In Part II of our continued conversation with Kevin Cassese we talked to the young Duke coach about rebuilding his team, from gather players, to selling his school, to finding a new, permanent head coach.
Cassese seemed an easy fit for many to take over the Duke program, despite his young age. When you talk to him about next year, it is easy to see why. He cares about Duke. He knows what it is like to be a Blue Devil. He understands his players. Perhaps most importantly, he is interested in doing right by them, and doing right by Duke, before anything else. Regardless of what may have happened this spring, you cannot convince Cassese that Duke is anything less than one of the top universities in the country academically, socially, and athletically. He plans on keeping it there.
While talking to him about the team, the sincerity of his conviction and compassion for his players is more than apparent. He defends their characters and sings their praises. ďA lot of people over the past couple months have done a lot of digging into our guys, the character of our players, and trying to expose negative things,Ē Cassese said, with obvious concern in his voice. ďI think just recently, youíre starting to see it a little bit; itís time for people to focus on the positive things our players do and who they are. They are really good people. Theyíre really good kids and theyíre trying their best to make this a positive experience. I think for me, being able to speak for them just a little bit, I hope everybody understands that these kids are good kids. They have great character. They come from strong families. That at the end of the day, I wish everybody could come down and spend a couple hours with each one of the kids and see exactly what theyíre dealing with here. These are top-notch kids, and I think thatís important for people to know.Ē
The more you talk to Cassese, the easier it is to believe him.
No current players transferred or left Duke. Was that surprising to anyone? What did the guys do or say to keep everyone around?
It doesnítí really surprise me one bit because thatís what the program has been founded on for many years, strong bond, strong unity. That is the most glaring example of that; every single one of the players is coming back. That says a lot about what the program is founded on. I think itís all about unity and just sticking together. When we come out in the fall and the spring itís a new life and weíre able to move forward together. Itís all about sticking together and having that strong bond.
Do you think anyone unfairly took advantage of your recruiting vulnerability?
Not to my knowledge. I think, at the time every single player was granted their release, and by NCAA rules they can go and initiate contact with other coaches and other coaches can talk to them. None of that seems unfair. Obviously, I really wish we were able to keep our entire recruiting class. I thought we had a great class, but all I can focus on are the people who want to be at Duke, and right now thatís Max Quinzani, Parker McKee, and Terrence Molinari, and Iím going to focus my attention on those three and that class. Weíre glad to have them.
How difficult is recruiting for you right now? How far behind are you? Can you make up the time anyway?
I donít feel like Iím far behind at all. I think Iím right there, right on schedule. I was able to reestablish relationships that we had before all this happened, able to reassure all the recruits that itís going to be a great situation to be a student athlete at Duke. I think all the recruits that Iíve spoken to have been receptive to that, so I feel like Iím in very good shape, and Iím confident about it. I think the kids feel good about where Dukeís at and where weíre going and I think weíre in good shape.
Has it been a little tougher to get high school coaches to give you access to their players? Have you noticed high school coaches changing their tone about Duke, where once they would push recruits to go there, now they might not?
Absolutely not. I havenít had one instance of that. Like I said, the lacrosse community has been great including high school coaches and high school players. Theyíve really felt strongly about this still being a great opportunity to get a great education and play great lacrosse at Duke. Iíve heard that from every person Iíve spoken to. I havenít heard one negative thing on the recruiting trail, and thatís just a testament to the strength of the Duke lacrosse program.
Say I am a recruit, how would you pitch the school to me?
To be honest with you, Duke sells itself. Itís one of the top five universities in the nation. You come down to campus, and itís one of the most beautiful campuses youíve ever seen. The weather ainít too bad either. Kids come down here and they enjoy that.
Lacrosse-wise, look at the team weíve got coming back. Weíve got a pretty good lineup to work with next year. For a recruitÖthe opportunity is there and more so than maybe other schools because half our recruiting class decided to go elsewhere. Now youíve got some spots that are going to open up. Instead of those kids logging some minutes as sophomores now youíve got some of the incoming [recruits], the rising seniors right now, who are going to log some minutes as freshman. If Iím a recruit, thatís exciting to me. With all the things I said prior to, thatís an exciting thing. If you want to come and you want a chance to playóand itís all about opportunity in recruiting, opportunity to playóIíd be looking at Duke right now.
One of the big reasons to come to Duke is the academic strength, and thus placement in the job market, but it sounds like several players have had job opportunities diminish because they were Duke lacrosse guys. Is there anyway the school is trying to combat that, so when these guys go into the real world they are not carrying smudged reputations from being on the team?
Who have you seen that with?
In a Sports Illustrated article they mentioned that a few of this yearís graduatesÖ.
The only person that Iíve heard who has had trouble with job security is David Evans, who is under indictment, and from what Iíve heard from people who are close to the family is they didnít take away his job, they just suspended it until this clears, and thatís what Iíve heard from them.
