On the first full day of spring in 2006, John Danowski walked toward Duke University’s lacrosse practice field through a cold rain that occasionally turned to wet snow flurries. He thought that Cornell University might have an advantage against Duke in the weather.
Danowski had coached for 30 years in New York state and had just started his 21st season as Hofstra University’s head lacrosse coach. Today he was between Hofstra contests with Princeton three days before and Notre Dame in four days. He had traveled south to see his son play. Matt Danowski, a Duke junior, was a leader on a team that had been runner-up for an NCAA championship in the previous season and was a favorite to win in 2006.
Duke had played seven games, six of them in Durham and the other in California, winning six. Duke’s only loss had come in overtime, as had Hofstra’s, but the Duke games had been a lot warmer.
Danowski knew New York springs. His father, Ed Danowski, son of a Long Island farmer, was the first in his family to go to college. He starred in football and coached at Fordham before and after playing in the NFL, then settled on the island in East Meadow, where he taught for 23 years and raised a family.
John Danowski grew up respecting teachers, remembering his father as one who understood his “role as developing his kids … and he was very humble about that. You never knew he was a professional football player or a coach at Fordham.”
“A lot of who I am is steeped in the East Meadow culture. All I heard around the dinner table was talk about football, lacrosse, basketball, students, kids and families.”
From 1969-1972, John Danowski led the East Meadow High School lacrosse team on Long Island, winning two Nassau County championships. He was also an outstanding football quarterback – and an accomplished student who particularly liked science.
In 1972 he went to Rutgers in an “athletic world that is not the world we know today.” He had considered Penn and Yale, but tuition was more than his family could afford. Rutgers gave him a football scholarship and a chance to play lacrosse too.
The adjustment wasn’t easy. He struggled with the size and complexity of the university – lectures by professors he sometimes saw only on television monitors, classroom work with teaching assistants, science labs in buildings across campus. He remembered crying when it was time to return to campus for final exams after Christmas, thinking he “wasn’t college material. I was a mess. … I struggled.” Like many insecure, homesick freshmen before him, he came to understand that he could do the work and that he belonged. After that, he decided on Environmental Science as his major, with the belief that, like his father, he would some day teach.
From 1973-76, he established Rutgers lacrosse records that endured for decades.
Captain of the 1974 team Arthur “Artie” M. Diamond, now a justice of the State of New York’s Nassau County Supreme Court, remembered Danowski as a tireless worker: “We had a two-time All-American defenseman, Eddie Haugevik. … [In practice] my recollection was that [Danowski] would carry the ball three or four steps and then Eddie would take it away from him. … He would never complain, he would never change, he would never mope. He got frustrated, but he made himself better. … He was the best feeder I ever saw.”
At some point in the years between New Brunswick, N.J., and that cold spring day in Durham, John Danowski figured out that at Rutgers he never fully learned to accept what he was and was not. He came to value players who could fill a role that is something less than they wanted. It is a lesson he tries to teach to his own players, most of whom arrive after secondary school stardom.
The last game
Three decades after leaving Rutgers, he watched the Duke lacrosse team in the rain-snow. The game was sloppy in every sense – wet, poorly played and slow.
Something was wrong: He recognized unfocused play that came from a lack of concentration. Despite Duke’s talent advantage, the teams were tied with just under 13 minutes to go when the Blue Devils’ defense collapsed, at one point making mistakes that led to three quick Big Red goals. Danowski was ready to leave well before Cornell completed its 11-7 win.
After the game, he said his good-byes to his son, many of his teammates, and the coaches. Then he set off for Long Island thinking about how his Hofstra Pride would deal with Notre Dame on the same day his wife and daughter would be in North Carolina to see Duke’s next game against Georgetown.
As he left, he had absolutely no idea that he had just seen the last Duke game for close to 11 months or that when the team next played, he would be its coach.
Three days after the Cornell game, a good deal of the American public learned what Duke lacrosse players had known as they played: Unidentified team members had been accused of a sexual assault at a March 13 off-campus team party, and Durham District Attorney Michael Nifong was investigating. For months, the story was a national phenomenon. At Duke no one had experienced anything like it. The university had dealt with the 24/7 news cycle and the speed at which the internet conducted it, but never for such an intense and long period.
