The right man for the right job at the right time

By Michael Spinner
Photos By Joe Rogate

It's been way too long since I have written. There have been many attempts, but at the end of the day, every time, there was only one topic to write about, and it was not a topic I wanted to write about. Lacrosse has gotten more attention than it's ever received from the accusations in Durham. Ultimately, the legal process surrounding the Duke case is something that occurs frequently in our nation. The lacrosse team and the three accused former members have one side of the story. The accuser has another. The courts will decide who is telling the truth based on empirical evidence. But what the media has done to the members of the team, the Durham community, and our sport as a whole was irresponsible. I'll write about that someday, but the hiring of John Danowski allows the sport to move on, whether the regular media notices or not, and it allows me to write a Duke column without ending up getting grilled on Hannity and Colmes.

John Danowski will usher in the renaissance of lacrosse at Duke. Making perhaps the decision of their careers, the Duke administration needed a real leader, a coach-statesman, to lead the newly re-instated Blue Devil lacrosse program through what will be a tumultuous year with play resuming while a nationally televised trial of former teammates and close friends opens just down the street. They needed a likable but strong authority figure, seasoned in lacrosse and life, poised and positive. They needed a humble but confident calm at the helm of this team and the resurgence of Duke in lacrosse. For a while anyway I think "as goes Duke, so goes lacrosse", and I don't mean the trial result. The way the team, the school and the coach handle the coming months (maybe years) and represent the game and the sport under a constant media scrutiny will mold many opinions and shape our image as a game. The man Duke hired would be important to all of us. And they had to go no further than the lacrosse office's recruiting rolodex to find the perfect man for the job, John Danowski, father of star attackman, Matt, and longtime coach at Hofstra University in New York. Not only is Danowski an accomplished coach who built one of the best programs in the nation during a glorious career at Hofstra, but more than any other person I have ever met in lacrosse, Danowski day in and day out stands for the values that we need at the helm of the most high-profile position in our sport.

I first had the chance to meet Danowski at a camp during the summer of 1992, and during Hofstra's true break-through season in 1993, I was there at Hofstra Stadium, cheering on the Flying Dutchmen as they took the Division I world by storm defeating Loyola, Virginia, UMass, and several other top teams. There were some amazing games at Hofstra that season, and as a journalist I had the pleasure to attend some of Danowski's biggest games at the Hofstra helm during the late 1990's and during this decade as well. Somehow, it's not going to be the same for lacrosse on Long Island without John Danowski patrolling the Hofstra sidelines beginning this season, but Hofstra's loss is indeed lacrosse's gain.

When I think about John Danowski and why he was the perfect choice for Duke, what stands out above anything else is his incredible commitment to family. Not only his family, but his "extended family," which is basically everybody he has ever met. Case in point, if you have ever been to the US Lacrosse National Convention, most of the higher profile Division I coaches keep to themselves and maintain a low profile. Not John Danowski. He walks around with a big smile on his face, greeting those he knows as if they were a long-lost friend, offering hugs and hand-shakes and genuinely communicating. Of course, this didn't make him the right man for the Duke position, but such character certainly aided his cause.

Duke hired a gentleman and a gentle man. You'll never see him pull a player off the field by the cage of his helmet. You'll never hear him bash a referee via a profanity-laced tirade from the sidelines. And when controversy comes along, Danowski would be the last one to add to it. He'll offer an opinion, but over the years when he opened his mouth, more than almost any coach he was able to keep his eye on the big picture.

Remember a few years ago when Hofstra beat Duke handily during the regular season but the Blue Devils were chosen for the NCAA Tournament while a stacked Hofstra team didn't get the nod? It was highway robbery that Hofstra was snubbed, but Danowski kept his cool. Of course he was disappointed. We were all disappointed, and he didn't hide his disappointment. But at the same time, he was unwilling to turn on the selection committee and really let them have it. As much as Hofstra's snub was a black eye on the sport, Danowski refused to make himself or Hofstra's situation the news and allowed the lacrosse community to focus on a great post-season. In essence, Danowski's incredible character saved an entire lacrosse season. Instead of it being the "year Hofstra was robbed," because Danowski believed the best interests of our sport came first, we were all able to move on comfortably.

