Rich Kilgour could feel there was a change coming after a second consecutive losing season, after missing the playoffs once again, after postseason interviews with management.
Kilgour had played his entire 18-year career with the Buffalo Bandits and had been an assistant coach for eight seasons, the last three alongside his close friend and former longtime teammate John Tavares. And when Bandits general manager Steve “Chugger” Deitrich finally called last summer to deliver the news – the team was replacing head coach Troy Cordingley – Kilgour feared the worst.
“I didn’t know if I was going to get fired. I had no idea what might happen after two losing seasons, when I was a part of it,” Kilgour said this week. “Chugger told me if you’ll accept, it’s going to be you and JT as two head coaches. I was kind of hoping to get the job, and I’m sure he was a little bit. And after I thought about it for two seconds, I was like, ‘You know what? That’s perfect.’ ”
In their first season as co-head coaches, but by no means their first season working together, Kilgour and Tavares have guided the Bandits to the National Lacrosse League finals. The best-of-three-game series against the Calgary Roughnecks begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at KeyBank Center. Game 2 is scheduled for May 25 in Calgary. Game 3, if necessary, is May 31 in Buffalo.
The East Division champion Bandits, which finished the regular season with the best record in the league (14-4), are seeking their fifth league title and first in 11 years. In their most recent trip to the finals, they lost to Saskatchewan in two games in 2016.
The Bandits went 6-12 and 8-10 the last two seasons, leading the organization to reshuffle the coaching staff and promote Kilgour and Tavares. Both are NLL and Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Famers whose numbers have been retired by the team.
“Scott Loffler and I went through an arduous process last summer,” Dietrich said, referring to the Bandits' director of lacrosse operations. “We talked to many people and left no stone unturned to decide what was best for this franchise moving forward, when we decided we wanted to make a change. And everywhere we went, something kept pulling us back to the idea of promoting Richie and JT.
“They’ve been teammates for such a long time. They coached together with the Bandits and in the summertime."
Kilgour and Tavares coached the Six Nations Chiefs in the Major Series Lacrosse of the Ontario Lacrosse Association.
"They have a great relationship, don’t have any egos at all, so we just thought in talking to them, we thought it was a great fit and something that could work, and it’s been great for us,” Dietrich said.
Tavares said one of the keys to the Bandits’ success this season has been building on the relationships and responsibilities that already existed.
Tavares, the NLL’s all-time leading scorer and four-time league MVP, continues to focus on offense.
Kilgour, a defensive specialist who served as the Bandits’ captain for 12 seasons, continues to focus on defense.
“It’s pretty much the same roles that we had last year, except we have more decisions to make,” Tavares said. “We get together and we come up with a game plan and the season plan and who we’re going to sit and we discuss everything. And it’s not just Richie and me. We include our other two coaches, as well, [goaltending coach] Anthony Cosmo and [assistant coach] Rusty Kruger.
“So it’s all four of us collectively making decisions in different situations. We believe in communicating and coming up with a solution with four guys. It seems more beneficial than one person just making decisions on their own, and I like that. I like making decisions as a team.”
Cordingley, the Bandits’ former head coach, was reassigned to assistant general manager/director of scouting. He had a 46-44 regular season record in five seasons and led the team to the playoffs three times.
Bandits forward Dhane Smith, the 2016 NLL MVP, was as surprised as anyone by the team’s decision to name co-head coaches. But he said the setup has been embraced by the players.
“They’re both great coaches. Both of their numbers are in the rafters. They know what they’re talking about, so when they speak, we listen, obviously,” Smith said. “They don’t collide, which you’d think they might collide on some things. But one’s a D guy, one’s an O guy, so at the end of the day, it works out.
“It’s definitely new. We didn’t expect it to be like that. We thought there was just going to be one coach, but they talk to each other and it works. At first, it was kind of weird. But at the end of the day, there’s a reason we’re in the championship. They’ve done a great job of getting us together.”
Bandits forward Josh Byrne, drafted first overall in 2017, said that seeing the way Tavares and Kilgour work together affects how the team performs.
“A lot of the time, you can see the trickle-down effect, whether that’s learning how to work together, or whether that’s staying calm on the bench,” Byrne said. “A lot of times, we would be freaking out last year about different things, and that would start at the top and work its way down. Now everybody’s calm, everybody’s relaxed, everybody knows that we have to do a job.
“When it comes to working together, you can tell those two are always bouncing ideas off each other. It’s very selfless. You can see there’s no ego between the two of them, and that kind of trickles down to the rest of us, as well, so we’re playing unselfish.”
Bandits transition player Chase Fraser, a defensive player with an offensive mindset, said he relies on both Kilgour and Tavares in much the same way he would rely on a single head coach.
“I don’t really see a difference,” Fraser said. “We’re just being coached. It’s two guys out there that are extremely knowledgeable of the game, and you just soak up as much information as you can.”
He appreciates that his coaches were both accomplished players.
“It’s huge. It’s a lot easier, when you’re sitting in the dressing room and they’re talking, they’re talking with confidence because they’ve won,” Fraser said. “Now it’s their turn to lead us, and it’s easy to follow them because we know that they’ve won, and they know how to win.”
Tavares said that his long-standing relationship with Kilgour – they have known and worked alongside one another since first playing together on the Bandits’ inaugural team in 1992 – has made their latest endeavor with the Bandits successful, because the players can tell their co-head coaches are comfortable working together and strive to be good teammates.
“At the end of the day, it’s the players,” Tavares said. “We don’t have a lot of guys complaining, and usually you’ve got guys complaining. Even when you win, sometimes guys aren’t satisfied. Maybe some guys want to score more goals and are concerned more about their individual points, where on this team they don’t care who gets the goals or who’s making the pass, as long as we win the game. The guys put the team first, and when you do that, it’s hard to beat a team.”
Tavares and Kilgour not only preach teamwork and selflessness, they demonstrate how it’s done.
“I know that JT is going to do what’s best for the team,” Kilgour said. “He’s not going to worry about personal accolades or anything like that, and he knows that’s my thought process also. I don’t care if I ever get mentioned in an article. I don’t care if I ever get one little bit of credit. If we get to hang another banner in the rafters, that’s all I care about.”