New-and-old lacrosse coach James Purpura returned to VMI in mid-2020. The new: Purpura recently took the reins of VMI’s lacrosse program.
The old: He spent 2016-18 with the program, as the recruiting coordinator and offensive coordinator. He left the Institute to take on his first head coaching job at Philadelphia-area Arcadia University after the 2018 season.
And take it on he did.
After two seasons under Purpura, the seven-year-old program showed tremendous improvements—breaking most school records. The team’s winning percentage nearly doubled, they made their first playoff appearance, and Purpura was named 2019 Coach of the Year in the Middle Atlantic Conference.
“I’ve always been around young programs or teams that have … needed to be rebuilt,” he said about going to a young program with a losing record. “I like the journey of taking something and making it better—and leaving it better than you found it.”
A blue collar young man from upstate New York, he grew up playing hockey—and lacrosse when the ground thawed out. Like many kids from northern (aka, hockey-loving) states, he wanted to play in the National Hockey League. His size and athleticism lessened his chances, and he realized, “I wasn’t good enough to play in the NHL.”
What he was good enough to play was lacrosse. He fielded offers from a few colleges. Ultimately, he played for and graduated from SUNY Geneseo—coincidentally, also the alma mater of VMI’s longest-serving lacrosse coach, Doug Bartlett.
As a college student-athlete, he expected to teach high school and coach—though, as a coach, he points out, “you really are a teacher.” After earning his undergraduate degree, he began helping coach.
Within a few weeks, he knew coaching was how he wanted to spend his life. Making it in the coaching world requires a good reserve of dogged determination.
While his athleticism may be average, his drive, grit, and determination are anything but ordinary. He spent the first few years as a coach in low-paying positions—$10,000 or less annual salary—and learned the art of frugality. He lived in his car during summer months and took on any extra summer work available. He called up—and crashed on—every buddy’s couch in every town he recruited in. In seven years, Purpura lived in five different states.
Where a lesser man might have thrown in the towel, Purpura kept pushing. The world of lacrosse is small—evidenced by the coincidental alma mater of two VMI head lacrosse coaches.
“Almost everybody knows everybody. It’s easy to get a phone number from somebody,” Purpura said.
That small world brought Purpura to VMI the first time. Someone knew someone, and suggested he interview for the job.
“Candidly, I didn’t know a ton about VMI at the time,” he said. After one visit to VMI, he had fallen in love with VMI, the school’s potential—and the entire Lexington area. It’s a close-knit, friendly community with “a passion for college athletics.”
“The great thing about [the program’s] core values is that each individual controls every one of them."James Purpura VMI Lacrosse Coach
And when it snows, “it’s generally only two or three inches,” the native New Yorker pointed out. “So, that’s another added benefit.”
The alumni community makes a tremendous difference, too, he said. “The alumni support at VMI is a game changer. The support they provide and continue to provide allows us to build a better experience for our cadet-athletes and we all are very thankful for that opportunity.”
Two years ago, when he had the chance to become head coach of Arcadia University’s lacrosse team, the program was “young” and “underachieving”—but Purpura “saw a lot of opportunity there.”
He had been traipsing up and down the East Coast, assistant-coaching at four different schools in five years. The Arcadia job was not just a rung up the coaching ladder—this was a chance for him to take all the pieces he liked, the things he had learned “and make it our own.” Purpura has a binder stuffed with notes and lessons learned over the years—and he put it good use at Arcadia.
This past summer, leaving his job at Arcadia was bittersweet. He had poured his “blood, sweat, and tears” into the program. VMI, though, is the only place he would have left Arcadia for, Purpura said. People in the small lacrosse community told him head coaching at VMI would be hard. They asked him, a young coach who had just mentored great, positive change at Arcadia, why he would want to go to VMI.
“That only fueled me more to want to take on the challenge,” he said. Purpura wanted the job and jumped at the opportunity. He applied, he briefed his ideas and philosophies—and was hired on in summer 2020.
Soon after he was hired, Purpura put together his staff—which may be one of the best in D1. Purpura brings with him two assistants from Arcadia: Mark “M.C.” Cameron ’94 and Kevin Doherty. Mikey Herring, a former starter for the University of Virginia who’s also played professionally, rounds out the staff. Together, the staff is a mix of high-level playing experience from Herring, the continuity from coaches who’ve worked together before—and in Cameron, the added benefit of a retired U.S. Marine officer and VMI alumnus.
COVID-19 has affected the team’s training, but not as much as it could have, Purpura said. They’re still able to practice. In fall 2020, there were no scrimmages versus other teams, and time spent watching film is less than Purpura would like. Overall, he’s relieved and thankful for the time the team has together and is “really optimistic” about the team’s future.
“The fact that we’re able to practice in some kind of capacity is has really been a relief,” he said. “It’s the highlight of the day for everyone in the program … I’m sure these guys don’t take anything for granted anymore.”
The “DNA” of Purpura’s coaching philosophy includes a four-part goal system that begins with 100% graduation—and ends with winning. The program also has four core values: Attitude, compete, effort, and sacrifice.
“The great thing about [the program’s] core values is that each individual controls every one of them,” Purpura said. “That’s important in a place like VMI, where there are so many external factors going on, we don’t control much, but what we control greatly matters. We want to be really, really good at controlling the ‘controllables.’”
At the core of everything, Purpura cares about the young men on his team. He wants the team to win almost more than anything—and more than that, he wants to train the young men under his care.
“We want to serve their heart not just their talent. We want to make sure that we’re caring about the 30-year-old version more than the 20-year-old version,” he said. “We want to be judged on the quality of character of young men that we’re building.”
“I truly believe that in doing that, the winning will come,” Purpura said
Molly Rolon Editorial Specialist
The editorial specialist assists the editor-in-chief in various tasks relating to the production of quarterly and monthly publications, as well as prepares written materials for publication.