Last July, Steve Dietrich received a phone call from a former lacrosse coach who has known him since he was 9 years old.
“He said, ‘Did you hear the Bandits are looking for a general manager?’ I said no,” Dietrich said. “He said, ‘Did you ever think of throwing your name in the ring?’ At the time, I said no, not really. Yes, it’s my dream job and it’s where I want to be, but I never thought they’d take my application seriously.”
But shortly after that, Buffalo Bandits director of lacrosse operations Scott Loffler called Dietrich and suggested he come in for an interview.
“I knew the talent on the team well. I knew the age on the team,” Dietrich said. “It was tough because Scott wanted some honest answers. I thought, if I’m going to do this, I will say that this is how I feel. It turned out Scott thought along the same lines I did and bought into some things that I said. I thought we needed some changes.”
You know how the story comes out. Dietrich was hired, and tonight he’ll watch a team that he helped put together take on the Knighthawks in Rochester (7:30 p.m., nll.com, Radio 550 AM).
That team is much different than the one that finished 7-9 last season and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. One major similarity, though, is that Darris Kilgour is still the coach. It’s unusual that a new general manager doesn’t get to pick his own coach, but Dietrich was fine with having Kilgour remain in that job after losing the GM position.
“When Scott said Darris would be part of the interview process, I knew Darris would be here whether I got the job or not, and rightly so,” he said. “We’re the same age, we played against each other in minor lacrosse, and in junior lacrosse. I had the opportunity to play with him a little bit and played against him. The respect I had for Darris was immense. I knew there would be times when we were going to butt heads. But that’s a good thing. I don’t think any management staff wants to be all head-bobbers and agree with whoever is speaking.”
The Bandits turned over about half of their roster, and Kilgour says he’s happy with his relationship with Dietrich.
“He’s made some decisions that I sort of looked at and said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’ But I think it’s worked out great,” Kilgour said. “There were a couple of guys that I was wrong on and he was right on. You have to take everyone’s opinion and work it out, and figure each other out.
“He knows every player in the league. What he’s brought to the table has been huge for us. He’s made a lot of roster moves, and I think we’re a better team for it.”
Dietrich obviously thought the team needed an infusion of young, athletic talent. That’s the direction in which the league has been heading in the past few years. Players such as Roger Vyse, Tom Montour and Ian Llord were released. The Bandits had four draft picks in the first two rounds last September, and Dietrich hopes all of them will be part of the team’s future. To help them in that process, Dietrich added some veterans.
“Shawn Williams and Aaron Wilson are professionals. Derek Suddons is great at defending the ball,” he said. “We knew we had to bring in those guys to help the younger guys. We didn’t think we could throw eight young guys on the floor and still be successful. The veterans are going to bring what they can until the end of their careers, which I hope is four, five, six years. That allows us to bring along the Carter Benders, the Hayden Smiths more slowly. Dhane Smith has done a great job so far, but we’re hoping that he can take a back seat at times and learn the game instead of being thrust out there.”
Every general manager in professional sports has pressure placed upon him. In the National Lacrosse League, some GMs are worried about the survival of the franchise from year to year. In Buffalo, the pressure centers around keeping the building full and winning games.
“It’s something I felt,” Dietrich said. “These fans deserve a winner, and they deserve a winner every year. We knew coming in that if we continued on the path the team was going, there would be some pretty lean years. You can’t continue to trade first-round picks away. You can’t continue to cut young athletes to play 35- and 36-year-olds. That goes back to someone like Shawn Williams. We wanted to bridge the gap” until the young players were ready to contribute.
Dietrich has experienced the intensity of the area’s passion for the game. He played for the Bandits from 2002 to 2007, winning the league’s most valuable player award in 2006, the only goalie to ever be so honored. The soon to be 43-year-old (Monday) is the franchise’s all-time leader in minutes played by a goalie at 4,158.
Once this season began and the roster was more or less set, Dietrich’s primary job for the season was done. He’s monitoring the progress of the team and its players on a game-by-game basis. One of the problems with that is, between injuries and roster size, not everyone has received an adequate look. The answer to a team problem might already be on the roster..
Along the way, Dietrich has discovered that a supposed “part-time job” – he works full-time for Ricoh Canada – comes with a lot of work.
“It takes up a lot more hours than what I thought,” Dietrich said. “It’s a delicate blend of trying to juggle my full-time job, family life, and trying to put as much effort into this as I can. ... I watch games every night. I’ve always been a video nut. I’ll watch game after game. ... I try to read strengths and weaknesses of players that might become available, or are available, or might become free agents the following summer. I want to have a read on the person on a pro level, and then see if they might fit in here.”
Through six games – admittedly far too early to judge very much – the results of the rebuilding plan are mixed. The team is 3-3, and coming off one of the worst home losses in history last week against the Knighthawks. That game was an obvious step backwards, but it’s just one game. Dietrich’s goal is to keep moving forward.
“The city deserves to win a championship,” he said. “I wasn’t able to do it as a player, and it’s my sole focus now.”