John Danowski's Mission

The coach of the men's lacrosse team has focused on teaching players lessons about fairness, playing your role, and entitlement
Writer: 
March 11, 2016

On January 10, 2016, John Danowski stood on the sideline of a soggy lacrosse field in Bradenton, Florida, where most of the day before hard rains had pelted the surrounding palm trees. He watched his U.S. Lacrosse National team warm up, while at the other end of the field its opponent, 2015 NCAA champion University of Denver Pioneers, did the same. Denver had won the title in a Final Four that, for the first time in the past nine years, had not included Danowski’s Blue Devils.

Starting with the 2007 season, Duke had won 140 games, including three national championships, all the while maintaining a minimum team average GPA of 3.0. A dozen of those victories had come in 2015, but the Devils lost to Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. “We were a good team,” says Danowski. “[But] trying to live up to the standards of the years before—you know, that’s just about impossible.”

Those high expectations are in large part Danowski’s own creation, the result of reviving a team and a program. And his success has not gone unnoticed in the larger lacrosse world. In November he was named head coach of the U.S. National team, a position he had sought in previous years. Duke’s other U.S. National team coach, Mike Krzyzewski, offered his colleague support: “He actually called me on his bus ride to the airport as he was headed to Chicago to play Kentucky this year,” says Danowski.

It’s a heady responsibility to be leader of the team that will represent the best U.S. lacrosse players against the best in the world. That it came on the heels of Danowski’s worst season finish at Duke underscores the deep respect he’s earned in his more than three decades of coaching. “You know what to expect with Coach Danowski,” says U.S. national team director Tony Leko. “You know what his moral compass is; you know what his values are.”

Ten years ago Danowski brought his steady leadership to Duke when he took over a lacrosse team in crisis. He had just finished his most successful season coaching the Hofstra Pride, a program he’d built. But he was willing to leave it all to repair a damaged team near-and-dear to him: His son Matt was on the 2006 Duke team.

“The way he went in there, and he handled that situation— he made it into a positive,” says Leko. “That speaks volumes about what kind of a person he is and the character he has. I just see the success he has off the field, which is being a teacher first and foremost.”

Looking back, Danowski remembers that fateful summer, his first in Durham, as “exciting—the beginning of an adventure.” To those watching, it may have looked more like an uphill battle.

In late July 2006, John Danowski moved to a Durham apartment furnished by Rooms to Go and began to rebuild a well-known team with an uncertain future. He came alone. He and his wife, Tricia, decided she would remain in New York for the year. She had a job, daughter Kate was in her second year of graduate school at Hofstra, and the family saw the situation at Duke as volatile.

That March, the new coach, along with millions of others, learned that members of his son’s lacrosse team at Duke had been accused of a sexual assault at an off-campus team party. Durham District Attorney Michael Nifong was investigating. In April, Duke’s head lacrosse coach resigned, and the season was canceled. By the end of May, three players had been indicted by a grand jury.

For months the story had been a national phenomenon—at the top of virtually every national news outlet, as well as the subject of dozens of blogs. From late March until mid-May of that year, television uplink trucks packed campus parking lots, while national correspondents and talk-show hosts begged for access to university leaders and lacrosse players.

At first it seemed that not just the season, but the entire men’s lacrosse program, was at risk, says senior deputy director of athletics Chris Kennedy Ph.D. ’79. “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 twenty-four hours. I thought for awhile that perceptions were running so strongly in a certain direction that the pressure to eliminate the program would become overwhelming.”

Asked years later who the team blamed and who they trusted, Kennedy replied, “Everybody and nobody.”

In early June the team got a reprieve of sorts. The Ad Hoc Lacrosse Review Committee, led by Duke Law professor James Coleman, found that while many players had been “socially irresponsible consumers of alcohol…members of the Duke Lacrosse team have been academically and athletically responsible students.” Furthermore, the committee reported that the faculty had not experienced disciplinary problems with the players. The first recommendation of the Coleman Report, as it became known, was “continuance of the Men’s Lacrosse Team with appropriate oversight.”

Duke began to look for someone to provide that oversight.

That spring John Danowski had led Hofstra to a 17-2 season. But more and more his thoughts were in Durham with Matt, a junior history major. “There was not a lot of joy in winning because my heart was here,” he says from his Duke office in the Murray Building. “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.”