From late March until mid-May, television uplink trucks packed campus parking lots while national correspondents and talk-show hosts literally begged for access to university leaders and lacrosse players, as well as other members of the Duke community.
Nor did the story go away when the students did in May. It continued to be national news for a full year, reappearing sporadically among the top stories and close to constantly in gossip-driven talk shows and columns. Even years later, it still fuels some Internet blogs, is the subject of new books and is referenced in news accounts of racial prejudice, college athletic scandals and prosecutorial misconduct.
Many versions of the story played daily in the media, inflaming the Duke campus and Durham communities. University leaders tried to deal with the incident and the growing fallout from the coverage without fully understanding what had – and had not – happened.
On March 25, as the visiting Georgetown lacrosse team warmed up on Duke’s field, Duke Athletic Director Joe Alleva announced that the game and the next one would be forfeited. In the stands were John Danowski’s wife, Trish, and daughter, Kate. On the field for Georgetown was Cullen Molinari, a freshman midfielder from Manhasset, N.Y., whose high school lacrosse-playing brother, Terrence, had decided to attend Duke in the next year. Duke freshman Ned Crotty of New Vernon, N.J., the fourth child in his family to attend the university, was in uniform with the team and about to take the field, when they were called to a meeting room and told the news.
From that point on, the story dominated the headlines and nightly newscasts. Some 88 of approximately 1,800 Duke faculty members endorsed a campus newspaper advertisement that appeared to assume the lacrosse players were guilty. The university’s vice president for student affairs warned lacrosse players and other students about threats of drive-by shootings.
At a news conference on April 5, Duke President Richard H. Brodhead called for the formation of five committees to study the situation after he and Alleva announced that the 2006 Duke lacrosse season was canceled and that coach Mike Pressler had resigned.
When the team was told about the end of its season and coach’s tenure, Matt Danowski remembered that they previously had been told “just to tell the truth, and everything would be fine. [We did] but it seemed like everything just got worse. … It was like a bad movie we couldn’t get out of.”
Crotty remembers anger as well as sadness. “I lost it,” he said. “I was bawling. And he [Pressler] said it was going to get a whole lot worse before it got better.”
It was not just the season, but the entire program, that was at risk: Senior Deputy Director of Athletics Chris Kennedy, who had been the closest department administrator to the team and its coaches, believed “there was a good possibility there would not be a program.
“The last thing any of us thought we could do was predict the future – we couldn’t predict what was going to happen in the next 24 hours,” he remembered. “I thought for awhile that perceptions were running so strongly in a certain direction that the pressure to eliminate the program would become overwhelming. That more than anything else would be the reason not to reinstate it.”
“Everybody and nobody”
On April 17 two players – sophomores Reade Seligmann of Essex Falls, N.J., and Collin Finnerty of Garden City, N.Y. – were indicted and arrested for first-degree rape, forcible rape, first-degree sexual offense and kidnapping. It was known that similar charges were being considered for other team members.
Art Chase, Duke’s assistant director of athletics/external affairs, characterized the team then as “a group of 18-22 year olds [going] through something that, to be honest, I don’t think they understood completely. … They went from bewildered and confused in March to anger after [the April 5 actions].”
Asked years later who the team blamed and who they trusted, Kennedy replied, “Everybody and nobody.”
Between the cancellation of the season and the beginning of May, all team members were told that they could seek transfer to other institutions, where they would be eligible to play in the next year. The team met alone and its rising senior leaders all vowed to stay, no matter what university leaders decided about the lacrosse program.
Matt Danowski, one of those leaders, remembered the sense of his teammates: “We would play with just 12 guys, or we would play as a club team and do the best we could. We couldn’t let three years of work go down the drain.”
Seven high school seniors who had accepted Duke’s offer of places on the 2006-07 team were told that they were released from their Duke commitments, so they would be eligible to play elsewhere in the year ahead.
“Too much to lose”
Some 500 miles away on Long Island, John Danowski was leading his Hofstra Pride to what would be its best season. On the day of Duke’s forfeit to Georgetown, Hofstra had defeated Notre Dame. That night he spoke with his son, who told him that he was all right and as far as he knew nothing had happened at the party.
