Matt Danowski turned away from his half-finished glass of champagne to look at his father—he had a question to ask.
It was after midnight and the 2014 Duke men’s lacrosse team was nearly home.
Matt Danowksi sat with the rest of the Blue Devils’ coaching staff aboard a rumbling charter bus. The dark cabin was alive with the sound of husky voices and clinking glasses.
The past 24 hours had been an unbelievable journey for everyone on board. Nine months of hard work and perseverance had culminated with the ultimate prize in college lacrosse—the national championship.
Jordan Wolf’s empty netter in the closing seconds of regulation had guided Duke to an 11-9 victory against Notre Dame and the first back-to-back national titles in school history. With the win, John Danowski became just the ninth Division I head coach to win at least three national titles.
Now, the team’s coaches and trainers celebrated a successful end to the year’s campaign. Eyes gleamed and bellies laughed. Someone popped the cork on another bottle of champagne, and glasses were topped off.
In less than an hour, the bus would arrive among the Gothic architecture and loblolly pines of Duke University, the men would file out and the 2014 Duke men’s lacrosse season would be over.
But that was an eternity away in the minds of the passengers on board. This was their moment, and they were savoring every last second of it.
Except for assistant coach Matt Danowski—son of head coach John Danowski.
While everyone around him was caught up with the magic of the moment, he was thinking about the future.
For Matt Danowski, the end of lacrosse season heralded the approach of a new chapter in his life—he was going to get married. Danowski’s wedding to fellow Duke grad Virginia Crotty, slated for October at the Duke Chapel, was only six months away. Now, with the team’s season finally over, it was time for him to start thinking about preparations.
And with that in mind, Danowski eyed his glass on the victory bus after winning the national championship and prepared to ask his father to be his best man.
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“Virginia and I talked about it for a long time,” Matt Danowski said. “Apparently it’s a Southern tradition to have your father be your best man, but I didn’t know about that. I thought, ‘I spend more time with my Dad than anybody and he probably knows me better than anybody,’ so it would make sense for him to be the best man.”
John Danowski’s response was an overwhelming yes. Within a few seconds Matt was buried in his father’s embrace.
“It was one of the greatest compliments Matt has ever paid me,” John Danowski said. “Matt’s got a ton of friends from high school and college, so maybe he couldn’t choose and I won by default…but to me it just spoke volumes about our relationship.”
A Changing Relationship
The relationship between John and Matt Danowski had only grown stronger through two years of coaching together. In two seasons, the father-son coaching duo had gone on to amass a 33-8 record and win two national championships.
They worked together on nearly every aspect of managing the program, from travel budgets to planning practices. And while their relationship is a professional one, John Danowski is quick to point out that it’s a fun one too.
“It’s been really fun watching Matt grow,” he said. “As a teacher, he has a tremendous insight into the minds of our students. He knows when to be tough on them and when it’s appropriate to loosen up. If he wants to stay in coaching, I think he has a great future.”
But though the pair share a powerful bond today, the two were not always so close. In the early years of John Danowski’s coaching career, the young father worked multiple jobs, leaving him little time to spend with his children.
When Matt grew older and began to show an interest in sports, John refused to coach him. The decision was made with Matt's best interests at heart, as his father did not want to pressure his son into choosing any one path in life.
“Just because John’s father had been a quarterback—John had been a quarterback and Matt was a quarterback—didn’t mean that’s all they wanted to do,” Patricia Danowski, John’s wife and Matt's mother, said. “John encouraged Matt to try many things. It was something he had learned from his own father.
Rather than as a coach, John Danowski made his greatest impact in Matt Danowski’s life as a teacher.
Growing Up Danowski
John Danowski graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in environmental science and education in 1976. He went on to earn a master’s degree in counseling and college student development from Long Island University-C.W. Post two years later.
Before delving into the realm of coaching, John Danowski worked as a science teacher and guidance counselor in a Long Island school district. As such, education was always highly valued in the Danowski household.
“In our house it was always school first, athletics second,” Matt Danowski said. “In high school my dad would tell me, ‘Be open to learning today, have big shoulders and make somebody else’s day.’ Going to public school in Long Island, education wasn’t always valued that much, but it was for me because of the example that was set at home.”
John Danowski was the son of Polish immigrants. Patricia Danowski was the second of seven children and daughter of a New York City police officer. To make ends meet, both worked a significant number of hours each week.
