Following the official announcement of John Danowski as Duke University's new men's lacrosse coach, the former Hofstra head man took some time to talk with Inside Lacrosse's Craig Johnson in his first one-on-one interview since accepting the position.
Q: What were the primary factors that weighed into your decision to accept this position? How much did Matt [John's son, an All-American attacker] being a player there factor into it?
A: I think No. 1, the opportunity to coach at Duke University. It's one of the top institutions in the world by any standards. If this is what you think you are as a coach and as an educator, then the opportunity is just phenomenal. The fact that Matt is here too, that's awesome. No. 2, I look at this as a chance to take part in a great healing process.
Q: What is that dynamic going to be like coaching your son? Do you try your best to treat him like any other player?
A: There are two things. First, I've never had the opportunity to coach a returning first team All-American. I can work with that. And number two, Matt is a coachable player. He wants to win, he wants to be successful, and he wants to be a leader. I can work with that, too. I'm sure there will be times where we butt heads, and times where he's muttering under his breath. I try to treat all of my players like my son, and I will treat Matt like my son. That's something I've been pretty consistent with over the years, and the Hofstra people will tell you, my team is like family to me.
Q:We did a story in the [Inside Lacrosse] magazine on Matt earlier in the year where you mentioned that if Matt had gone to Hofstra, you would have known about his social life, and that's probably something neither one of you wanted. What's different as far as that goes now?
A: I think for the kids here at Duke, they just want to play again, you know. Just name a coach and play. As far as what's changed, I think the fact that Matt's older now. I've seen a pattern with my upperclassmen. When they are freshman and sophomores, they're still learning, they make some good decisions and they make some bad decisions. But by the time they are juniors and seniors, they really start to get focused academically and athletically because they know that they don't have much time left. They put more of an emphasis on their bodies, on nutrition, on working out. They are sharper. At that point, seniors just want to win.
Q: What kind of interactions did you have with not just Matt, but maybe other players on the team throughout this past season?
A: Unfortunately, I had very little contact once the season was suspended. Normally, we [Hofstra] would play maybe a Friday game when Duke had a Saturday one, so I would get to see six, seven, eight games usually. But once the season was suspended, I hadn't gone down there until the interview for the coaching position.
Q: After such an incredible run with Hofstra last year, and being such a fixture of that program for so long, what made this the right time to take on a new challenge?
A: The moon, the sun, the planets were aligned. I could come up with none, except to say that it was right. My children are older now, so I didn't have to disturb their lives by making the move. I've never been one to look at other jobs I've never been a job seeker. I've never applied for another job since I've been at Hofstra. The opportunity just arose. Something happened that was somewhat extraordinary, and you go and give it your best shot in the interview.
Q: When did you become serious about applying for the Duke position?
A: Not until it was announced that the program was reinstated, because before that it wasn't real.
Q: What are the priorities that you have in taking over, or steps you need to take to help re-establish this program? What about in terms of restoring community relations?
A: On the field, not a whole heck of a lot. Every time a coach comes in to a new position, he establishes his own expectations and way of doing things. I don't need to make a huge statement or beat them over the head with it. It's just subtle changes that worked for me in past: strength training, speed work, practice, seizing every educational opportunity. I've learned not to assume that young men are always worldly and mature. So just taking the opportunity to teach them about decision-making and leadership.
Q: Obviously you're walking into an extremely unusual situation in taking this coaching position. How much added pressure is there knowing that Duke will be very much in the spotlight on and off the field next season?
A: None. I've talked to other coaches and they've all told me that it could happen to any of us. Regardless of whether you're a football coach at Notre Dame, or a hockey coach at Boston College, we all know that we're one night, or one phone call away from being in a similar situation. We all live like that. My gut tells me these kids are going be angels simply because of what they've gone through. I would be shocked if anything happened because of what I know of the character of these kids.
Q: How long do you think it will take before people stop thinking of Duke lacrosse in terms of the rape scandal and start thinking of them as one of the country's most successful programs again?
