Tony Cullen's Five Offensive Commandments - Classic Coaches Corner #3

The article below by Tony Cullen appeared in a 1987 Lacrosse magazine.  I'm not sure which because I tore out the page and kept in in a safe place.  So safe that I could not find it for many years.  These offensive concepts may seem like basic fundamentals now, but back then the five "commandments" were a framework for coaches that I incorporated into my offense as a college and later as a high school coach.  In 1990 I would get to face Cullen's Blue Devils as head coach of Radford University.  They handled us pretty well, but that is the subject of a future post.  

On April 14, 2002, Cullen was part of the inaugural class inducted into the North Carolina Lacrosse Hall of Fame for his outstanding contributions as a player and coach at Duke University, and then as a top official in the ACC and NCAA. Sadly, coach Cullen passed away a few weeks later, after an extended battle with cancer at the age of 45.

Cullen spent nine seasons as the head coach of the Blue Devils from 1982-90. In 1986 and 1987, he guided Duke to 11-win seasons marking the first two double-figure single-season win totals in school history.  In 1981 the Blue Devils had a 3-9 record and the University seriously considered dropping the program.  In just five seasons Cullen took Duke to the opposite end of the spectrum.

As a player, Cullen established himself as one of the top scorers in Duke history despite playing only three years. At the time of his passing, Cullen stood first in career assists (114 - now 4th), tied for second in career points (220 - now 9th) and ninth in career goals (106 - now 17th). In addition, Cullen still has the single-game assist record (8 - tied with John Bierman and Ned Crotty) and single-season marks for both assists (52 in 1979) and points (90 in 1979). He is honored each year with the playing of the Cullen Classic.  Now on to the article!  Brackets [  ] indicate my notes from his presentation or comments.

The Five Offensive Commandments

By Tony Cullen  

While there are a myriad of different philosophies and implementations of offenses in lacrosse, there are basic offensive principles which apply almost universally to any offensive scheme,  Regardless of the level of your talent or the particular philosophy you espouse, a fundamental understanding of these principles will make your offense more successful. 

At Duke University our offensive philosophy is predicated on our personnel.  As the size, speed, athletic ability and lacrosse skills of our players change, so too does our offensive scheme.  However, despite these changes our basic principles have remained consistent.  

There are five offensive principles that all players at Duke must learn. Each of these tenets is designed to spread out the defense and incorporate all six players into the offense.  These principles are taught before any offensive patterns are introduced and they are reinforced during each practice session throughout the year.

It is important to note that these principles are interrelated.  While each principle can be taught separately, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In addition, it is imperative that all six of the offensive players, not just the player carrying the ball, are following the rules.  Irrespective of your offensive scheme, these principles can improve your team's performance, particularly in settled situations. 


A player is permitted only one move with the ball. If their dodge is unsuccessful they must move the ball on the perimeter. 

  • The great majority of turnovers occur after the first move. The longer a player holds the ball, the more likely it is that it will be checked away or that he will be double teamed. 
  • Players tend to use their best move first.  If they cannot beat a defender with their best move, they probably won't be successful with a weaker move. [and into a more settled and anticipating defense]

[This is the one that some say is outdated now.  I would update to say one '"dodging package".  Semantics :) But seriously, there was more emphasis on feeding, cutting and ball movement than taking turns going 2-man back then.]  


 Whenever a player moves to create a dodging situation for a teammate he should always cut behind his defender or to the "strings of the helmet". [There used to be laces in the back of the helmet.  Cutting to the strings forces your defender to turn his head away from the ball.  After you make a pass it is your duty to make the defender turn his head away from the ball.]

  • Clearing to the strings forces a defender to commit himself.  If the defender turns and follows the player he is guarding, he is no longer an effective backup. Conversely, if he ignores the offensive player he is exposed to a backdoor cut and looses the player he is responsible for guarding.
  • Any movement in front of the defender allows him to follow his man without loosing site of the ball.


Coach Cullen's original diagrams for Commandment #2, "clear to the strings"


Whenever a player inbounds the ball [In that era, officials gave more time to restart play or there could be a substitution horn.], pulls the ball out, or settles the offense in anyway, they are no longer allowed to dodge. [Dodge as soon as you receive the ball.  Do not allow the defense to adjust to the ball movement]

  • The defense aligns itself each time the ball moves on the perimeter.  To spread out a defense and make slides less effective, you must move the ball and force them to move and realign. 
  • Specifically, a defense is never more prepared to play team defense than they are off an inbounds or settled situation. 


Players should evaluate dodging and feeding opportunities before they get the ball.  They should not hold onto the ball waiting for opportunities to arise.  If they do not see any opportunities they should move the ball.

  • The defense adjusts to the position of the ball.  The longer the ball stays in one position, the longer they have to adjust. 
  • A player who picks up a ground ball is generally not in a position to make a great feed or dodge for a goal. Rather, the players on each adjacent point are better suited while their teammate picks up the ball. [Run to daylight.  Push the ball as soon as possible.]


Whenever the situation is unsettled, move the ball on the perimeter to "X" (point behind).  Players on the perimeter are free to feed cutters or dodge provided they can make their decisions off the ball. However, the ball should never be settled until it reaches "X".  [this is important because the defense is already scattered and now you force them to turn their head]

  • Defenses move toward the ball and openings in unsettled situations usually occur on the weakside or the backside.  The best feeding areas to exploit openings on the weakside are behind the goal.
  • Attackmen dictate the tempo of most offenses and should be responsible for settling the ball.  At "X" an attackman has full vision of the offensive opportunities open to him. 


I have always taught Coach Cullen's commandments to my players as a starting point for our offenses.  No matter what setup you use, or the talent you have, these commandments should be mastered before you start teaching elaborate plays.  They can be applied to any situation and they are easy for players to understand. Thanks for visiting! -Craig Tillmann 

Classic Coaches Corner #2 - Richie Moran

Classic Coaches Corner #1 - Bob Scott





        • My son Josh Dennis played for Tony at Duke 86-90! Having grown up in Ithaca, NY and played at IHS my 3 children always played with Tony sticks ! They were the best .?

          Jim Dennis
        • Christine, thank you for sharing this story of your beloved brother. I have heard about the Cullen pocket but don’t know much about it. Perhaps some veteran stringers have. There are stringing and classic stick groups on FB. The guys at (About>contact us) might be able to help. If I find something I will post it here. I guess my blog doesn’t do message replies. Sorry I did not see this sooner. Very best regards, Craig

          Craig Tillmann
        • See my baby brother honored as a coaching classic is making me a tad weepy. Thank you! I remember him telling me once, “I’m not fast. But I play smart and that makes the difference.”

          Also, do you know if the Cullen pocket is still being strung by anyone? He invented it when he was in high school and had a thriving business for years. I remember one year he was commissioned to make the sticks for the USA All Stars team. When he delivered them, one of the players told him they were the best sticks he’d ever used. Tony, who was still in high school, just beamed when he told us. “He’s one of the best players in the country! And he thinks MY stick is the best!”

          Christine Bravo-Cullen

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