November 28, 2007

Nov. 28, 2007

Note: On Monday, Duke men's lacrosse coach John Danowski was announced as Lacrosse magazine's 2007 Person of the Year. The following feature appears in LM's December issue, which includes a comprehensive 2007 Year in Review package. LM is a member benefit of US Lacrosse. Click here to join.

by Matt DaSilva, Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

A year ago, lacrosse was a dirty word in Durham.

It's hard to believe now as we settle into wrought-iron chairs outside the dining area of the Washington-Duke Inn and Golf Club on Duke University's West Campus, and John Danowski looks completely at peace in his pale yellow sweater, sleeves rolled at the forearms. Brian, the waiter whom Danowski calls by his first name, collects the bill and leaves us on a ridge overlooking the 18th hole.

Danowski never got golf. For someone who grew up playing "ballistic" sports, whose father was an NFL quarterback, it was too slow. But he came to appreciate the solitude, how you could play the back nine and discuss nothing but gradients, greens and bunkers. It was all about the game.

Lacrosse used to be that way.

But somewhere between the ACC Shop in Raleigh-Durham Airport, where a merchant hawks Duke lacrosse T-shirts to passersby, and media vigils at his team's 7 a.m. practices, Danowski saw the sport at Ground Zero. In these times, solitude was unsettling, especially in the beginning.

"There was a time in October when I felt really isolated," Danowski says. "I said to Kerstin Kimel, `Either they really trust me, or nobody cares. Because I feel all alone.'"

Kimel, Duke's women's lacrosse coach and vocal supporter and friend of Danowski's predecessor Mike Pressler, became Danowski's emotional crutch. She understood him, and cared about his -- formerly Mike's -- players. "Mike and I were so very close. It's so hard," Kimel says, "but even people here at Duke now talk about how great John is."

A Dutiful Stepfather

DeMarcus Nelson drains a 15-footer. The Duke basketball captain thinks he's alone -- that is, until he squares up to the hoop, raises his elbows to eye level, and sees Danowski beaming.

"Hickory!" Danowski bellows, a nod to "Hoosiers," the iconic movie about Indiana basketball and Hickory High.

"He does that every time," says Art Chase, Duke's director of sports information, bemoaning the all-too-predictable coach.

Danowski is very much at home in Durham and at Duke. His wife, Patricia, moved here from Long Island after their daughter, Kate, finished graduate school at Hofstra in the spring. They live in an apartment less than a mile from campus. He brings his camcorder to Red Rockets soccer games, where 4-year-olds Mac Kimel (Kerstin's son) and Ryan Collins (son of basketball assistant Chris Collins) remind him of the purity of sport.

Seventeen months ago, Danowski inherited a hornet's nest. When he was hired July 21, 2006, to helm a reinstated Duke lacrosse program, the details of Durham district attorney Mike Nifong's overzealous prosecution in the criminal cases against former players David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann had yet to become public. They faced the prospect of a trial and imprisonment for crimes they did not commit.

Crystal Gail Mangum, a black stripper the team hired for a March 13 party, claimed to be raped and brutalized. Despite her checkered past, a lack of DNA evidence and the players' cooperation in a corrupt investigation, the story was too salacious, the political motives too strong. Pressler was forced to resign in April, and the team was suspended for the remainder of the 2006 season. After Finnerty and Seligmann, and later Evans, were indicted, Duke reinstated men's lacrosse under a player-drafted code of conduct.

Those left behind were saddled with survivor's guilt.

"It could have been any one of them," says Duke senior associate athletic director Chris Kennedy. "There's this guilt associated with not being one of the guys that was picked, and you felt guilty that you were relieved that you weren't picked."

The guilt extended to their former coach. Pressler spent 16 years building Duke lacrosse from the fringe into a national title contender.

"The ghost of Mike Pressler was very palpable throughout last year," Kennedy says.

