for the post-season during Kilgour’s two-seasons in Washington. Just two years after his arrival Buffalo was already back in the Champion’s Cup, twice losing the league’s final before winning it all in 2008 against the Portland Lumberjax. Buffalo has yet to miss the post-season since Kilgour’s return to the city, the lifelong Bandit legend the all-time winningest NLL coach after passing Bartley’s record last year.  

Thoughts
“Darris’ competitiveness, fiery passion and motivation for the game only rubs off on his players to do what it takes to win.  His knowledge of the game is the best that I have come across.” – Cordingley

“I haven’t been around Buffalo’s dressing room pre-game in recent years, but young kids probably shouldn’t be allowed to be wondering too near the hallway leading up to one of Darris’ speeches just prior to the Bandits taking the floor. The HSBC shakes when the orange-and-black are getting jacked up pre-game, some pretty filthy language echoing through the halls. Fired up doesn’t even begin to describe the attitude a Kilgour led team leaves the dressing room with minutes before the first face-off.” – Paul Tutka

TONY RESCH

5% of votes
Philadelphia Wings (94-01)

Tony Resch coaching against the Rock in one of the biggest Champion's Cup upsets in league history. (Photo: Graig Abel)
Tony Resch coaching against the Rock in one of the biggest Champion's Cup upsets in league history. (Photo: Graig Abel)

Skinny
Mentioned by some of our panelists as one of the spot’s all-time great defensive defenders during his two seasons suiting up for the Philadelphia Wings, Resch’s biggest impact came after making the move from rug to bench however, coaching the Wings for eight seasons, winning four Cups with the franchise and even stealing one from Bartley in 2001. It was that underdog victory in Toronto’s at the time almost unwinnable Air Canada Centre that was Resch’s last as a head coach in the NLL, later guiding Team USA to maybe the sides biggest ever win on the national box stage, once again bettering Bartley, this time during the first ever Heritage Cup, an epic 21-16 US win (Note: Darris Kilgour also helped coach that US team). That American victory was the one and only time the US has beat the Canucks during Heritage Cup or World Indoor Lacrosse League play. Resch was the NLL’s first ever Coach of the Year, later joining Bartley in the league’s Hall of Fame in 2008.

Own Words
“That’s probably the one I’m the most proud of. I really don’t think anyone gave us a chance in that game. Like the [Super Bowl XLII champion New York] Giants, a certain set of things had to happen for us to succeed and everything sort of fell into place.” – Resch on Philadelphia’s upset Cup win over Toronto in 2001 (NLL)

“There’s no comparison. I tell guys now, play as long as you can play. It’s one thing to coach and realize you contributed, but it’s not the same as being part of the team on the floor and being out there. Coaching is the next best thing, though.” – Resch on playing vs. coaching, a beauty at both roles (Insider)

Of our voted on Top/Only 3, who is the greatest head coach in NLL history?

  • Les Bartley (59%, 255 Votes)
  • Darris Kilgour (31%, 135 Votes)
  • Tony Resch (10%, 39 Votes)

Total Voters: 429

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The foremost boxla writer, Tutka is a former NLL scout and a longtime Inside Lacrosse contributor. Email him at paul.tutka@nllinsider.com.

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