A: I think the legal process will have a lot to do with that. Once that goes away, then I think that will happen. Unfortunately, that won't be done for awhile.
Q: How does the loss of several top recruits that had committed to play for Duke hurt the depth of the team next season?
A: I don't think at all. If anything, it solidifies a sense of purpose for the kids already there and what they are. If those particular players don't want to be a part of that, then the current players are probably glad they didn't come. I don't think that will be issue.
Q: Despite the loss of those recruits, all of the returning players have shown loyalty in staying on with the program. What kind of message do you think that sends?
A: I think it sends a very powerful statement about how they feel about Duke University, even though they went through something here that no student should have to go through. It sends an unbelievable message.
Q: What are your expectations for next season? Duke was in the national championship game in 2005 playing a very exciting, up-tempo style. What kind of game, style do you see this team playing next year?
A: We would like to continue that kind of style, and take something we learned at Hofstra as well and apply that to the athletes here. This is a very proud, experienced group. I'm looking forward to getting to know this team, particularly the younger kids, and finding out what they are capable of.
Q: How do you think your experiences as a father through all of this impact your ability to be the coach of this team next season?
A: They're going to help me, and give me insight. These are young men, and they are going to struggle at times. I want to help them through that. I want to help make their experience here a great one, one that they can look back at with a great sense of pride. Hopefully, we're going to learn a lot about ourselves and each other.
Q: Did anyone that you are close to try to talk you out of going for this position, and if so, what did you say to them?
A: Not one person anywhere, no one.
Q: The players have written up their own stricter code of conduct next season as far as their actions away from the field. Are there any additional standards that you're personally going to hold them to to make sure everything runs smoothly next season from a social perspective?
A:We've always operated in the past under the rules of common sense and human dignity. When you apply those to the rules they've [the players] put in place, it actually becomes more strict. But I really don't foresee any problems. I don't think anybody wants to be the guy to let everyone down.
Q: Obviously as a coach you can't be with them all the time. From you experiences at Hofstra, what can a coach do to help ensure players aren't putting themselves in positions where they could get in trouble off of the field?
A: Constantly remind, threaten sometimes (laughing), constantly seize every teachable moment. I'm not talking about being an abolitionist, but in moderation. I'm talking about being aware of the time of day, the environment, where you should and shouldn't be. You can never not take the opportunity to teach. You can't go home at night as a coach and say, 'Oh man, I should have said this to them.' And don't judge them when they do something wrong. Explain, discipline, inform them again. And just be honest with them. If you are honest with them, they're going to be honest with you.
Q: Will you renew the Duke-Hofstra series now that you're coaching at Duke and don't have to coach against your son anymore?
A: Absolutely we will come up and play the Pride if the new coach up there is interested.
Q: As far as the assistant coaching situation, will Kevin Cassese remain on the staff?
A: I just found out about being offered the position at 5 p.m. [ET Thursday] night, and I got out of my dinner with [Duke athletic director] Joe Alleva at 9 p.m. So I didn't have time to call anybody. But I would absolutely love to keep Kevin on the staff. He's a Duke man, he's a hard worker. He's got lots of playing experience, both on the professional and international level. He's the the son of a coach. He's young, yes, but we all started out somewhere.
Q: I know you've been a coach for 20-plus seasons now, but are you nervous at all taking on this new challenge?
A: No, this is exciting. Coaching is fun. When it's not fun, that's when I'll stop. You get to be with 40 college kids almost every day, you get to set goals and go out on the field and play. It's never been a job for me. It's turned out to be a career, but it's never been a job. I'm very, very fortunate in that way.
Q: In your ideal world, how does next season play out for Duke men's lacrosse?
A: Playing on Memorial Day weekend. One thing I've learned, though, is that this ain't Hollywood. You've got to earn everything you get, and it doesn't just happen because you want it to happen. It's going to take a lot of hard work.
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