Even after two national championships in seven years, the 2006 Duke lacrosse scandal may never go away.
Head coach John Danowski told Jake Tripucka as much when he recruitied him. Tripucka, who graduated in May, had initially been recruited by Kevin Cassese, the interim head coach in between the resignation of Mike Pressler and the hiring of Danowski.
“When you commit to Duke—and Coach Dino tells you this when he’s talking to you—he goes, ‘Hey listen, the 2006 is never going to go away. It’s one of those things they’re always going to talk about it no matter how great you do, how many championships,’” said Tripucka after winning his second national championship in four years.
The scandal may never go away, and it may always be among the first few results for “Duke lacrosse” in a Google search. (Even after Monday’s 16-10 national championship win against Syracuse, it’s in the top three). And it’s a shame that a set of lies, a district attorney’s ambitions and presumptions of guilt have made it that way.
But in Danowski’s seven years as head coach with a semifinal appearance each season and two national championships, he has built a new standard and image for Duke lacrosse.
Duke lacrosse doesn’t mean parties and rape (even if a North Carolina football player couldn’t help but tweeting about that after the win). It’s not a window into an overpriveledged and unruly Duke culture.
Duke lacrosse is something else now.
“There's a certain amount of discipline, a certain amount of work ethic, and then the last part is there's a necessary team aspect that it has to be team oriented if you want to play on this weekend. Everything that we do from day one is team oriented,” Danowski said. “It's like having children: when they step out of line, you have to let them know. But we let them know why.”
Nobody could have scripted the situation Danowski was walking into when he took over as head coach. After Monday's win, Danowski said nobody scripts being down 5-0, like the Blue Devils were to Syracuse in the second quarter.
What he could script in both situations: how his team reacted.
At halftime, down 6-5, he told his players “we need to play Duke lacrosse over the next 30 minutes.”
“Duke lacrosse is playing hard, scrappy, fundamental,” senior David Lawson said. “It’s doing things the right way.”
It didn’t hurt that Brendan Fowler dominated at the faceoff X and helped the Blue Devils maintain possession the rest of the way, but the comeback showed the spirit Danowski instilled all season and has since he arrived in July 2006.
Duke began this season 2-4, falling out of the national rankings and threatening its worst start in more than three decades. Two wins against top-10 teams later—one against reigning national champion Loyola and the other against archrival North Carolina—Duke was back on track.
“Nobody envisions that,” Danowski said. “It’s just about showing up every day to work and taking each day one day at a time. And I think when you’re involved in athletics you learn to live that way, whether it’s Tuesdays in the weight room or film days or pregame night before meetings. You just keep on working and keep staying on task.”
If anybody knows about slow starts and staying on task it’s Danowski. The Blue Devils began the 2010 season 2-3 before winning 13 of their last 14 en route to their first national championship in program history.
Though his accomplishments in each season are individually impressive, more impressive is that he has consistently kept the program on task, even when nobody envisioned that Duke lacrosse could actually mean playing lacrosse.
Looking back on it, nothing was right about Pressler’s “resignation” from Duke (something a settlement from the University later confirmed). It was a unique set of circumstances that brought Danowski to the Blue Devils. So it was only appropriate that Pressler’s Bryant Bulldogs—a program that was in Division II when he took over—were in the NCAA Tournament this year.
But in the last seven seasons in Durham, Danowski has given a new life and meaning to Duke lacrosse. There's no question he was the right fit. Lawson, one of the key seniors on this team who will walk away a two-time national champion, didn’t have many words to describe playing for Danowski, only saying, “He’s the best, that’s the only way to put it.”
Each season only makes clearer what Danowski means not only to the program, but also the University.
“Only guys who have played for Duke and played for Coach D know what Duke lacrosse is,” Tripucka said. “It’s about being a Duke man and everything that stands for.”