And while character does not necessarily make the coach, character, along with a slew of wins does. If a coach can succeed on the field while serving as a positive mentor and educator off of it, and also promote our lacrosse image and growth of this sport in a positive way, he is truly worthy of a position such as the one at Duke University. And John Danowski spent an entire career at Hofstra doing just that. And I expect by the time the final face-off of the 2007 season, the buzz surrounding the Duke lacrosse program will not be the "controversy that was," but instead will be, "the program that is."

At the height of the scandal surrounding the Duke program, one columnist wondered out loud if lacrosse could survive such a scandal, as if there were ever any doubt. With John Danowski at the Duke University helm, Duke, as well as our sport, may be stronger than ever.

A few thoughts concerning 2006 lacrosse season:

The Duke scandal overshadowed the season, and unfortunately we'll probably forever remember 2006 as the year of Duke and forget some of the incredible stories we had this Spring. There were three incredible storylines from this season that I hope, somehow are not forgotten.

I have been watching College Lacrosse religiously for 14 years now, and I have never seen a team dominate the field the way Virginia did. They played about as flawlessly as any team I have ever seen (or heard of), and I only hope that Dom Starsia and his 2006 Virginia team will be recorded in the annals of history as one of the best teams we have ever seen despite not getting the chance to beat Duke as they surely would have.

During my past life as Managing Editor of, I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time speaking with and interviewing Greg Cannella as he tried to get UMass to next level. Greg impressed me as not only one of the best coaches in the nation, but also a man willing and able to tell it like it is and not pull any punches. Every time I spoke with Greg, I genuinely felt like he was telling the truth. Yeah, it's safe to say I liked Greg Cannella from day one, and it was quite a thrill seeing UMass reach the Final Four for the first time and advancing all the way to the Championship Game. Their comeback win over Hofstra in the quarterfinals will probably go down as one of the most exciting NCAA Tournament games ever, and their win over Maryland in the NCAA semifinals was close to the perfect game-plan. Congratulations to Greg and the Minutemen.

One of my major projects for the fall is going to be getting a tape of the Division III Championship Game between Salisbury and Cortland. That was, in my opinion, the best lacrosse game this decade at any level. If anybody out there thinks that Memorial Day Weekend should be a Division I event only, they should get a copy of the tape too because what made the game special was not just what happened on the field, but the stage on which it took place. I hope the incredible game we saw that Sunday afternoon will only insure that the Championship Weekend format stays the same for years to come.

Much of this column was devoted to discussions of class and integrity, and I would be remiss if I did not devote at least a small bit of space to a man who I truly hope we have not heard the last of on the men's lacrosse coaching sidelines, Scott Nelson, who resigned this summer as head coach of Brown University. After building a legendary career as the head coach of Nazareth College, Nelson had a difficult run at Brown during the last six years as the Bears struggled to compete within a very good Ivy League. There were rumblings all spring that Nelson would leave Brown at the end of the year. Posting a 2-11 season certainly did not help his cause for longevity. So Nelson is out at Brown, but he belongs in coaching and should be back on the sideline somewhere soon.

Finally, the Division II landscape changed completely in a single moment this summer when Mike Cerino left W&L to return to Limestone to bring some stability to a program that had its share of ups and downs since he left some six years ago. Division II, always fighting for respect, gets back a man who brings them much credibility. When Cerino first left Limestone, the Saints were the proverbial only game in town in Division II's south region. Under T.W. Johnson, the program stayed in a fairly similar position, but during the last couple of years, the rest of the pack has caught up. I only wonder with Mike Cerino back at Limestone if it is going to stay that way.

August 8, 2006

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