In one of his first public appearances following his dismissal, Pressler, now at Division II Bryant University, spoke at the 2007 US Lacrosse National Convention in Philadelphia. Danowski introduced him to a standing ovation:

"I work at Duke University, but this is Mike Pressler's team."

In Pressler's messy divorce from Duke, Danowski played the role of a program's dutiful stepfather.

"That was hard, but true," Danowski says now. "His wife spoke to our team. His daughter would hug me after games. I don't know if I could do that. I'm not as strong as Maggie Pressler."

"He entrusted his son [Duke senior Matt Danowski] to me. We had a built-in relationship," Mike Pressler says. "John was the right candidate for that job at the right time."

Pressler's presence would resonate throughout the 2007 season. After Duke lost to Johns Hopkins in the NCAA championship game May 28 in Baltimore, cameras panned the Blue Devils' locker room, where the coach and his former players purged their emotions on national TV.

There was closure. "It's John's team now," Pressler says.

In an exchange perhaps typifying Danowski's humility, he watched his son grip Pressler tight around the neck, head and shoulders, and cry.

A Father's Call to Duty

What if it was your son?

Danowski remembers well the public damnation of 2006. He trusted Matt when he said nothing happened at the party, and he did not visit Durham at any point between the Cornell game -- the Blue Devils' last before getting the ax -- and his interview that summer.

One time John called, and Matt said there was a white mobile dental truck outside his house. He was convinced it was undercover police, waiting for evidence to unhinge.

"Because I was close to the situation and I understood the hurt he was going through -- the embarrassment, the isolation and the betrayal -- why wouldn't a father try to make that right? I can't help you legally. I can't help you medically," John Danowski says. "But if it had to do with lacrosse, and if I really thought I could do some good, why wouldn't I?"

The man who meant to stay out of his son's way -- he let his assistants interview Matt during Hofstra's in-home recruiting visit -- got involved.

Parents and even Pressler lobbied for Danowski upon the program's reinstatement, though he had just signed new recruits at Hofstra. Once his interest in the position became public, Hofstra was prepared to part ways with its former assistant athletic director and longtime lacrosse coach. Danowski had no easy way out.

He says his honesty got him in trouble. When no comment would have sufficed, he felt obligated to tell the truth to recruits' parents, and to be consistent with the media -- traits that would serve him well in Durham.

The Restoration

Duke knew it was getting more than just a lacrosse coach in Danowski. He was a middle school science teacher, an athletic administrator and academic advisor. He had a master's degree in counseling. He ran residence halls and bartended on the side. That's how he met his wife, Patricia. "I gave her free beer," he says. "Don't tell the owner."

He became a high school teacher and coach. He became his father.

Ed Danowski won two NFL championships with the Giants in the `30s, coached football at Fordham University and moved to the high school ranks on Long Island after the Rams discontinued their program in 1954, the same year John was born.

"We've taped ankles, lined fields, fixed nets. My JV basketball team was 1-17," Danowski says. "Those experiences helped me prepare to be a better coach to face all sorts of situations.You start to understand the human element."

Once hired, Danowski went about rebuilding Duke lacrosse. It started with subtle changes -- a fresh coat of paint on the coach's office, inspirational phrases etched in the locker room, a shift to 7 a.m. practices, mandated community service hours. He tactfully broke players into smaller groups and met with them individually. He told them they were lucky to be Duke lacrosse players, because they had an opportunity to be excellent and do good in the eye of their detractors.

"He turned their attitudes on their heads," Kennedy says.

In Brad Ross, then a junior, Danowski saw a skilled player who needed confidence.

"I remember in the fall, [Danowski] sent me a text message that said something to the effect of, `You face off. You're playing first line. You're playing EMO. You deserve it. You earned it. Go out there and play with confidence.' I kept it in my phone for a long time," Ross says.

Danowski had the trust of the administration, which despite the white-hot spotlight left him and the staff alone. "We were surprised at how few people were poking their noses around," says assistant coach Chris Gabrielli.

Now he had the players' trust, too.

