Duke's Danowski shows nice guys can finish first

After the winning goal hit the back of the net just five seconds into overtime, Duke coach John Danowski was walking up and down the sideline hugging everybody.

An NCAA Division I men's lacrosse championship has been a long time coming for Danowski. First, there were his 21 years as coach at Hofstra and then the past four at Duke.

The Duke era may have been the most painful because Danowski was supposed to win here. Now that he has, Danowski, 54, has proven that nice guys can finish first.

"This is a great win for John," Towson coach Tony Seaman said. "He was my assistant at C.W. Post years ago, and what a great guy. He has a wonderful personality, and nice guys don't always finish last."

That was always the knock on Danowski. He was too nice. When the Blue Devils lost to Johns Hopkins in 2007, it was because Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala was sterner and more disciplined and outcoached Danowski, who gave his players too much freedom.

Those same sentiments followed him in 2008 and 2009 when Duke was eliminated in the NCAA semifinals.

What are they saying now?

"They can say whatever they want about him, but he just proved he was the right man for the job, the right man to re-establish Duke," Loyola coach Charley Toomey said. "He is a better person than he is a coach, and will always be that way."

"There are few guys out there that you can reach out to, and John is always willing to give sound advice."

Danowski is a technician, but Duke hired him in July 2006 primarily because of his easygoing manner. The team and university had been rocked by rape allegations that later proved false but led to the dismissal of coach Mike Pressler.

Pressler was also a technician but tough and self-driven. Whenever teams hire new coaches, they hire the opposite of the previous one. Pressler was the bad cop. Danowski was the good one.

"He went to Duke when there was a lot of pressure," Seaman said. "He had to teach the players to deal with the media and the public scrutiny. He had to teach them to be men, and he had to keep them focused to be here."

Duke had great talent before Danowski arrived, and that put more pressure on him to win immediately. But that didn't happen, even with attackmen like his son, Matt Danowski, and Zack Greer.

But this season, Danowski changed. According to his son, the coach discovered that players at Duke are no different than those at Hofstra.

"He figured that players are all the same," Matt Danowski said. "It took him awhile, but he learned. X's and O's are the same everywhere you go. Coaching-wise, he knew how to get the best out of his guys."

Duke finished 2010 with a 16-4 record, but it wasn't easy. The Blue Devils opened the season with a 2-3 record because some of the seniors became big-headed. Danowski moved some of them around in the lineup, including star senior attackmen Max Quinzani and Ned Crotty.

For those who think Danowski is too nice, Quinzani knows a different side.

"It's awesome for him to win a national championship," Quinzani said. "He has been here four years like me, and we finally cracked the code in the final four. He had a couple of sit-downs with us this season, and used some psychology.

"He did some switching of the lines, and there were some 'come to Jesus' moments. For the first time, he challenged me as a team leader, and looking back, I needed that."

Danowski also made one other significant change in 2010. He ceded offensive coordinator duties for the first time to assistant Ron Caputo. Calling the offense had always been Danowski's forte.

"He became more of an overseer, more of a complete team coach," Quinzani said.

By the time the Blue Devils hit the postseason, they were rolling. They scored 19, 18, 17 and 14 goals in the four games leading up to Notre Dame. No matter which coach you spoke with, they all thought Duke was the team to beat.

Danowski had been in this position before, but it turned out differently this time. In the past, Danowski always put playoff losses in perspective because he treated every game as a game, not a life-or-death issue.

On the sideline, he has always handled himself with class. In a game in which coaches make themselves look like fools by arguing with officials more than in any other sport, Danowski has always remained calm. Last season, 12 Blue Devils made the All-Atlantic Coast Conference Academic Team, and 28 players achieved grade-point averages of 3.0 or better.

Nothing will change for Danowski, a first-class act.

"This is going to sound really dumb, but it's never been about winning," Danowski said. "Winning is a byproduct of a lot of things, of a foundation of athletes, of hard work, of a little bit of luck. It's relationships with the people that I work with and the kids that I get to work with. That's what it's about for me. And maybe people don't believe that, but it is. Winning, it's awesome. But you also know that if the faceoff went the other way, I wouldn't be sitting here maybe. I've been around long enough to know that, too, that it goes both ways."


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