That personal connection to the team made Danowski an obvious candidate for the job, and he had been a winning college coach for a quarter of a century. But the search committee was looking for something else, too: “It was all about culture, discipline, behavior,” says Danowski of the campus interviews. “Nothing about recruiting, nothing about lacrosse—except at the end of it, I think [then-athletics director] Joe Alleva or Chris Kennedy asked, ‘What kind of offense do you like to run?’ ”

The profession was one he’d known since childhood. Born on Long Island and raised in East Meadow, New York, the son of a former professional football star, and then coach and teacher, Danowski excelled both academically and athletically. “A lot of who I am is steeped in the East Meadow culture,” he says. “All I heard around the dinner table was talk about football, lacrosse, basketball, students, kids, and families.”

He recalls 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.” For his father, college was a place where “you went to Mass every morning and got good grades so you could become a good person.”

The younger Danowski played lacrosse at Rutgers and went on to earn a master of science in counseling and college-student development at Long Island University’s C.W. Post, as well as additional graduate credits at Columbia. He worked as a teacher or guidance counselor or coach—in various combinations— at seven public schools, teaching at high schools or junior high schools. In the early years of his career, he coached junior-high to college-level football, lacrosse, and basketball. And occasionally, he tended bar to supplement his income.

For three years he was head lacrosse coach at C.W. Post before he moved to Hofstra University, where he stayed for two decades. Taking the Duke job and leaving a community he valued was not an easy decision. He had reservations, as did his former Rutgers teammate and closest friend, now a justice of the Nassau County Supreme Court, Arthur M. “Artie” Diamond. “You’re fifty-two years old,” Diamond says he told Danowski. “You’re completely in control of everything that goes on [at Hofstra lacrosse]. Do you really want to start that whole thing when every week you’re under a microscope?”

The Danowskis decided that they did; their son’s team needed help. As soon as Danowski arrived on campus, he began to coach and counsel returning players and recruit new ones. Eligible members of the 2006 team had decided to stay on the team, and three of the seven high-school seniors who had accepted Duke offers decided to come.

Even as district attorney Nifong’s investigation began to unravel, the media circus surrounding it continued. Instead of asking his players to keep a low profile, Danowski decided to embrace the fact that they were all being watched. He wanted them to be “visible, alive, accessible” in the Duke and Durham communities.

His leadership was, he says, “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.”

Part of that was talking things out as a team, nipping problems in the bud. To combat cynicism and anger, Danowski established a regular time during practice to talk. Starting off with an open question, “What’s pissing you off today?” he encouraged players to put words to the frustrations he could see on their faces. On a day they seemed particularly down, he might ask, “What makes you happy?” 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.

"If you're angry, it's okay," he told them. "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. How you respond will be [the] legacy. You can be angry at the system, you can be angry at Mr. Nifong, you can be angry at the people who work at Duke, but at the end of the day, you are Duke."

Less than a year after its 2006 season’s abrupt end, Duke’s lacrosse team opened the 2007 season with a home game in a packed Koskinen Stadium. About six weeks later, North Carolina’s attorney general announced that all charges were being dropped against the three Duke players, who he declared “innocent of these charges.” At the end of May, the Blue Devils played in the NCAA national championship before more than 50,000 fans, losing to Johns Hopkins by a single goal. The game left everyone 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,” Danowski recalls. “I felt like I had failed. But all that had happened was remarkable.… Looking back, I think I needed to lose—in order to win.”

After the loss in the finals, the Duke lacrosse program won a large victory when the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to thirty-three members of the 2006 team, a year that could be taken at Duke or another school. So when the team reassembled that fall, there were new players Danowski had recruited and several, including his son, whom he had not expected to return. To all he emphasized his expectations for team behavior on and off the field, which included community service, being active in the Duke community, and never forgetting that they were under a microscope.

The new recruits were “tough-minded” kids, says Danowski. “We admitted 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 okay with it.’ ”

One recruit, Scot Meyer ’12 of neighboring Chapel Hill, had closely observed the team’s troubled years as a high-school player, but his desire to attend Duke had never wavered. He cited the three 2006 recruits who “came to Duke knowing there might not even be a team” as inspiration. “That speaks to their character and the character they saw in the guys that were there who had the option to leave but stayed. That was powerful for me.”