Patricia worked as a high-risk obstetrician ultrasound technician at a local hospital. Her hours were unpredictable, and she frequently worked nights to provide emergency care.
John bartended on the weekends for extra income.
“He would coach, talk to the boys after the practice or game, eat something, change his clothes and go bartend until four o’clock in the morning,” Patricia Danowski said. “That’s the lifestyle we grew up in. People worked two or three jobs. We didn’t know any different.”
Matt Danowski grew up around that lifestyle. He was accustomed to hard work and saw firsthand that earning an education can transform one's life. It was always expected that Matt would attend college.
When it came time for him to look at colleges, colleges just happened to be looking at Matt. Matt Danowski’s talents on the lacrosse field had garnered a slew of scholarship offers that promised a free education. But when push came to shove there was one offer that trumped all others in Matt’s mind—Duke’s.
Then-Blue Devil head coach Mike Pressler had personally recruited Matt Danowski. For Danowski, it was an easy choice. The resources and opportunities available to him at Duke would be world-class.
When Matt made his campus visit, the breathtaking Gothic buildings and sprawling gardens of Duke's campus were unlike anything he had ever seen before. Although the visible wealth came as a shock to his blue-collar background, he understood that there would be no better place for him to receive an education.
“When Coach Pressler brought me here, I couldn’t really grasp what Duke was," Matt Danowski said. “I didn’t know what a stock or a bond was…but my dad told me this was the best education I could get. He was always a big proponent of, ‘Lacrosse is for four years, but your education is for the rest of your life.’ Now I can say my dad was right about that. He’s been right about a lot of things.”
Over the next two years, Matt Danowski developed into one of the best players in the history of Duke lacrosse, while John Danowski kept busy with his head coaching position at Hofstra.
But everything was to change in March 2006, when sexual assault accusations against members of the Duke lacrosse team led to a head coaching vacancy that brought John Danowski to leave Hofstra and come to the aid of his son’s team, changing the course of both their lives.
A Call for Help
In the wake of the firestorm of accusations—later proven false—that led to Pressler's forced resignation and the wrongful prosecution of three Duke players, John Danowski received a phone call from the Duke Athletic Department. They wanted him to interview for the vacant head-coaching job.
He immediately called his wife.
“Just be prepared,” Patricia Danowski remembers saying. “When Hofstra finds out that you are interviewing for this job, you are going to get fired. One way or another you are going to get fired.”
But if push came to shove, the Danowskis knew they'd be able to cope. With the support of his wife, John accepted the interview offer.
Patricia’s unwavering support had been a constant throughout his career. From as early as when John Danowski worked as volunteer coach and then an assistant coach, Patricia put in extra hours in the hospital to help support the family.
“If it wasn’t for her, I would have had to leave coaching,” John Danowski said. “I wasn’t paid well in the early years at Hofstra. If it wasn’t for the inordinate amount of hours she put in at the hospital and raising the children I wouldn't have been able to do it. She has allowed me to coach and chase my dreams for the past 24 years.”
However, this was a completely new situation. By accepting the position, John Danowski risked making himself untouchable to any other program if the Duke job fell through. Even if he got the job, there was no knowing if the University would shut the program down.
But Danowski's position was unusual in more ways than one, as he was also the parent of a player on the team. He had experienced the players off the field and could speak for their character. As a counselor, he understood that they needed someone to guide them and worried that the young men on the team would be saddled with a form of survivor’s guilt from the scandal.
They needed help, and John could provide the guidance they needed.
Patricia Danowski was at work when her phone rang. It was her husband.
“They’ve offered me the job,” John Danowski said.
“Are you going to take it?” Patricia asked.
“I would love to take it,” John replied.
“Then take it,” Patricia told him.
Ten days later, John Danowski was in Durham.
John Danowski took two suitcases with him. Nothing more. He arrived in Durham without an apartment or a car.
He found an apartment near to campus in the newly built Lofts at Lakeview and went shopping for a used car, something to get him from point A to point B.
“John walked into some little car place and bought a car for $1,500,” Patricia Danowski said. “So there he was, a Division I lacrosse coach driving around in this pimpmobile. The doors didn’t even close all the way.”
John Danowski then went to work on resurrecting the Duke men’s lacrosse program, which was limping along on life support due to the administration's—and the nation's—jump to condemn the program's coach and players. John urged his players and assistant coaches to focus on the fundamentals both on and off the field. He worked to make the lacrosse field a place that players could feel safe and trust those around them. Once he had earned the trust of those around him, he got to work preparing for the 2007 season.