“I’ve been around college athletics long enough to know there could have been one guy … but it just didn’t make sense,” John Danowski remembered thinking.
“Not at Duke, not with those kids – too much character, too much to lose, too much of everything.”
A Hofstra victory over Sacred Heart brought the team’s record to 8-1 on the day Duke shut down its season and ended coach Pressler’s tenure.
“There was not a lot of joy in winning because my heart was here,” coach Danowski recalled from his Duke office seven and a half years later. “In a snapshot, you have your son who was first team All-American as a sophomore, who is now entering the back half of his career. … He loves it, is making friends, and just having this great experience, and it all comes crashing down. … All of a sudden at a place that he thought was the greatest place in the world, everybody’s turning on him.”
The coach was less worried about his son’s safety than his growing anger and “distrust of authority figures: police, administrators, people who rushed to judgment.”
In early May in Durham, on a day when the New Black Panthers demonstrated at Duke, the university released the first of the reports announced a month before. The “Ad Hoc Lacrosse Review Committee” was led by Duke Law professor James Coleman. Among his report’s findings was that despite a record of “irresponsible alcohol consumption” over the past five years, “The members of the Duke Lacrosse team have been academically and athletically responsible students.”
The committee’s first recommendation was “Continuance of the Men’s Lacrosse Team with appropriate oversight.”
A day later, District Attorney Nifong narrowly won the democratic primary election, all but assuring that he would keep his job in November. On May 15, just graduated senior and team co-captain David Evans of Bethesda, Md., became the third lacrosse player to be indicted. After he was formally charged, Evans told reporters: “I am innocent. Reade Seligmann is innocent. Collin Finnerty is innocent. You have been told some fantastic lies. And I look forward to watching them unravel in the weeks to come, as they already have in the weeks past, and the truth will come out.”
His season ended, John Danowski followed the Duke situation. He was aware that the university’s administration was considering the program’s future and that a decision was imminent. Before the decision came, a team parent called Danowski and speculated that if the team were reinstated, it would need a new coach and that Danowski “was the only guy these guys would play for.”
He began to think about it. He talked with his wife. He talked with his son. He talked with his closest friends. He talked with the team’s lawyer. He talked with former coach Pressler. Most said he should pursue the job if it became available – Trish’s rationale was if you have a chance to help your son, you have to do it.
On June 5, Brodhead and Alleva announced that the men’s lacrosse program would resume in the fall under “a strict new standard of behavior that the players had drafted and with stronger administrative oversight of the program.”
Alleva introduced former Duke player and current assistant coach Kevin Cassese as the team’s interim coach. He also said that Duke planned to conduct a national search for a permanent head coach.
Danowski gets the job
Danowski called Alleva to say he was interested if Duke was. Alleva was interested. Kennedy, a key member of the search committee, called to encourage him to apply. In mid-June Alleva called his counterpart at Hofstra to ask permission to talk with Danowski about the Duke job. The coach had already told his athletic director that he would apply and in turn had been told that “it would be good if he got the job.”
In July, Danowski came to Duke for interviews, a process that ended with a meeting with all members of the search committee that had very little to do with lacrosse. “It was all about culture, discipline, behavior,” Danowski recalls. “Nothing about recruiting, nothing about lacrosse – except at the end of it, I think Joe Alleva or Chris Kennedy asked, ‘what kind of offense do you like to run?’”
Kennedy remembered that too, as well as that Danowski was the only candidate he had ever interviewed who appeared to have read the college catalogue and wanted to talk about it.
Professor of biology Kathleen Smith, faculty athletics representative and search committee member, recalled his interview as showing that “he was extraordinarily the right person at the right time. … I don’t think that he had talked to us for more than three minutes, when [I thought] how soon can you come?”
After the committee interview, he met with university leaders, including Duke’s president. Before the day ended, he was offered the position. He thought about it and made some calls, one of them to his closest friend, Artie Diamond, a Hofstra law school graduate, who reminded him of their conversations about this very possibility when Diamond had told him, “You’re 52 years old. You’ve built this thing. … you’re completely in control of everything that goes on [at Hofstra]. ACC lacrosse. … do you really want to start that whole thing when every week you’re under a microscope?”