Everyone else who graduated last year has kept their jobs and are doing great in them right now, and there was no issue there. I think our guys are going to graduation from Duke with that Duke degree and get great jobs, and thatís going to continue to happen. It didnít affect us this year, and I donít see it affecting anything next year either, or the years after.
What do you say to concerns about being under the microscope? If I am a recruit, I could go to Duke and have all of my off the field actions monitored tightly, or I could go to UVa or Hopkins and have a bit more of a relaxed, less scrutinized time.
To be honest with you, I donít think thatís the case. I think no matter where you are, if youíre a college athlete this day in age, you need to be wary of decisions you make each and every day and each and every night. I donít think it matters if youíre a lacrosse player or if youíre a basketball player, or if youíre a football player and what school you go to. I think people sort of used what happened at DukeÖat different college scenes I think every athletic director sat down with their coaches and said, Ďhey we gotta learn form this,í including the ones at Duke. I think there are going to be changes all over the nation at various universities, various colleges, to learn from this and to grow from it, and I think thatís what your going to see.
Kids are going to have to understand that, and weíre going to have to, as coaches and as teachers, weíre going to have to help them through it. Thatís part of the deal and thatís part of the education process, and thatís why weíre in this business, to help kids learn about making right decisions and doing the right thing.
Have you laid out in detail exactly what will be expected of next years' players, and what the consequences for infractions will be?
I think the administration has done a great job at spearheading that charge, more so for all student athletes at Duke. They are coming out with a Code of Conduct for the entire student athlete body. Theyíve spoken about that. Weíre going to have some team rules that are going to be enforced, more so than just being written down, where in the past maybe they havenít been. I think thatís going to impart a decision from whomever the next head coach will be and the entire staff.
Part of that is that theyíll be realistic team standards we need to have, and that will be addressed. The important thing to remember is that this is all aboutócoaching is all aboutóthe education process. You want to make sure that when you talk about team rules and stuff like that, that you donít want to set people up to fail. You want to make sure that you have some strong guidelines for these kids to live by, but you also have to keep in mind that these are kids, and part of our job is to educate them, and I think thatís part of the whole process. President Brodhead has been great in talking about that, and thatís what youíre going to see form the athletic department, and thatís what you are going to see form our coaching staff.
How has the search for a permanent head coach been? Are you part of the hiring process?
Where it stands right now, theyíre going through the interview process. Iím not an actual member of the committee who are interviewing the candidates. What Iím doing is, Iím keeping close contact with my bosses, the associate athletic director and the athletic director, and just talking to them about how the interviews are going, giving my two cents here and there about what I know about the candidates and what I donít know. I am sort of playing an outside roll in it. For the most part, Iím letting the committee do their work. Theyíve been selected for a reason, and you have to trust that they know what theyíre doing. I have full confidence theyíll be able to choose the right candidate.
Do you still stay in contact with Coach Pressler? Has he been supportive in all of this?
Yes, I do speak with him. Heís a tremendous mentor for me. Heís been great for me. Heís the one who brought me to Duke in the first place. I was a two-time captain for him. I just served as an assistant for him, so yeah, I speak to him quite a bit. Iím more interested to talk about how his familyís doing, and heíll ask me about my family, and how everythingís going. Heís been in this business a long time, and heís actually helped me through it and is willing to help me through it. I think that says so much about him and his character, and how much he cares about the program and how much he cares about me. I canít say enough about what a great man he is, and how selfless heís been through this process.
Is it weird at all to fill in for the man who coached you and was very important to your growth as a lacrosse player?
I can say this, it seems like it might be weird or it might be a tough position to be in, but he has made it just an unbelievable experience for me, because he has given me his full support, and he has really been behind me the whole time, from day one, and thatís really made it just a great experience for me.
Have they given a date as to when they will name the next head coach?
Initially upfront I think Joe Alleva said they wanted someone in place by August 1st. I think August 1st is a good deadline. I think thatís all I really know of right now; I donít know any different.
What about your prospects for this season and the season after. If you donít get the head spot, will you stay with Duke for a while as an assistant or will you test the waters and try to find a head coaching job somewhere else?
Thatís sort of a bridge that Iíll cross when I get to it. For me right now, my main goal is staying at Duke and doing whatever I can to bring Duke back to the pinnacle of the sport. In the coaching profession, you canít really plan too far ahead in general. Everything is on a year-to-year basis because you never know whatís going to happen or where youíre going to find yourself. For me, at Duke Iím very comfortable, itís home for me, and itís a place where I could see myself for a long time. My immediate plans are going to remain at Duke.
Stay tuned to the site for the third and final installment of a ďConversation With Cassese: Concluded.Ē
If you would like to read the first part of a "Conversation with Cassese," click here.