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. “A 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,” Cassese said, with obvious concern in his voice. “I think just recently, you’re starting to see it a little bit; it’s time for people to focus on the positive things our players do and who they are. They are really good people. They’re really good kids and they’re 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 they’re dealing with here. These are top-notch kids, and I think that’s important for people to know.”
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 doesn’t’ really surprise me one bit because that’s 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 it’s all about unity and just sticking together. When we come out in the fall and the spring it’s a new life and we’re able to move forward together. It’s 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 that’s Max Quinzani, Parker McKee, and Terrence Molinari, and I’m going to focus my attention on those three and that class. We’re 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 don’t feel like I’m far behind at all. I think I’m 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 it’s going to be a great situation to be a student athlete at Duke. I think all the recruits that I’ve spoken to have been receptive to that, so I feel like I’m in very good shape, and I’m confident about it. I think the kids feel good about where Duke’s at and where we’re going and I think we’re 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 haven’t had one instance of that. Like I said, the lacrosse community has been great including high school coaches and high school players. They’ve really felt strongly about this still being a great opportunity to get a great education and play great lacrosse at Duke. I’ve heard that from every person I’ve spoken to. I haven’t heard one negative thing on the recruiting trail, and that’s 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. It’s one of the top five universities in the nation. You come down to campus, and it’s one of the most beautiful campuses you’ve ever seen. The weather ain’t too bad either. Kids come down here and they enjoy that.
Lacrosse-wise, look at the team we’ve got coming back. We’ve got a pretty good lineup to work with next year. For a recruit…the opportunity is there and more so than maybe other schools because half our recruiting class decided to go elsewhere. Now you’ve got some spots that are going to open up. Instead of those kids logging some minutes as sophomores now you’ve got some of the incoming [recruits], the rising seniors right now, who are going to log some minutes as freshman. If I’m a recruit, that’s exciting to me. With all the things I said prior to, that’s an exciting thing. If you want to come and you want a chance to play—and it’s all about opportunity in recruiting, opportunity to play—I’d 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 year’s graduates….
The only person that I’ve heard who has had trouble with job security is David Evans, who is under indictment, and from what I’ve heard from people who are close to the family is they didn’t take away his job, they just suspended it until this clears, and that’s what I’ve 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 that’s going to continue to happen. It didn’t affect us this year, and I don’t 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 don’t think that’s the case. I think no matter where you are, if you’re 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 don’t think it matters if you’re a lacrosse player or if you’re a basketball player, or if you’re a football player and what school you go to. I think people sort of used what happened at Duke…at different college scenes I think every athletic director sat down with their coaches and said, ‘hey we gotta learn form this,’ 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 that’s what your going to see.
Kids are going to have to understand that, and we’re going to have to, as coaches and as teachers, we’re going to have to help them through it. That’s part of the deal and that’s part of the education process, and that’s why we’re 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. They’ve spoken about that. We’re 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 haven’t been. I think that’s going to impart a decision from whomever the next head coach will be and the entire staff.
Part of that is that they’ll be realistic team standards we need to have, and that will be addressed. The important thing to remember is that this is all about—coaching is all about—the education process. You want to make sure that when you talk about team rules and stuff like that, that you don’t 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 that’s part of the whole process. President Brodhead has been great in talking about that, and that’s what you’re going to see form the athletic department, and that’s 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, they’re going through the interview process. I’m not an actual member of the committee who are interviewing the candidates. What I’m doing is, I’m 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 don’t know. I am sort of playing an outside roll in it. For the most part, I’m letting the committee do their work. They’ve been selected for a reason, and you have to trust that they know what they’re doing. I have full confidence they’ll 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. He’s a tremendous mentor for me. He’s been great for me. He’s 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. I’m more interested to talk about how his family’s doing, and he’ll ask me about my family, and how everything’s going. He’s been in this business a long time, and he’s 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 can’t say enough about what a great man he is, and how selfless he’s 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 that’s 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 that’s all I really know of right now; I don’t know any different.
What about your prospects for this season and the season after. If you don’t 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?
That’s sort of a bridge that I’ll 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 can’t really plan too far ahead in general. Everything is on a year-to-year basis because you never know what’s going to happen or where you’re going to find yourself. For me, at Duke I’m very comfortable, it’s home for me, and it’s 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 “Conversation With Cassese: Concluded.”
If you would like to read the first part of a "Conversation with Cassese," click here.