He recalls the coach saying time after time, “Things aren’t always fair, but you just have to deal with it.”

It was a lesson reflected in Danowski’s own life experience.

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. He remembers thinking he “wasn’t college material. I was a mess.” Like many insecure, homesick freshmen before him, he came to understand that he could do the work and that he belonged. After that, he majored in environmental science, with the belief that, like his father, he would some day teach.

After warming the bench for three seasons, Danowski quit football before his senior year. The decision still haunts him; he had never quit a sport. As lacrosse team captain, he set records. Despite his success, he remembers losing focus. “I just became mediocre—a mediocre student, a mediocre athlete, and very uncomfortable without direction.”

In those years between New Brunswick and Durham, he figured out that in college he never fully learned to accept what he was and was not. As a coach, he has come to value players who can fill a role that is something less than what they want. It’s a lesson he tries to teach his players, most of whom arrive after secondary-school stardom.

At Duke, Danowski’s players increasingly filled their roles successfully: The Devils reached both the 2008 and 2009 NCAA semifinals, losing by a single goal in 2008. In 2010, they played their fourth consecutive Final Four, this time against Notre Dame. After four quarters, the game was tied 5-5. In the first seconds of overtime, Duke scored to win its first national lacrosse championship. When a reporter asked if it marked the end of 2006 characterizing Duke lacrosse, he replied, “I hope so.”

The 2011 Duke recruits completed the first team of players chosen solely by Danowski, and to him the season “felt different right from the start.” They were a young team, overachievers, and entering the season their coach didn’t think they would play far into May, if at all. But, with a 12-5 season, Duke landed another appearance in a Final Four, losing in the semis.

A year later, a similar result: They lost decisively to Maryland in the semifinals. After the game, Danowski spoke to the press. He graciously congratulated the winners, and then he said, “I think we were disappointed. If I have time to look back—I’m just so emotional and so close to the game—I don’t know if we played as well as we think we’re capable, but that may have been due to the University of Maryland and how well they played.”

The words, I think we were disappointed, revealed what Danowski was really thinking after the loss: “I was disappointed and angry about the lack of emotion in the locker room after that final loss,” he recalled fifteen months later, when he still was.

After months of analysis, he determined that winning the final game had become too much the focus, more important, in fact, than everything else. “For Maryland, the whole was greater than the parts,” he says. “But for us, in that game, we were parts; we weren’t whole when it was over.”

The next year, 2013, was all about making the team whole again.

The year started with the return of a couple of prominent members of the 2006 team: Matt Danowski ’07 A.M. ’09 was named an assistant coach. Also returning was his teammate Casey Carroll ’07, who until 2012 had served as an Army Ranger with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. At age twenty-eight, he came back to attend the Fuqua School of Business, and the NCAA allowed him to use his remaining year of eligibility.

“We had a great fall,” remembers Josh Dionne ’14, a 2010 recruit. “Everything was going well, and then boom! The season starts—and we’re 2-4. We wondered, ‘What are we doing?’ We were working so hard; we wanted it so badly.”

Dionne lived with five other players in a rented house in Durham. One night two of them went to their practice field, brought a net back to the house, and set it up in the back yard. They started to play back there, at first just slinging the ball back and forth, playing catch. “It brought me back to midnight, New Hampshire, at ten years old,” says Dionne. “No worries, nothing. Playing with that love and that joy. We called it ‘backyard ball,’ and it was fun, it was beautiful. That was the point.”

They played backyard ball nearly every evening, and they began to win. At a practice before the NCAA Tournament drawing, Danowski told them, “You’re going to win the national championship because you’re going to do exactly what I tell you to do. And don’t deviate.”

Part prediction, part edict, the coach’s words worked. On Memorial Day the Devils came from five goals behind Syracuse to win their second national championship. The NCAA distributed shirts and hats proclaiming Duke the 2013 NCAA champion. A few feet away from his celebrating team, Danowski hugged his coaches, including his son, and smiled.

He let the players yell for a few minutes, then looked across the field at the dejected Syracuse team. He told his players, “Shake their hands. They’re a great program with a great tradition, and we were delighted to be able to compete with them today.”