Seven years later, Diamond added: “So I wasn’t really in favor of it. I was worried he was going to be surrounded by people who didn’t see lacrosse and the world the way he did.”
Danowski had those reservations too, but if you have a chance to help your son, you have to do it.
On July 21, 2006, he became the head coach of a very well known program with a very uncertain future, and a few weeks later he left alone for Durham. He and Trish had decided that she would remain on Long Island for the year. He called the 2006 players, and found that all planned to return to Duke. He called Parker McKee of Old Greenwich, Conn., Max Quinzani of Duxbury, Mass., and Terrence Molinari – the three of seven 2006 recruits who had decided to come to Duke, and he began to help assistants Cassese and Chris Gabrielli recruit more.
“The kids we were recruiting were tough-minded kids,” he remembered. “We admitted things weren’t back to normal, that they would be scrutinized 24-7. I think this appealed to a certain [kind of] young man who had this character that said, ‘I’d like to be a part of that. It doesn’t scare me and I’m OK with it.’ It became almost an asset and allowed us to get great young men.
“The parents were a little less sure, but they became convinced.”
During the late summer and fall, he returned to Long Island just a couple of times, but he thought of it often – not just about his wife, with whom he talked by telephone nearly every day, but the years that had led him to Duke.
Thirty years before, with a Rutgers bachelor of science degree, he was accepted into a master’s level counseling and college student development program at Long Island University’s C.W. Post. At the same time, he found a job as a varsity football assistant coach at nearby Jericho High School, on the island’s North Shore.
Multiple roles were his life for the next six years. During that time, Danowski earned a graduate degree and Columbia credits toward another. He was a residence counselor at a third university. He worked at seven different public schools, teaching at the high school or junior high school levels in four. He coached two seasons of high school football, three of high school lacrosse, one of high school basketball, one of junior high lacrosse and another of football.
Under a magnifying glass
In the fall of 2006 he had new challenges at Duke. He spent the remainder of the summer and the entire fall becoming a part of the university. He tried to go everywhere – other athletic events, lectures, meetings. He became involved in local charities, volunteering his own and his team’s time. When there was an opportunity to learn about Duke or to be seen as a part of it, he took it.
He adapted to succeed.
He felt like he was under a magnifying glass 24 hours a day, and his response was to be “visible, alive, accessible,” which he saw as important to his job as actual coaching.
For the most part, the players remaining from the previous spring were just glad to be back on the field. Matt Danowski remembered the first practices as a feeling of release when he could just think about lacrosse: “Lots of energy … everybody just trying to get better.”
For teammate Casey Carroll of Baldwin, N.Y., things did feel different: “I think everybody felt that everything had not come and gone, but that it was something we were still going through. … It affected how we approached life in general at the time.”
Molinari, participating in his first Duke practices, saw the returning players as “guys who had been there: hungry, focused, on a mission.”
Coach Danowski saw that they needed to play again, and so he started to look for game situations “right away, which I normally don’t like to do, but the guys hadn’t played lacrosse. We had our first practice on Labor Day. [In early October] We even scrimmaged on Long Island.”
At the same time, he also saw that they needed more than just to play lacrosse. That fall, the spring of 2006 was still nearly a daily topic: Three players remained under indictment with their trial expected; “60 Minutes” aired a long segment on the situation, and other national media continued to devote considerable time and space to it; District Attorney Nifong was elected with less than a majority of votes cast; evidence that the accused players were guilty was being regularly discredited or scientifically challenged.
None of this was lost on the players, some of whom were drawn back into the judicial proceedings. Molinari recalled: “There was always media, questions, guys missing practice because they had to go to court. … We used lacrosse to block that out.”
“We trust you”
Danowski understood that a first-year student would have had more success in blocking out 2006 than the upperclassmen, and that just being on the field again wasn’t going to be enough. He spent a lot of time simply talking with his players.
“We told them, ‘Look, we trust you, and we trust you’re going to make good decisions. And we’re not taking that away from you – we want you to experience college like any other college kid. But if … you get in any kind of trouble, not only would that be a poor reflection on the program, but on the three young men and their families that are under a lot pressure right now.’ They didn’t need any other motivation. These were really loyal kids.”
