Lacrosse is a people game.
When John Danowski was hired by Duke University, I wasn't sure he was the right fit for the job. But after spending a day with him in Durham, N.C., I'm convinced he is the ideal person to move Duke lacrosse forward, to heal the wounds and to create a positive culture. This isn't about X's and O's. It's not about tactics or innovation. It's about people, relationships and being optimistic.
Danowski inherits a hornet's nest -- after this spring's scandal involving the alleged rape of an expotic dancer by three members of the Duke men's lacrosse team, the program has come under fire -- but welcomes the accountability.
"My dad was a teacher and a coach and my brother was a teacher and a coach," Danowski said. "I accept that right from the beginning that in this atmosphere the coach will be held accountable and I welcome the challenge. That's part of the excitement of being here. It's more than just winning and losing it's an opportunity to make a difference in a young man's life."
To understand John Danowski, you have to know his family. His father was an NFL quarterback in an era where professional players were heroes, but not paid the way they are today.
"My father was a product of the Depression," Danowski said. "Right after he played for the Giants, he enlisted in the Navy and he was an officer during World War II. The men of that generation experienced something that a lot of us struggled relating to. He was very quiet about some of the things about emotions and showing emotion. But you knew deep down that he was very loving and very caring and probably was a mush inside. To the exterior, to someone who didn't know him, he was a cigar-smoking, tobacco-chewing, spit on your shoes in practice if you don't do the right thing. And people feared him. But deep down, for those who got close to him, knew that he was a very caring man."
The lessons were many. Communication comes first, but picking and choosing when to input advice may be more important.
"Sometimes it's funny, I look back and I can't believe how I would treat him because he was a professional quarterback, and he would try to give me some pointers about playing quarterback and I was like, 'Dad what do you know.' I think about that now and I'm like, 'What a jerk I was,'" Danowski said. "But look at how I would treat [my son] Matt and very seldom offer him any advice because I knew that he wasn't going to listen, because I didn't listen really to my dad at that age. When he gets older, I hope he will appreciate me a little bit more."
Lacrosse is a people game. A coach must develop and maintain relationships with his players, give them purpose and motivate them to get the best of their talents.
"Coaching is being a parent, but more formidable because your team is larger," Danowski said. "If you have two children, three children, they are a little different but there's only two or three. Now you've got 40 sons, and they deal with the same issues in totally different ways. I believe that being available to listen, but trying to teach young men how to express their feelings will be one of those challenges."
In coaching, the highs are so high and the lows are so low. That's the rush, the thrill.
"Only coaches comprehend that and understand that when someone that you are counting on makes a mistake while in essence that may be a great learning experience for that young man, but maybe in the short term it hurts your development as a team," Danowski said. "When things do come together you are successful as a group -- that's why the highs are so high."
Creating a successful culture starts with leaders from within. Players who are empowered to drive the bus themselves.
"I think that one of the things that I've always used is that it's your team, fellas. It's gonna be what you decide it's gonna be," Danowski said. "I'm going to support, I will direct and redirect, I'll manage, but you really ultimately hold the key to where you are going to be headed. With your work ethic, your commitment, your decision making."
But why leave Hofstra after the best season in years? Why risk getting involved with this mess?
"I remember asking my son, 'Matt what do you think?' He looked at me and said, 'Dad, the place is everything that a coach would want.' I thought that was a pretty neat response," Danowski said. "It wasn't personal, it was more professional. During the whole process he stayed out of it. One of the things that I learned is that he treated me like I treated him during the recruiting process. He treated me with the same type of respect that I would make a decision that was best for me. He was there if I had any questions or needed to know, but he really let me be myself."
For Danowski, the biggest hurdle was leaving Long Island and moving away from home.
"I was born and bred on Long Island except for four years away at college in central Jersey," Danowski said. "I think the only person who had anything to say negatively was my mom. She's 90 and she [said], 'What are you doing where are you going?'"
The scars are apparent. The athletes are hurt, humbled, but in time they will recover and move on. Healing begins with loyalty and trust.
"I think the biggest thing I can do is be a listener," Danowski said. "Be there for people. Look them in the eye and care about them. Let them know how much you care."
Danowski gets it. He lived through the rape allegations as a parent. He knows exactly how the student-athletes feel. He is uniquely qualified. But more important, he understands that priorities need to be re-established.
"One of the things that they've realized is that lacrosse is a game and it's part of life," he said. "Sometimes when you put yourself on a pedestal, it becomes bigger than life. Sometimes those athletes struggle with real life issues. This is a real life issue. They'll be stronger because of this experience. The humbleness for them is that they are not sure how people are going to look at them or treat them, but there's a strongness of character that they possess and they always have."
Distractions loom around every corner. The program will be held to the absolute highest standard in terms of off-the-field behavior and performance in the classroom. Winning in the court of law may seem more important than winning on Saturdays. The microscope won't go away.
"Scrutiny for athletes everywhere: professional athletes, collegiate athletes, and again my dad was an intercollegiate athlete back in the '30s it hasn't changed," Danowski said. "We'll do some things not for fanfare, we'll do things that'll reinforce the values that are important. We'll let people know that these are good kids with great character."
The national media has painted Duke as a four-letter word and lacrosse players as rich, spoiled, privileged punks. Danowski's roots do not support that stereotype.
"The reality of the average college lacrosse player is that lacrosse is being played everywhere now," he said. "From Maine to Florida. From Cape Cod to California, from Texas to Denver and Seattle. They are sons of firemen, sons of policemen, sons of construction workers, sons of doctors and lawyers. But I think lacrosse is just America -- a cross-section of who we are."
On the morning of Sept. 4, the Danowski chapter began with a fall practice. After more than two decades at Hofstra, Danowski wears a Duke sweatshirt and a smile. His athletes will need to reconnect with their confidence. They'll need to start over. The coach sees the early season as an opportunity to hammer home a life lesson.
"I don't think the guys are going to enjoy the first week," Danowski said. "It's going to be back to basics; it's a new coaching staff, new system, and that's hard for everyone. You have to pay attention to details in your life, pay attention to details on the field. We are going to start being fundamentally sound."
Amid last spring's storm, not a single upperclassman transferred.
"I think it's a powerful statement they made about their love for the place, the university, for each other, and for their love to finish what they started," Danowski said. "They all feel very strongly about that. Something special is here. The bonds that are created in the locker room, on the field, when you win, when you lose, those are tough to tear apart, and I think that these young men have that."
Can John Danowski create an environment in which people are willing to learn and grow and move forward?
Can John Danowski bring out the best in these 40 student-athletes?
Can he make a difference in their lives?
I think so.
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