On Monday — the first day of the week of preparation for the Final Four for the Duke men's lacrosse team — coach John Danowski announced after dinner that he was buying tickets for the entire team to see the latest installment of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.

Not many coaches whose team is the reigning national champion would open the week leading up to an NCAA tournament semifinal against Maryland at M&T Bank Stadium in such fashion, but Danowski is anything but usual as a lacrosse coach.

The week prior to the quarterfinal match against No. 4-seed Notre Dame, the No. 5-seeded Blue Devils raced go-karts and played miniature golf at a nearby entertainment complex. Last year, they visited the local cinema to watch more movies before capturing the school's first NCAA title.

The players say that's typical of Danowski, who earned a master's degree in counseling/college student development from Long Island University -C.W. Post in 1978.

"It's awesome," senior attackman Zach Howell said. "It really helps us relax because we all take this very seriously, but when everybody sees the man in charge being laidback, that helps us relax, too."

While some may question the tactics, it's difficult to argue with the results. Duke is 80-18 in five seasons under Danowski, reaching the Final Four all five years and in six of the past seven seasons.

The only time the Blue Devils didn't reach the national semifinals was 2006, when the season was canceled after three players were falsely accused of sexual assault. Danowski, who succeeded Mike Pressler after that ordeal, is matter-of-fact about how his opportunity to assume the reins of the Duke program was precipitated by a traumatic incident.

"I got this job because something miserable happened, and it was what it was," Danowski said earlier this week. "Those guys were here. Everybody knows I would not have applied for this job if my son [Matt] wasn't here and if I didn't know kind of the details, the families, and the people behind the scenes, and the core values that these kids possessed. … It just is what it is. It's the evolution of what happened and why I'm here. If that didn't happen, I wouldn't be here. So it's just the next step, and it's just coaching."

Much of the early portion of Danowski's tenure involved the coach shielding his players from scrutiny and defending the program when the NCAA granted a fifth year of eligibility to players affected by the 2006 scandal.

But Danowski can also be brutally candid with his players when it comes to their play on the field. After an unexpected 7-3 loss to Penn on Feb. 26 dropped the team's record to 1-2 seven days before meeting Maryland to open the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, Danowski addressed the team openly.

"I remember that UPenn game, and we were pretty distraught, and I remember him telling us in the locker room that we were playing Maryland the next weekend and that Maryland could put up 20 [goals] on us if we played like this," senior defenseman Tom Montelli said. "I remember that week was just back to the basics: ground balls, team defense, and ground balls again. The fundamental aspects of the game are the things we relied on to get things rolling."

Danowski said if there's any blame for the team's rocky start, it should be directed at him.

"At the beginning of the year, I think I forgot how to coach young teams because even my last year at Hofstra, the team was old," he said. "That 2006 team that went 17-2, the key players were seniors. So it was five years for me of coaching older teams. So I certainly forgot, and you have to kind of re-adjust and focus in practice. This has been the most intense we have been as a coaching staff in five or six years because every day required that."

ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra said Danowski is an excellent evaluator of his personnel. Carcaterra pointed out Danowski's decision to move Ned Crotty from midfield to attack after the graduation of Matt Danowski. Crotty led the nation in assists in 2009.

But more importantly, Carcaterra, a former Syracuse Al-American midfielder, said Danowski is entrusted by parents to mold their sons into successful members of society.

"His reputation is one as an outstanding man," Carcaterra said. "I've never heard a person say a bad word about Danowski and his character. He's the type of guy you want your kid to play for. He teaches life lessons, he's a motivator, he's a calming force."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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