- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

DURHAM, N.C. — Well after their season was shattered, their veteran coach was forced from his job and their faces were plastered all over incessant cable talk shows, the Duke lacrosse team tried to consider its future.

Would they be back on the field in 2007? Could they overcome a rape investigation-turned-witch hunt into a crime they knew never occurred? Would things ever revert to the relative anonymity they had enjoyed?

And who could possibly lead them if the program were ever reinstated?

The last one was easy. Players’ thoughts easily meandered to the father of one of their own, a man with more than two decades of Division I coaching experience and a far more intimate knowledge of the crucible he would face than any other potential candidate.

Hundreds of miles away from the center of Duke maelstrom, that man — John Danowski — was just finishing an emotional spring. As the coach at Hofstra, he led the Pride to a No. 2 ranking and a trip to the NCAA quarterfinals. As a Duke lacrosse parent, he watched his son Matt and all of his Duke teammates stand trial in the court of public opinion.

John Danowski couldn’t help but get caught up in discussions about the case’s legal ramifications. But during one of these talks, he was floored by the suggestion of Larry Lamade, the father of Duke midfielder Peter Lamade.

“He said ‘There’s only one guy these kids could really play for,’ and I said ‘Who’s that?’ and he said ‘You,’ ” Danowski recalled late last month. “I remember really being ‘Whoa,’ taking a step back and saying ‘Wow, thank you.’ ”

His hiring wouldn’t come for two more months, and even then he made sure to secure a blessing from Matt, who said he would be perfect for the job. But now, a year after the lost season, father and son have led the Blue Devils to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and a first-round date with Providence on Saturday.

Duke is two victories from a final four trip and two more from its first national title. Yet the Blue Devils already delivered a remarkable bounty for their new coach, who took an immense professional gamble for the chance to guide his ultra-talented son and his teammates through perhaps the most important season Duke would ever face.

“If you think back to last June, July, August, nobody knew and nobody could tell you for sure how it would work out,” Danowski said. “It was a leap of faith, but it was personal.”

The working relationship

It was personal because of his son. John Danowski had slipped down to North Carolina several times throughout Matt’s career to watch him play, sometimes scheduling Hofstra’s games on Friday nights to balance his job and his family.

But after the program was re-instated and Duke made its hire, there was an adjustment period for everyone, including the star attackman whose father suddenly would be around much more.

“It took a little while to get used to,” Matt Danowski said. “I realize he’s in Durham and he’s on campus and I’m going to see him and stuff like that but I think I’ve tried to keep my senior year to me and my friends who I spent my first three years with. He’s kind of been so involved with everything on campus, it’s pretty tough to spend time together.”

Their personalities — and skills — helped them maximize the time they share on the lacrosse field. John Danowski is a gregarious character who had lived on Long Island nearly his entire life, and his optimism helped Duke cope with the indictments of three teammates — David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann — on charges that were later dropped.

Matt Danowski is a magician with a lacrosse stick and arguably the nation’s most complete player. The occasional brashness he displayed earlier in his career is tempered by his on- and off-field experiences.

Slick passes and pinpoint shots are his norm, as is a relentlessness encapsulated in last month’s ACC semifinals. With Duke already up 12-6 with eight minutes left, he pressured North Carolina goalie Grant Zimmerman into a turnover that led to an easy score.

There is a coach-star vibe at play in addition to the father-son dynamic. And John Danowski ruefully remembers his days as a high school quarterback when he wanted no part of the advice dispensed by his father, Ed, who led the NFL in passing in 1935 and 1938.

“Listen, not every day is roses,” John said. “He’s a great all-around player, a great athlete, he cares, he’s passionate. He plays the game in every aspect. He plays it from start to finish. He rides, picks up groundballs, he takes no plays off. But he’s stubborn and ornery and prideful and butts head with the coach. At those points, it really challenges my maturity as to what do I do. He’s a player but also my son.”

Matt’s also a senior, a captain, an All-American and the likely winner of the Tewaaraton Trophy, college lacrosse’s highest honor. During practice and games, those roles take precedence over family.

That was especially true shortly after John’s hiring, when the team was trying to adjust to a dramatic change in style from intense former coach Mike Pressler.

“I listen to him, but if it’s not what I totally agree with, I’ll tell him just because I need to show the other guys on the team that you don’t have to listen to everything, that you can speak for yourself,” Matt said. “It doesn’t have to be ‘Yes, sir.’ I try to lead the way a little bit, fighting back a little bit just to show the guys they can, too.”

Added senior midfielder Ed Douglas: “[Matt’s] sort of the interlocutor for us. But it’s never been ‘Hey guys, this is what he really means’ or ‘Hey guys, this is what he wants out of us.’ It’s always sort of [a] more casual way in which he communicated that. But it certainly helps to have someone who’s seen him in action before.”

A rewarding season

Duke enters the NCAA tournament at 14-2, three victories shy of the 2005 school record. Matt Danowski, who has 36 goals and 36 assists, was the ACC’s player of the year and ACC tournament MVP. John Danowski was the league’s coach of the year.

There is a convenience factor for Matt, who graduates this month with a history degree. He has a safety valve in the event of car trouble, an extra apartment to visit if he’s in need of a meal and easy access to things like a birth certificate, a necessity when he applied for a passport.

Their lives outside of lacrosse don’t mix much more than before.

“I’ve taken him to a couple places to go eat, but his social life, I let him fend for himself,” Matt said.

That is a significant change for John Danowski, who moved to Durham alone since he had no idea last summer how long he would stay. His wife, Tricia, still lives on Long Island with their daughter, Katie, who is student-teaching while finishing a master’s degree at Hofstra.

It has left John on his own for the first time in decades, but the payoff of watching his son skillfully handle situations with either a defenseman or a dozen television cameras in his face has trumped the hassles.

So has the play and actions of a team with so much to prove after last spring’s lost season.

“I have never spent a year like this in my life,” John said. “This has been unequivocally the most rewarding year I have ever spent as an educator, as a coach. Its been phenomenal on so many levels. I’ve experienced a tremendous amount of emotions. I’ve been lonely. I miss my wife. I miss my dog. … It was new, exciting, different, weird, never hard, challenging, unique.”

The final challenge is the chase for a championship. John Danowski’s Hofstra teams made eight NCAA tournaments but never a final four, and he watched with a bit of envy as Matt played in the title game two years ago in Philadelphia.

In a few weeks, they might make it to Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium together, an emphatic answer to whether Duke lacrosse would ever truly be back.

“I think it would be awesome,” Matt said. “The way he was jealous of me two years ago was the way I was jealous of him last year getting to the quarterfinals and having a shot at the final four. To do it together would be something really pretty special.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide