By Zach Babo
Mike Pressler is off to a good start so far in 2008. His Bryant team beat Adelphi handedly, 16-7. With one season of DII play under his belt, Pressler has a better idea of what to expect out of his team and his opponents.
His friend and colleague John Danowski has also sprinted out of the gate with the Duke team he inherited from Pressler. With two convincing wins, Duke looks like they may be poised to make another run to the championship. Another man with ties to Duke and Pressler, Kevin Cassese, faces the same challenges of a fresh start both of these men did last year as he leads Lehigh in his first season as a head coach.
We talked to Pressler about his connections to both of these men and Duke, his pride for his former players, and his future outlook for Bryant…
LAX: You bring that big time attitude to Bryant in terms of athletics. Has it been easy to bring that attitude, or have there been challenges? How does Bryant compare with DI programs in terms of facilities and what not?
MIKE PRESSLER: I can tell you this, the fields, the facility, the playing surface here…you gotta remember the Patriots trained here for 10 years. This is the home of their training camp, so Bryant, when the Patriots left, inherited all of those fields. We have a great Astroturf facility as well, and lights, and a terrific weight room. Certainly the facilities need…we need some additional support locker room-wise and equipment rooms, but I think down the road that’s coming. That just goes to commitment from the president to the Division I model, and hopefully that comes sooner rather than later, but I know Ron Machtley [president] and Bill Smith [athletic director] have a plan for that, and I know that will be implemented in the timeframe that they see fit.
LAX: Part of how you built Duke was before you could get the top players, you tried to recruit big, athletic guys that could learn the game, until eventually you started getting talent like Zash, Cassese, Danowski, and Greer. Are you doing the same thing at Bryant?
MP: I don’t think that’s going to be the case. We’re recruiting the best player right now, not necessarily the biggest…I think that model as I remember, early on, in those early 90’s, we were so, we were just beaten down physically. We didn’t have the physicalness per se, the level of athlete the other teams have, and there was a conscious decision on our part to recruit the bigger, stronger athlete. And what people don’t realize too, we weren’t fully funded at Duke until about the 2002 season. I had to use a job offer from another prestigious university to get the athletic department to fully fund the program, so we were operating for almost 10, 11, 12 years with a very modest amount of scholarships and still doing pretty well. And then it’s funny, in 2002 we become fully funded, and then a year or two later you see the Greer’s; you see the Danowski’s, and the kind of recruits we got, and we were finally on an even playing field with everybody else in the ACC and those top teams in the country, but it took us 10, 12 years to get there.
Is there any blue print from building Duke that will carry over to Bryant?
I think what you do is, you have to be patient. We’re not looking for any quick fixes here. We’re not going to load this team up with transfers. That’s not the way you go. You build it with good solid classes. We have 22 freshmen on the team in our first year here…We’re building it with a strong foundation of not only terrific players, but quality young men that are serious students that are great guys.
When you start playing DI opponents in 2009, how much are you looking forward to playing against teams you used to play and coaches who were colleagues you have known for a while and are friends with still?
I can’t wait for that. We’re going to try to enjoy our last year in DII first. We’re not going to think about that. We have aspirations to compete nationally here, with the best teams in DII, but when the ’08 season is all over, we’re pretty much done with the ’09 schedule, so we’ll take that challenge, and our guys, when we get to that point, are looking forward to it. We certainly have to keep recruiting here. We’ve got to bring in another level, a different level of player. I think we’re doing a good job there. A lot of work. This is a two, three, four-year kind of program to get on par where we can compete with those guys.
When you do go DI, will you try to schedule games against Duke?
I can tell you this, I think down the road, if we could ever work out a date and have that game played, I think we could get a few tickets sold.
Yeah I’d say a storyline would be there.
But you want to play them…we gotta wait until Danowski and those guys get out of there. (Laughing)
I guess that would be a difficult thing, coaching against not only great talents, but guys you know, you coached, you root for.
I would prefer certainly when those recruits were gone, that would be a lot easier for me personally, because of all that we’ve gone through. Hopefully down the road John [Danowski] and I can get together and get a game…we’ve talked about it casually, and maybe down the road we can make that happen.
Do you still keep in contact with a lot of the Duke coaches from other sports?
Oh yeah, very much so. Chris Kennedy, the senior associate AD, is one of my best friends of all time, Kerstin Kimel, the women’s lacrosse coach, is a great friend of mine, a bunch of the trainers. I’m close to John Danowski. I’m very supportive of John, and he’s been great by me. I think that’s been a very mutual respect and friendship there. He allowed Matt to come to Duke and allowed me to recruit Matt to come to Duke, so we had that relationship from day one, and John’s a fine coach and doing a great job with the Duke program.
