Duke's strange journey back is extra special to father, son

The Baltimore Sun

This is how a father and a son come full circle. This is how a father and a son part ways when it's time, only to have a nightmare pull them back together for one special year, before life inevitably will split them up again.

After all these months of playing mentor and counselor to a program in need of a healing hand and a rock-solid teacher, Duke lacrosse coach John Danowski appreciates the surreal nature of it all.

It was only about five years ago, while he was working on a two-decade run as one of the game's more successful, respected coaches at Hofstra, that Danowski was telling his teenage son, Matt - destined to become an elite, Division I attackman - to get out of Long Island.

Don't feel obligated to come to Hofstra to help your old man win games, he told his boy. You owe me nothing. Get out on your own and find out who you are. Earn a prized degree from a prestigious school. Kick some butt in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Help Duke win a national title.

Matt is 21 now, a senior enjoying his last go-round while he prepares to graduate with a history degree at Duke and builds a strong case to become the nation's Player of the Year.

And he knows how right the old man was all along. And how right it feels that the father, like the son, left behind the familiar to pursue a mission.

"The best thing you can do in your life is be a parent. For 21 years, [Matt] was my son first," said John, who, with the exception of some brief, summer league seasons, had never coached Matt.

"If Matt wasn't here, I wouldn't even have applied for this job. It would just have been a story to me. But the story hit home, because I knew the people involved. It was intriguing, wondering if I could be successful at another place. The most overwhelming aspect of this was I've got to help Matt and his friends."

The scars are fresh, as a program puts a crisis - ultimately born of false accusations - behind it.

A year after that infamous team party, after a stripper accused former Duke players David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann of rape and caused a season to end early and 16-year coach Mike Pressler to resign, the case that sparked a national stir officially has crumbled.

Return to normalcy

Long before April 11, the day North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper publicly chastised District Attorney Michael Nifong for pursuing a case without merit and dropped all remaining charges against the players, John Danowski was helping Matt and his friends move on.

"It could have been awkward, but [John] did a good job of coming in and saying I'm here, this is a fall tryout and this is how I want to do things," Matt said. "He doesn't scream. He's never too high, never too low.

"He's made it feel pretty normal around here, even though this is not a normal year. We've done a good job of keeping that fine line between father/son and player/coach. I see him a couple of times a week [away from lacrosse]. I've gotten to know him again in a different manner."

From the day John leased an apartment about a mile off campus - his wife, Patricia, still lives back in Farmingdale, N.Y., where she works as an ultrasound technician and makes it to most Duke games - he said he has been careful about giving Matt space.

Other than the nearly daily, lacrosse-related contact during the season, father and son dine together once or twice a week and occasionally go food shopping for Matt. They talk about the past, present and future. They enjoy each other's company.

A feeling of mutual hurt has strengthened a bond that was always strong. A year ago, after Matt told his father he was "98 percent sure nothing happened" at that party, a strange, painful spring unfolded.

The Blue Devils had their designs on returning to the NCAA title game they had lost in 2005 yanked away, just eight games into the season. Up north, John was leading Hofstra to a 17-2 finish, his best in 21 years there.

"I actually talked to [my parents] less and less, because I didn't want to pass [the pain] on to them," Matt said.

"Hofstra was the only team I followed [after Duke lost its season], and there was a hint of jealousy. But one of the most hurtful parts of [the case] was it was taking attention away from his team and what they were doing."

Said John: "I struggled off the field. My wife was miserable. I was miserable. Getting on the field was a sanctuary."

Headed for title shot

When some Duke parents urged him to seek the Blue Devils' job last spring, John listened to his heart. And just like that, Danowski was hired and breaking away from the program he had built. He won 192 games and guided the Pride to eight NCAA tournaments.

Some things quickly became apparent to the Duke players. John could be hands-on and hands-off, meaning he was a stickler for hustle and discipline, and at the same time was removing some of Pressler's structure and giving the players more room to create.

And as far as Matt was concerned, there was no favoritism. Never mind that he was the odds-on pick to win the Tewaaraton Trophy - given to the nation's top player - with his remarkable blend of dodging, passing and shooting skills. And never mind that he has led Duke to an 11-2 record, a No. 2 ranking and is tied for fourth in the country with 56 points on 28 goals, 28 assists.

"I was really struck by [John's] enthusiasm. It's hard to be around him and not have fun playing the game," senior defensive midfielder Ed Douglas said.

"I don't think anyone is complaining that Matt gets a lot of touches, but Coach is really big on doing things a certain way, like picking up ground balls with two hands. One day a couple of weeks ago in practice, Matt scooped one with one hand. Everyone had to stop and run sprints."

"[John] was always the cool dad when I was growing up," added senior defenseman Casey Carroll, a childhood friend of Matt's. "I remember meeting him for the first time in the sixth grade when he came to a clinic in my town. We were in awe of him at Hofstra."

Carroll graduated from Baldwin (N.Y.) High and guarded Matt for three seasons when he played for rival Farmingdale. Carroll and Danowski also played quarterback for their respective schools.

"What sums it up for me is how happy I was we were going to the same school. I didn't have to face him anymore. His ability to take over a game was something I'd never seen," Carroll added.

"I've gotten to know Coach D in a much different way. He's very philosophy-oriented, uses carefully chosen words. He walks a fine line between letting us free-wheel it and having us run set things. I can't quantify the things he has done that make him special to us."

John, 53, a member of the Long Island Lacrosse Hall of Fame, sounds like a man acutely aware of his place in an unusual time.

Nothing would please him more than to watch his son ("I sent him here as an 18-year-old and he's going to leave a 35-year-old") and his teammates celebrating as the last team standing at the upcoming NCAA tournament final four at M&T; Bank Stadium.

But soon, it will be time to say goodbye again, as Matt moves on to the pros and pursues other career interests. Soon, John hopes to secure a contract extension and begin to make a personal imprint on Duke with his recruits. The idea of making an extended run in Durham is appealing.

"In many ways, this is Mike's program. He's responsible for what the program is. I saw myself coming in as kind of the caretaker," John said. "Part of the uniqueness of this situation was it was hard to set goals right away. Last August, it was hard to talk about wins and losses. It was more about staying out of trouble.

"Now, I'm thinking about a whole [new] recruiting class and then some, until another foundation is laid. At this point in my life, I'm all about the journey."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

The Danowski file

Matt Danowski, player

In 54 career games, has scored 216 points on 113 goals and 103 assists.

Tied for fourth nationally in points (56) and tied for second nationally in assists (28) in 2007.

One of nine players in the past 10 seasons with 100 goals and 100 assists.

Leads active NCAA players in assists.

With 216 points, he ranks third among active players.

As a sophomore in 2005, scored a single-season, school record 92 points (50 goals, 42 assists).

One of five players in NCAA history to have 50 goals and 40 assists in the same year.

Has started every game in his Duke career.

Rookie of the Year and two-time Player of the Year in the ACC.

John Danowski, coach

Named coach at Duke on July 21, 2006.

Under him, the Blue Devils are 11-2 and ranked second in the country.

Before taking over at Duke, coached at Hofstra for 21 seasons, compiling a 192-123 record (.609).

Led Hofstra to a 17-2 record in 2006, tying the NCAA record with 17 wins.

Took the Pride to eight NCAA tournaments, including four trips to the quarterfinals.

Including three seasons at LIU-C.W. Post, has an overall record of 230-141.

One of eight active NCAA Division I head coaches with 200 wins.

As a 1976 graduate of Rutgers, ranks second in school history with 120 assists.

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