May 20, 2013

McLaughlin: Danowski's Duke Coaching Run Something Special

by Corey McLaughlin | | Twitter

With a unique personality and fundamental-based coaching approach, John Danowski had guided Duke to the final four in each of his seven seasons since taking over the wake of scandal in Durham.
© Peyton Williams

When you really start to think about it, the job that John Danowski has done at Duke probably deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame by itself.

He's guided the Blue Devils to seven straight final fours, which is a monumental accomplishment on its own in the 16-team bracket era. But remember the circumstances. Danowski left Long Island, where he was the successful head coach at Hofstra, to take over a Duke lacrosse program that had been dragged through a toxic wasteland of rape allegations, red-hot national media scrutiny and damaged reputations. They were coming off a season in 2006 that was canceled after eight games. It was hard for him not to take it all a little bit personally, what with his son Matt, then a Duke player and now assistant coach, getting caught up in it all.

For Duke to be playing on every Memorial Day weekend every year since? Wow. We're way beyond people bringing up the "Duke fifth-year players" argument. The current roster hasn't had connections to that time for a couple years. But at the time, nobody knew where the program would end up or in what condition.

And how Danowski and the Blue Devils have done it probably deserves to fill the pages of a coaching instructional book. By now, you know the story: Duke starts badly, in the wins-losses column, in February and then — poof! — the Blue Devils are one of the last four teams standing in May. But it's not magic.

I've spoken with Danowski at decent length about this before. It was in the preseason after final four appearance number five. What it comes down to is players playing as a team, not individuals. Simple, really, but a hard concept to implement every day. Danowski isn't afraid to make his opinions known about the summer club lacrosse circuit — how players can develop bad me-first habits that, sure, promote themselves but often not team concepts. He tries to break those habits down, often in fall ball or early in the season. He teaches fundamentals that perhaps go overlooked, but show up in big games in April in May. Eventually, everyone wants to win, right?

The importance of ground balls, clean exchanges between midfielders and attackmen, using both hands to pass and shoot, correct defensive positioning and proper shooting placement. These things, and other simple plays, should be mastered first before additional concepts are introduced. There are specialty boot camps at Duke during the season centered on a particular skill, like shooting, which is focused on until everyone gets it.

"We don't try to put in things that we're not ready for," Danowski said of the pre-season or early-season. "We don't really have as much in as we do later on, because we need to get better at the little things first. Then we add more detail each game out."

This is why Danowski's teams look like they're struggling early on. He re-enforced this idea again Sunday, after Duke beat Notre Dame for the third straight time in the post-season despite losing to the Irish in February in each of those three years.

"We try to teach the kids to be players," Danowski said in Patrick Stevens' game story. "We try to teach them to use both hands, to shoot with both hands, feed with both hands. We try to teach them to make decisions on their own and at the beginning of the year, that doesn't always work really well. Sometimes when you play teams with really good systems, those systems are better than our decision-making. But as our kids get stronger and learn to trust themselves and each other, we get better."

It's sort of a privilege that higher-level concepts will at some time be taught during the season, once trust has been established all around.

Overall, Danowski's seven Duke teams have gone 14-9 in February and 17-5 in the post-season. And in fact, they're getting worse at the beginning of each season. Duke had great starts in Danowski's first two years, going unbeaten in February. Counting only the last five seasons, the Blue Devils record drops to 10-9 in the second month of the year, with losing records in two of the last three years, including this one.

This year's slow start seemed to last longer than others when Duke's defense, in particular, was embarrassed in a 16-7 loss to Maryland on March 2. Duke was 2-4.

"Maybe if we kept losing they weren't going to listen to the coaches," Danowski said of his players. "Thankfully, they listened just enough."

There were added additional challenges with highly-respected defensive coordinator Chris Gabrielli having moved on to become head coach at Providence. But Danowski had dealt with talented assistants leaving before. His coaching tree has many branches.

Danowski has proven — for seven straight years — to know how to guide the Blue Devils to where everyone wants be heading into Memorial Day weekend, and he even led Duke to its first national title in 2010. And he's done so with a personality that's in many ways against the grain of his Division I coaching brethren. I mean, check out his now-defunct Twitter account to get an idea (tweeting about the Puppy Bowl during the Super Bowl power outage, for example). Danowski retired from the social media tool in February. We'll consider that an early-season loss, too. But as he's already shown, those losses don't mean much, or perhaps they mean everything, come May.

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