To combat cynicism and anger, both of which continued to be fed by growing questions about the veracity of a public official in making and sustaining increasingly unsupported accusations with apparent impunity, Danowski instituted an exercise that he conducted regularly:
Telling the team to sit – not stand as they would during the lacrosse instruction that was part of every practice – he might simply ask them “what is pissing you off today?” The next day, he might ask “what makes you happy?” – particularly if they clearly weren’t happy at the time. Or variations on the theme. The idea was to get their emotion, often anger, out in the group, where it could be heard by teammates, or to find alternatives to negativity. It might not have been advanced therapeutic analysis, but at the end of lacrosse practices it left them feeling better, which was the point.
To Crotty, “Everything about [Danowski] was comforting. He knew what we had gone through, and there was no way that anyone outside the program could have known.”
Danowski made his motives clear: “If you’re angry, it’s OK. … just don’t keep it inside. Talk to each other, talk to a professional, talk to a priest, talk to a counselor, talk to your parents. If you’re angry at some people here, I want you to think about something – did those people go to Duke? The answer was ‘no they didn’t.’ How you respond to this will be [the] legacy.
“… You can be angry. You can be angry at the system, you can be angry at Mr. Nifong, you can be angry at people that work for Duke, but at the end of the day, you are Duke.”
Back on the field
In January 2007, Duke’s lacrosse team began practicing for the new season.
On February 24, the team played Dartmouth in its first intercollegiate game in 11 months. The stands were full; the game was televised; credentials were issued to 70 media representatives from around the country. The stadium had been locked down the night before the game and searched by bomb-sniffing dogs the next morning.
Coach Danowski, now 61, recalled the dogs also checking the locker room and a police riot squad setting up headquarters in the team’s conference room. All of this in the midst of “great joy. … John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ playing and the whole team singing it. Just the joy of playing again – being together as a team and being whole and getting a chance to compete. For people who don’t know or understand athletics. … well, it was a moment I’ll never forget.”
When the team ran on to Koskinen Field, about 6,500 spectators – four to five times more than normally attended lacrosse games – stood and cheered wildly. A few wept, including Chris Kennedy.
“I surprised myself,” he recalled. After the game he told a reporter: “I don’t think people understood the extent of emotional and psychological damage to these kids in all kinds of ways: guilt, survivor’s guilt, remorse, anger, righteous indignation and everything else.”
Co-captain Danowski remembered: “It felt like such a big deal. … just to get back on the field and take another step toward normalcy. It wasn’t just our first home game; it was so much bigger than that.”
Duke scored first. Then Dartmouth had three straight goals before Duke scored the next five for a lead it never relinquished on the way to a 17-11 victory.
“It was really cool: It was a great crowd on a beautiful day; it was on TV, and our team won,” coach Danowski remembered. “We played Denver the next day – rain, cold, maybe 100 people in the stands.”
They had won four of five games by March 20 when they lost to Cornell, a day less than a year after Hofstra coach Danowski had watched them in the wet snow. Four days later they traveled to Washington and defeated Georgetown, marking the anniversary of the canceled game that had ended their 2006 season.
On April 11, the team went to Raleigh to hear North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announce that all charges were being dropped against the three Duke players, who he declared “innocent of these charges.” Three days later, an overtime win against Virginia brought the team’s record to 10-2.
“What a week,” coach Danowski told the media. “You try to pretend that this is not going to be difficult, that, ‘It’s just a game. Let’s just play, and it will be business as usual.’ It was not business as usual. The kids were exhausted.”
A tournament run
A few weeks later, Duke was in the NCAA tournament. From 1986-2006 at Hofstra, he had to find and develop the resources to rebuild an entire program with the potential to succeed. In nine months at Duke, starting with the resources to contend for a championship, his job had been to convince the members of his team that they were worthy and could succeed.
Diamond, who had been dubious about the wisdom of Danowski accepting the job, saw that he had been wrong: “With his counseling skills, and his teaching skills, and his parenting skills, he felt that he could really go there and help put things back together. He felt he had something to give there. … If Duke had just hired another coach, somebody who was superb in X’s and O’s, and superb in recruiting, it wouldn’t have done nearly for the program what he was able to do.”