Those were followed by words that likely came to him in the moment: “I’m not big on the shirts—throwing it in their faces. Take off the shirts when we shake hands. Put the hats away.” The Duke players did so, and headed to the center of the field.

Early in his first year at Duke, when his players saw victory as their only vindication, Danowski had known that “it was just winning.” And he understood there would be more to his coaching than that.

Three months after the Syracuse game, a happy, loose, and self-assured team assembled in Durham for a new season. But by the second week of September, Danowski had received word that some of the team’s newest members had drawn attention for bad behavior.

There were no accusations of illegal acts but reports of improper, even intimidating, behavior and language by some drunken team freshmen. Danowski investigated, talking to all who might have been involved, as well as other team members, and then he called the team together in the Murray Building meeting room.

“Close the doors,” he said to his players, who were still sweaty from workouts on the field and in the weight room. Seniors took the front rows of seats; freshmen sat in the last ones. “There was a little buzz from yesterday,” he began calmly. “Let’s just kind of go over what I think I learned from this.”

The room went quiet.

He drew two horizontal lines on the blackboard behind him. At the end of one, he wrote “Arrogance,” at the other end “Lack of Confidence,” and between them on the line, “Confidence.” At one end of the second line he wrote, “Entitlement,” then “Lack of Self-Esteem” at the other end with “Respect” between them.

“This is for everybody now,” he said. “There’s this continuum that exists of confidence and no confidence: I have confidence in myself, or I don’t have confidence. I have too much confidence, and I become arrogant.…” His voice rose as he continued, “On the other side, there’s this piece,” he pointed to the other line, “that goes with confidence. At the far end is entitlement.… I hate that word. Duke lacrosse players are entitled. They’re entitled to cut the line at [the off-campus restaurant] Cantina because we’ve always done that.… And we found out, and we said, ‘No you don’t [expletive] do that. You don’t cut the line.’ Maybe no one ever told you because they won’t challenge you, but we told you.”

He fixed the room with a hard stare and told the players that entitlement can come from a misunderstood source of respect. “Respect is earned through your behavior, through how you treat people,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s how you treat yourself.”

He looked beyond the front rows, then pointed back to his lines on the blackboard. “There’s this middle ground where we want to be all the time. You want to earn respect—your own self-respect, the respect of each other—and then we can go out and earn that in the world. Everything that you do, people are watching. You are labeled.… You are now a member of this group, and so what you do reflects on every one of us. We make mistakes. We’re held accountable for them. We forgive, we learn, and we go on. That’s the deal.”

At the NCAA Championship eight months later, Duke beat Notre Dame to win its third championship. At the postgame press conference, a reporter asked whether the Duke program was now a dynasty. “You know, it’s Duke,” Danowski answered. “And the kids who come here, you know, it’s hard. It’s hard academically—we push them from day one, but they accept that, and they want to be part of something that’s greater than themselves.”

The same might be said of Danowski. More than a year and a half later, after his U.S. National team soundly defeated reigning NCAA champion Denver, he says he wanted the national team coaching job because he feels a “responsibility to the game,” and sees the position as “a platform [from which] we can improve the game and help U.S. Lacrosse.”

His forward-thinking approach impressed U.S. Lacrosse team director Leko. “I was not just looking for a coach to come in for just two years, go to the worlds and win,” says Leko. “My overall philosophy for this was we want someone to come in and really put their mark on this program, off the field as well.”

Danowski’s sense of responsibility to his players, and the future of the sport itself, has only increased with all the recognition. “Olympic sports are tenuous at a lot of schools,” he says. “Still, we provide value to the university. When I leave—which I hope is not for awhile—[my goal] is to leave it where Duke is going to have lacrosse forever.”

If it does, Danowski will be a big part of the reason. When he arrived ten years ago, delivering one successful season was challenge enough. For old friend Artie Diamond, who had been dubious about the wisdom of Danowski accepting the job, those doubts are long gone. “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,” says Diamond. “If Duke had just hired another coach, somebody who was superb with X’s and O’s, and superb in recruiting, it wouldn’t have done nearly for the program what he was able to do.”

Vaughn retired in 2009 as Duke’s executive director of alumni and development communications, after thirteen years at the university. His extensive account of the Duke lacrosse program and Danowski’s first season appeared in the May 10, 2015, News & Observer.