How did it feel watching Duke make it to the final last year? Was it all pure joy for them, or a little bittersweet?
Seeing them have the year that they had, with all the pressure, all the scrutiny, all the harassment, and to get to the championship game, win the ACC outright, regular season and tournament play, and to get to that game and be there, you went from the joy, just the absolute thrill of watching them achieve what they wanted to achieve so badly, and then at the end of the day, just not get it. One pipe, one shot, one save, and to come so close, and to be defeated by Hopkins, certainly like we were in ’05, it felt so, the emotions for them, just the heartache for them…you coach because of one thing, the players. This is all about them. Whether I coached them or John Danowski coached them or Kevin Cassese, I could care less who coached them, I just wanted to see them get to that moment and finish the unfinished business that we had in ’05, and when they didn’t get it, that took my breathe away. That took me a couple days to get over that one.
I know Coach Danowski invited you into the locker room after the game to talk to the guys. What was that experience like?
That, that was much more than I thought it would be. I thought it would be very emotional. I was prepared for that. There was a quote, ‘speech’ that I had rehearsed a hundred times, given the opportunity that I was going to say to them. But just walking in there, I made eye contact with Matt Danowski first, and just the hugs, and the sobbing, and just the…from one after another, from Tony McDevitt to Peter Lamade to Zack Greer, to Danny Loftus, and Casey Carroll, all those kids that we had recruited, it was just devastating to be in there and to gather yourself and kind of, for your last time ever you’re going to address the boys. I wanted them to think, and certainly, how proud I was of them, but I think how proud the world was of them. I think one of the things that I said in that talk I, said, ‘The roles are now reverse. You have become the teachers, and the world has become the students. You taught the world how to stay on the high road, to do all those things and then to maintain your integrity and honor and all that,’ and they did it. When some many people in so many different groups were trying to take them down, they refused to lash out and lower themselves, to that level. They’re some bunch and will always have a special place in the Old Coach’s heart because of that.
What prompted you to get involved with the book, “It’s Not About the Truth” with Don Yaeger? Did you just want to get a message out there?
You read the inside flap of the book and it answers that question. I made a promise on April 6 , the day that I was fired and the season was canceled, that I would, among all the misery, untruths, all the lies that were out there, mystery, that I would make it right by them and tell the world the truth. So me doing the book with Don Yaeger was me fulfilling my promise that I was going to tell the world for our players the absolute truth.
Was it kind cathartic, just getting this out there, getting it off of your chest and out of your head somewhat, allowing your side to finally be heard?
I think there’s some truth to that. For me it was just fulfilling my promise. I have many faults, but when I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do that. I owed that to them, and Don Yaeger did a great job putting that book together. We’re proud that it is the truth, and that it is there for the world to read and see.
There are a few different “Duke Lacrosse” books out there. Why did you decide to do the book with Don instead of perhaps someone else?
I think the agents kind of put us together. It happened that way. Don is a very, very famous New York Times best selling writer, and worked for Sports Illustrated and had a lot of experience under his belt. He’s a sports-book guy so to speak. After meeting him I just knew this was going to be first-rate.
What as the response been like from the book with Don?
Been great. We’ve gotten a lot of publicity for the book early on. It’s a New York Times Best-Seller, I think it was on the New York Times best list for three or four weeks this past summer, so I’ve got no complaints that way.
There are a few other books out there. Have you read any of the others? Are there any that are more definitive than others?
I’ve read Stuart Taylor and K.C. Johnson’s book [Until Proven Innocent] and that comes at it from a different angle. That book is tremendous too. K.C. and Stuart did a fabulous job on that, much more from the lawyer’s point of view. It’s the story, but just from a different angle.
What did it mean for you to see your former player and assistant coach Kevin Cassese take over Lehigh and get his first win?
I was at the Brown game Sunday, I went to Brown-Lehigh, and actually saw Kevin get his first loss, because that was Reade Seligmann’s debut in a Brown uniform…But I talk to Kevin a couple times every week. He is one of the brightest young stars in this profession. You give him a couple years to get the level of recruit that he’s looking for into Lehigh, and you’re going to see a team that in two, three years is competitive for the Patriot League title and an NCAA Division I berth.
I guess that was a win-win situation for you. Lehigh wins and your former assistant and friend gets a boost, and if Brown wins, Reade Seligmann gets one after all he’s been through.
This is the truth, I was hoping Reade played great, but I was hoping Lehigh won…I couldn’t have it both ways, so the closest I could have it was that. Fortunately Reade did play well, I was happy for him and his family, but Lehigh didn’t win.