Danowski found the best way to get them to perform was to relax and not use lacrosse as a source of vindication. He instituted yoga. He played music during practice. If a player got down on himself, he'd hug him. Before games, he told jokes. Kennedy saw him play air guitar to The Who before the NCAA quarterfinal against North Carolina.

"Sometimes it's easy to listen to the coach yell at you and blow it off," says Ed Douglas, a captain in 2007. "But he has a way of making you feel like what you do here matters."

When Duke returned to the field Feb. 24, and 6,485 fans lined Koskinen Stadium to see them burst from an inflatable tunnel like superheroes, Kimel cried. But Douglas cites the team's lone regular-season loss to Loyola.

"We had a film session right after we lost, and he ripped us apart, but I could tell he was really hurting," Douglas says. "Our attitude after that was to pick him up, to let him know we really respect him."

"Nothing to Hide"

Away from the field, Danowski spent long hours rebuilding the program's image in the eyes of the Duke faculty and community. Though the case crumbled rapidly, there are those who adhere to Nifong's early branding of lacrosse players as "a bunch of hooligans." So he seldom turned down interview requests, going as far as to give out his cell phone number. The media, in turn, took a liking to the affable, humble 53-year-old.

Aaron Beard, a writer for the Associated Press, first contacted Danowski while he was still at Hofstra in April 2006, in the early days of the case. "He was striking," Beard says. "It was the first time someone said something positive, as opposed to a whirlwind of negative.

"He had the right touch."

ESPN's George Smith "spent so much time down here, he probably got a residence," Matt Danowski jokes. "People who we look at as celebrities or talking heads in the media, Dad can relate to."

While some cringed at the notion, John Danowski saw the media exposure as an opportunity.

"In this situation, being honest was the only way to deal with it, because people thought there was this cloak of secrecy. We were going to answer questions and be honest, because there was nothing to hide," he says. "And within all this, we could brag about the sport, talk about the team and talk about individuals."

Danowski took the same approach with Duke faculty and alumni, including members of the defamatory Group of 88. "I was a little surprised by his willingness to face right up and confront people who he felt were saying things that weren't appropriate or not accurate," Kennedy says.

Internally, the tide turned when Jay Bilas, who played basketball at Duke in the mid-1980s, graduated from the university's law school and currently serves as an ESPN analyst, addressed the team in the fall of 2006.

Bilas later became public in his support of the players. In a letter to Duke Magazine, he called for the dismissal of Duke President Richard Brodhead.

"[Bilas] told the kids if there's anything any of you need, your coach has my number, you give me a call," says Kimel, who remembers Danowski's enthusiasm about Bilas. "Every kid in that room felt like they could have called him."

Some believe Bilas' letter prompted Brodhead's public apology Sept. 29, 2007, for a "failure to reach out" in a "time of extraordinary peril" and "causing the families to feel abandoned when they were most in need of support."

A New Normal

This brisk morning of Oct. 31, players must report at 6:30 a.m., a half-hour early. Three hours later, they look exhausted. Apparently, Danowski does have a mean streak.

"Team stuff," Ross says.

It's Halloween, so the players are told for a second time this week to wear socially sensitive costumes.

"There's still an unbelievably critical eye of some people out there who are looking for that next guy to mess up, and to say, `See, I told you. Duke lacrosse players -- they're out of control,'" John Danowski says. "This year guys would like things to be back to the way they used to be, and it can never go back."

But there are signs of "a new normal," as Danowski calls it. The team's 2007 slogan, succisa virescit (Latin for "when cut down, it grows back stronger") is no longer emblazoned in the locker room. Naming rights to the squad room, where players, parents and coaches bore bad news and consoled each other in 2006, have been granted to a couple that made a $150,000 pledge to the athletic department's fundraising arm.

Lacrosse is no longer a dirty word in Durham.
* John Danowski Named LM Person of the Year
* DaSilva: Gospel of John
comments powered by Disqus

More Headlines