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Against the odds, Sowell revives Dartmouth lacrosse


THERE ARE tough jobs, and then there was the one given to Rick Sowell five years ago. As the first African-American Division I lacrosse coach, he was asked to build a competitive program at a New Hampshire school that competed in the Ivy League.

Oh my.

That's a stacked deck.

The chances were better that the Orioles would win a World Series first or that Ravens coach Brian Billick would complete a sentence in five words.

But as the NCAA Division I tournament begins, Sowell has guided Dartmouth (11-2) into an opening-round game against Syracuse (8-5) at the Carrier Dome. The Big Green's chances of winning tomorrow are just as overwhelming as they were five years ago, but that's OK.

The Big Green finally made it to the Big Dance.

"The alumni here have been unbelievably great," said Sowell, 39. "But I know innocently, they looked on the surface and wondered how this was going to work. A black guy recruiting lacrosse players in New Hampshire. A few of them had to wonder how I was going to pull this off."

Sowell is a pretty humble guy. The magical season still hasn't set in yet. For the first time since 1965, Dartmouth won the Ivy League championship. It won four conference games for the first time since 1982. When Dartmouth beat Princeton, 13-6, nearly three weeks ago, it was the school's first win against the Tigers since 1956.

That's impressive, especially because lacrosse has been slow in accepting minorities.

There has been gradual progress in recent years, but at a snail's pace. That's because the power structure - one that consists of influential coaches and wealthy, private school folks - never changes, and neither does its stale, good old boy networking ideas.

More politics are played in lacrosse than in Washington.

But here comes Sowell, the 1985 Division III Midfielder of the Year from Washington College.

"It's not like this is college basketball or football, where there are a lot of blacks in the sport. There isn't that massive media coverage," Sowell said. "But it's good to be the first one. Maybe 15 or 20 years from now, I can look back and say, 'Wow, that really was something.'

"To be honest, I thought I might not have as many opportunities [to be a head coach]. I'm not saying that in a bad way, it's just a fact. I didn't know if things would be limited. I had applied for other jobs, and I didn't get them, for whatever reasons."

Sowell couldn't afford to be selective, but like other coaches, he wanted no part of the Dartmouth job. The program hit rock bottom about the time the Beatles' popularity was at an all-time high, and had been there since.

"When [Dartmouth] first called Coach Urick [Georgetown's Dave Urick] about me, I told him to tell them I wasn't interested," said Sowell, a Georgetown assistant from 1990 until he was hired at Dartmouth. "There was a perception there of not wanting to win, that they couldn't win. They called a second time, and [Urick] said, 'Go talk to them, it's not going to cost you anything.' Once I got here, they sold me. They were building a nice stadium with an artificial turf field. They were making a commitment."

The first thing Sowell tried to do was change the culture. Losing was contagious. But as much as he tried, he ran into other obstacles during his first four seasons. One year, a player died of cardiac arrest after practice. Two top players ended their careers with knee injuries.

Then there were the recruiting battles. Dartmouth was on the calling list with the other colleges, except high schools called Princeton, Duke and Georgetown with the blue-chip players. Sowell got tips on B-level players.

"I expected to hear a ton of no's before I heard yes," Sowell said about recruiting. "I had to explain to the high schools that I wanted the same kids as Princeton and Duke. Now, we're at least getting kids to look at us seriously. We're going to get better as we develop better relationships with the admission people.

"We're starting to convince them that we've got to take some chances with some of these kids, that we can help turn some of them around. That's the way it goes in any successful program."

Sowell was one of those players. He admits to not being very strong academically coming out of a high school in upstate New York. But after two years in junior college, he went to play for Terry Corcoran at Washington College before joining Urick.

He learned a lot from both coaches.

"Terry taught me loyalty," Sowell said. "He brought me along from being a good athlete and turned me into a lacrosse player. He had a great work ethic and could motivate players through that.

"Coach Urick kind of redefined me. I was a rah-rah guy and thought you always had to be that way. Coach Urick taught me not to be concerned about things I couldn't control. ... Whenever there is a problem or a concern, I still get myself into a frame of mind where I ask myself, 'What would Coach Urick do in that situation?' "

Sowell has learned a lot from his coaches as well as from life itself. While a student at Washington College, he had some great experiences on campus, but some racially motivated problems off it. He and Corcoran used to joke that Sowell was Jackie Robinson and Corcoran was Branch Rickey.

"I would be lying if I said there were no incidents; it's the South," Sowell said. "I didn't see it at Washington College, but I had some problems on the Eastern Shore. It's different than Baltimore. The support I got from the alumni at Washington College was unbelievable when some of those things happened, but 99 percent of my experience there was great.

"It's been just as satisfying here [at Dartmouth]. To feel this kind of energy is fantastic. To walk out and see our stadium packed with alumni when we were playing Harvard was awesome. I don't know if I've ever been involved in a game where there was so much electricity."

Sowell then drifts into the future.

"I don't know what's going to happen down the road, but I'm happy here," he said. "So far, it has been worth the grind. I'll keep working it. I'm the first black Division I coach hired, but I don't want to the first one fired, either."

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