You seem to still enjoy watching guys you worked with have success. I know you and Matt Zash were close, how did it feel seeing him win the MLL Championship with the Philadelphia Barrage?
I don’t spend a lot of time watching the pro game, but I do pay attention to our guys who are playing in the pros. Matt and I do talk weekly. There’s a bunch of those seniors, the class of ’06, that had their season canceled that I stayed very close with, that I stayed close with for obvious reasons, and Matt I talk to often.
I heard Matt has aspirations of coaching. Have you encouraged him in that way?
He’s got to finish his master’s, per se, and then we’re going to see what opportunities lie out there. If there’s ones that lie up here, certainly, if there’s ones at other Division I or Division II schools I’m going to be, without questions, Matt’s advisor, and support Matt in anything that he wants to do, especially in the coaching ranks.
You’ve played in three DIII championships, one DI championship, I was trying to find this out, but if you could do it this year and make a run at the DII title, would you be the first coach to take a team to a championship at every?
I have no idea, that’s for guys like you to find out. I have not paid attention to that. We’ve won regular season championships in three different conferences now. We’ve won it in the ACC [Duke]; we’ve won it in the NE-10 [Bryant]; we’ve won it in the NCAC [Ohio-Wesleyan]; so we’ve won conference championships in Division I, II, and III. That would certainly be great to get to that game, if we’re fortunate and lucky enough and good enough to get there. Getting there, I’ve been there, it’s not getting there so much, you want to get there and certainly win the thing, but I mean there’s a lot of great teams out there in Division II that want the same that we want and that road is going to be very difficult to say the least.
Having experienced that a few times, what is that like, to take a team all the way to the brink, but to fall in the last game? It is this great accomplishment to get to the championship game, but it is a disappointment when you don’t win it. What do you say to a team afterwards?
As I say to all our teams, you’re never judged in one game; you never should be. You’re judged by the body of your work…As players, you want to be judged by the body of your work, not just one game. If you get to that point and lose, you want to make sure that the players understand that. That everything they put in and all they did accomplish, so they leave that particular year and season on a high note. But it would be nice to be on the other end and say, ‘hey, you’ve got some nice hardware to show for it in the final game.’
How would you describe your Bryant teams?
We’re getting back to playing a very up-tempo, very exciting style. I think this year fortunately we’ve got some depth. We’ve got some middies in numbers now. We’ve got some additional D guys, some additional attackman. We return one of the best faceoff guys in Division II, who blew out his knee a year ago.
With that year under our belt, the kids know what’s expected. They know how we want to practice. You don’t have to coach every little thing. The leadership is in place. So from that point of view, everything was so new last year, for them, for me. With an exciting year under out belt, that part of it is behind us, and now the cohesion, and the direction, the goals, the expectations, the directives are all in place, and we’re all on the same page as we strive to get there.
You come in with a resume that shows success in DI, success in DIII, last year you came in and had a solid, winning season. Is there a little extra pressure on you this year to do that again, and to make this team more and more competitive every time you put them on the field?
I think there’s internal pressure. You look at the facts: we lost one senior. That’s an amazing thing. I’ve never heard in the sport of lacrosse where you graduate one senior and one senior only, a great one in All-American Bryan Molk, but we return the entire team plus 22 freshmen.
Do you have any expectations or a way you are gauging this season?
We expect to be very competitive, much more competitive. Last year we went into the season with no expectations. Early on, I didn’t think we would win a game. I had no idea about Division II; I had no feel for this team. Sure enough, we lose two in a row, and then we went on to win nine in a row and beat Le Moyne, won the regular season NE-10 title, and that was so rewarding. Obviously you go from no expectations, to you lose one senior, you got a hell of a schedule again, you know the bar’s been raised, Certainly there expectations are higher, and that is coming from us and us alone.
How would you describe your coaching style, or the attitude you take to a program?
I would hope to be very professional with the players. We treat them very well; we treat them like grown men. We provide them all the means necessary for them to be successful. We care about our players other than being players. We care about them as students. We help them be successful once they leave Bryant. We care. It’s not a four-year commitment; it’s a 40-year one. We conduct ourselves as gentlemen. I think that starts at the top down. I think I’m brutally honest, truthful to a fault. I think young men who are serious players want that in a coach. I think we communicate. There’s no rock unturned here so to speak. The kids know what’s expected, there’s no loose ends. I think it goes back to the Division I model, a level of professionalism. We treat them like pros, and we expect them to go about their studies that way, to act that way and certainly play that way.
Any secrets to staying warm standing on a New England sideline?
The emotion, the adrenaline keeps me warm, that, and a couple jackets, and some long underwear. The Old Coach is doing fine.