“As a head coach, you have to bring your own coaching style, and he did a really good job of that,” Matt Danowski said. “Those transitional years, 2007 and 2008, that’s what happened, [John] created his own culture here while respecting what the older guys had been through and their way of doing things.”
The big move also led John Danowski to bond with his son in a way he never could have imagined. John was coaching his son for the first time in his life, but their relationship extended to much more just that.
“Matt and I had more than a coach and player relationship," John Danowski said. “This was his team and I was just trying to supervise and help. I didn’t come in saying ‘I know what we need to do.’ We all worked together.”
Matt and John needed each other. Matt needed his father for guidance through this difficult time in his life, and John needed his son to help the team buy into his message.
Matt was an invaluable asset. In him, John had an assistant to bring up to speed on all the technical details about Duke and how the lacrosse program had operated in the past.
“I brought [him] up to pace in terms of class schedules and what Fall practice was like,” Matt Danowski said. “He knew a little about the guys off the field, but he didn’t really know how things were done here on the field or in the classroom. It was about open communication.”
Behind John Danowski’s leadership, the Duke lacrosse program weathered the storm and emerged stronger than ever before. Matt would go down as one of the greatest collegiate lacrosse players in the sport's history, finishing second all-time in the NCAA in points—he was surpassed by Cornell's Rob Pannell in 2013 by a single point and is currently third.
And John and Matt’s relationship emerged stronger as well.
Following in His Father’s Footsteps
Matt Danowski graduated from Duke in 2007 with a bachelor of arts and again in 2009 with a masters in education, following in his father’s footsteps as an educator.
Matt resisted the idea of entering the field at first, electing to pursue a career in professional lacrosse. But when the indoor season dwindled down, he began working camps and discovered that coaching appealed to him.
“I found myself enjoying the process of watching kids get better,” Matt Danowski said. “I found myself drawn to the team, the locker room, the development of young men both on and off the field.”
In 2013, an assistant coaching position opened for the Blue Devils and John Danowski extended the offer to Matt. Matt and John had already been through so much together—there couldn’t have been a better fit.
Both embody the same values and principles—they are cut from the same cloth. But Matt makes it clear he still has much to learn from his father. And his father still makes sure to hand out his wisdom.
“You’re not going to get rich being a coach, but there is tremendous fulfillment at the end of the day," John Danowski said. “And championships are great. Don’t get me wrong, but that’s not what my dad taught me and I hope that’s not what I’m teaching Matt. It’s not the reason for what we do. We do it to make a difference in a young man’s life.”
Nearly half a year after their victory bus embrace, Matt and John found themselves sitting near each other once again—but this time in a very different setting.
The rumbling charter bus had long ago disappeared into the night, the husky, brawling voices of game-weathered coaches fading with it. Now, daylight filtered in through stained-glass windows. Flowers adorned walls and tabletops, and the Duke Chapel was filled with a symphony of whispers.
Matt and John sat at the altar. Each wore a tuxedo and beaming smile. Hundreds had gathered to witness the marriage of Matt and Virginia.
Looking into the crowd, Matt could see figures from nearly every period of his life. His childhood friends from New York sat next to teammates from his time at Duke. Every current Duke lacrosse player—men and women alike—had turned out to show their support. He met the eyes of countless members of the Crotty family. Soon he would be part of their clan.
Looking at his son, John could see the great joy in Matt’s face and the love he felt for Virginia. It was a moving moment for a father who had devoted so much of himself towards helping his son become the man that he is today. Now, as Matt’s best man, he had the opportunity to be beside his son as he began the next chapter in his life with the woman he loved.
“There’s a peace that comes over you as a parent when you see your children happy,” John Danowski said. “You see that they’ve found someone they can share their lives with, they have a career that gives them strength and joy and there’s just this peace that comes over you.”
Matt and John Danowski had endured storms together. They had won championships together. And, sitting at that altar, John Danowski could not help but think about how lucky he was to have those experiences.
“Sitting at the altar, I looked around at all the people coming up for communion.” John Danowski said. “As these people walked up the aisle you could see how much they loved Matt and Virginia and you realize what’s important in life…Coaching is great, x’s and o’s are great, teams are great…but seeing the love present in that chapel, it just put everything in perspective for me.”