Duke won its first two NCAA games before heading to the semifinals in Baltimore to meet Cornell before 52,000 fans. Crotty recalled: “That was far and away the biggest crowd I’d ever played in front of . … I remember running out there against Cornell, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh My God, there are people cheering for us!’
“In May of ’06 at Duke, I’m wondering if I’ll be able to transfer, then fast forward to May of ’07, and I’m playing in the Final Four.”
A 12-11 win sent the Blue Devils to the championship final against Johns Hopkins. Former coach Pressler was there. Before the game, the Duke players asked the coaches for a few minutes alone. Coach Danowski told them that was fine with him – that it was their team and he was just its caretaker. Danowski later speculated that whatever was said made them “too emotional,” because by half time Hopkins led 10-4. During the half, he told them, “You’re getting your ass kicked. You’re going to lose 20-8. Just play.”
But the Blue Devils came back, scoring six straight goals in the third period. By early in the final period Duke tied the game before Johns Hopkins added a final tally with just over three minutes left, then held on to win the national championship by a single goal.
Crotty, who had three goals, remembered: “Any time you lose, it hurts, but to lose in a national championship game. … I was an absolute wreck. I don’t think it was just that [loss] – it was going back to the year prior, where I had been.”
Matt Danowski “felt like we’d let each other down. … just empty. [But] if we had won, would it have been any different? Yeah, maybe for a week or two weeks, but remembering where that team came from and where it got to, it was amazing in itself.”
At the end, just about everyone was crying, including their coach:
“At the time it was about winning – for sure at the end. The very thing I tried to protect the players from was not to get caught up in that whole endgame. And I was caught up in that endgame.
“I felt like I had failed. I felt lousy. But all that had happened was remarkable. … we would have wept even if we had won. … But looking back, I think I needed to lose … in order to win.”
Ned Crotty had been right when he saw and heard some – actually, very likely most – of the huge Baltimore crowds “cheering for us.” After more than a year, much of the higher education community, the media, sports fans, even a large share of the general public had not just reversed opinion about Duke’s lacrosse team, they had rooted for it.
Victory off the court
Three days after the loss in the finals, the Duke lacrosse program won a very large victory when the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to 33 members of the 2006 team, a year that could be taken at Duke or another school.
The NCAA decision allowed a core of players who had experienced 2006 to remain on the team, some for as long as another three years. It also made Duke a favorite, bringing the pressures that came with that expectation.
And 2006 lingered: In June of 2007, District Attorney Nifong announced his resignation just before he was suspended and a few weeks later disbarred.
Duke reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the indicted players, publicly recognizing that the “young men and their families have been the subject of intense scrutiny that has taken a heavy toll.” Later in the summer, Kevin Cassese left to become the head coach at Lehigh and was replaced at Duke by Ron Caputo, Danowski’s assistant at Hofstra; Collin Finnerty decided he would attend Loyola in Maryland; Reade Seligmann announced he would go to Brown University.
When the Duke team reassembled that fall, there were new players Danowski had recruited and several, including his son, who he had not expected to return when he was doing the recruiting. He introduced the new ones and reintroduced those who returned to his expectations, which included community service, being active and visible in the larger Duke community, and never forgetting that they were still under a microscope.
Asked if those expectations represented a fundamental change in the Duke program, Danowski was circumspect: “[My leadership] was a little different, but every coach has got his own subtleties, nuances and vocabulary – the way they approach the job every day. It didn’t matter what had happened – I was sensitive to what had happened, but we were going to do things the way I was used to doing things. So not only did I have to indoctrinate some of the students to that, but the coaching staff as well. . . [The changes] were just what would make the most sense.”
Seven members of the 2006 team were on the roster in 2010, when Duke and Danowski won a national championship in overtime against Notre Dame. The Devils also reached the Final Four in each of the next four years, winning national championships in 2013 and 2014. Going into this year’s tournament, Duke is 141-37 since 2006.
Peter Vaughn worked as Director of Development Communications and then as Executive Director of Alumni and Development Communications at Duke for 13 years until his retirement in 2009. Previously he had been Director of College Relations at Ithaca College for 8 years and College Editor at Bowdoin College for 10 years. This story is part of a longer piece about Duke lacrosse and John Danowski.