Kevin Cassese is the busiest man in lacrosse. He plays in the MLL. He is playing in the World Games. He is the interim head coach of Duke University. He is a 25-year-old man moving into the stage of life that brings more permanency—he has recently bought a house and become engaged. We here at lax.com and LAX were able to steal a few moments of Cassese’s time over the course of a week. We spent most of our time talking about how he is managing life, and what challenges the new job at Duke is providing him.
We’ll share portions of our conversation with Cassese running in segments here on the site. In Part I we talked about how he is handling his loaded schedule, what it ‘s like to step into the role of head coach, and what is the atmosphere surrounding the lacrosse team inside and outside of the Duke community.
There is both vibrancy and fatigue in Kevin Cassese’s voice when you speak to him these days. Bring up Duke lacrosse and that dichotomy becomes even more apparent. Though I tried to avoid delving too much into events that have already been contorted through sensational reporting, questionable legal proceedings, and wavering public opinions, there were still times we had to mention the quagmire of the spring in Durham. It is in these questions Cassese’s voice begins to sound tired, and almost frustrated. He no longer wants to talk about it. He is not about reveling in the past. He is about the future. When the conversation can shift its focus to next year’s Duke team, and Duke lacrosse moving forward, his voice is infused with eagerness, hunger, optimism, and focus.
Between playing for the Rochester Rattlers, the US National team, and taking over the helm of his alma mater, it is easy to just be overwhelmed by Cassese’s relentless schedule. But after talking to him, what truly becomes impressive is the zeal this young man is putting into all of his endeavors.
He is a leader for the Rattlers, who are playing above their talent level right now. On Team USA’s prolific roster he has stood out—he spared 20 minutes to talk to me on July 6, and then went and garnered MVP honors at the MLL All-Star game. At Duke, without even being named head coach, Cassese has jumped into the driver seat and begun the long trip down the road to what will hopefully be a victorious spring in Durham.
How are you managing everything this summer: playing for Rochester, playing for Team USA, rebuilding Duke, and maintaining a personal and family life?
There’s not a ton of sleep involved, so you’re always on the go. It’s plane’s trains, and automobiles. I’m all over the place. I think the toughest thing for playing, as I’m doing the recruiting, and everything else that’s involved with the job, when I think about playing, the toughest thing is finding the time for myself and being able to get a workout in, get some shooting in, get some time for myself. It’s been tough to do that….It’s been tough before, so I just find time to make recruiting calls, and just fit that all in. If there’s a couple extra hours in the day I could use them, but unfortunately they don’t make them like that, so it remains just trying to fit everything in all at once.
Where are you living these days?
Living out of my suitcase is where I’m living. I’m living on a plane; I’m living in rental cars; I’m living in hotel rooms right now. I do own a house in Durham, which I have not been to in about six weeks. I haven’t even moved into it yet actually. I bought it in February, and I was still renting a place with some of my friends who were in grad school. I bought it in February with the idea that at some point in the spring, when things quieted down a little bit, I would be able to move in. Then obviously things didn’t quiet down. They got a little bit more hectic, and they kept getting more hectic, and I never got a chance to move in. Everything is sort of sitting in queue, waiting for me to get down there again, and when things settled down I’m moving in, and then having my fiancé move her stuff down there, and we’ll try to make a home.
How does it feel to be at the helm of your alma mater? What does it mean to be a part of Duke lacrosse?
It’s great to be there. It’s home for me. It’s a place that I love. It has a special place in my heart. Talking to all the other alums that I graduated with and that came before me, we all feel the same way. It’s a great place, and we want to see it do well. It means a lot to us, and we have a strong sense of pride when Duke University is at the top of whatever they’re doing, whether it’s lacrosse, or academics, or whatever it might be. When you talk about Duke lacrosse, there’s no better feeling than two years ago when we saw our guys playing in the national championship game. We had, I think section 227, was just filled with Duke alum and Duke parents, and everybody just rallied around the program. I think at that point we were able to really see that pride. It really came out, on that day in particular, the Final Four and then the National Championship. I think the camaraderie and the unity that exists in our program means a whole lot to a lot of people. For me, that’s really the driving force behind doing what I’m doing right now, is for myself, but also for all those guys who were out there blood, sweat, and tears together. I think that’s really the driving force behind what I’m doing.
How have interactions with alumni been?
When I say the Duke lacrosse family is more united than ever, I mean that as well. The alums have rallied around this program. Obviously being an alum, I’m very much intertwined with that, and they’ve been great. Support for our guys, support for each other, it’s just been a pretty cool thing to see. Sometimes it takes something like this to bring everybody closer together, and this has certainly done that. Everybody has rallied around each other, and looking forward to getting back to where we want to be.
Does it seem a fair portrayal from Brodhead to describe reinstating the team as a risk? Is there any bitterness with the way he canned last year without due process?
I think everybody in general was frustrated. I think the players, the coaches, I think even the administration, everybody was frustrated by everything that went on, the course of events. Nobody wanted to see the Duke lacrosse season canceled. We had a great thing going; we wanted to continue it.
In the end, when they talk about it being a risk to reinstate it, for him that was just sort of his way of challenging our team and our players, and saying we need to be able to come together, stay united, and keep our noses clean off the field and work hard on the field, and do our best to represent Duke University in a positive light. I think that’s a fair assessment. As coaches that’s what we want as well, and that’s’ what we want our players to do. If you want to run a great program, and you want to have a great team, and you want to have something you can believe in and have the university behind, you’ve got to be able to do it the right way and that’s what we are going to try to do.
Does the team or you feel that an apology is owed with the way they were vilified in the press before anyone had anything more than allegations to go by?
The only thing that I would ask from the press is that, I said this from the beginning, I wish that before people reacted the way that they did, they could just come and spend some time with our guys and see what great personalities they have. They’re good people; they’re nice kids. They’re very…they’re just great kids. I love the kids, and I think that is one thing that has been lost here because everyone has their own way of portraying a story and making it sound great, so they do what they have to do. The bottom line is, I know the kids better than anybody. I spend every day with them. If you want to talk about character, if you want to talk about just great personalities, you want to talk about just that stuff, if I had to give them a grade I’d give all of them an A+.
Has anyone lost faith in the judicial process by the legal quagmire this has become?
Have you? [laughter]
I gotta admit, yeah, a little bit. [laughter]
I think we all have. You read all the clippings; you see all the news shows talking about it. You see some of the experts talk like they’re talking about how these situations played out, you gotta listen to those people, they know what they’re talking about, and they’ve been pretty outspoken about it.
Have you had to do a ton of PR stuff to save face and build relations?
Like this, I’m happy to do it. I don’t know if it is necessarily saving face, but people want to know what’s going on. I’m happy to talk to people about it, and I think it’s an important thing to do. I think people just want to know. For me, I want people to know that everything is going to be just fine, that we’re doing great, we have our head up, and we’re standing together, and that Duke lacrosse is going to be just fine.
What is the atmosphere and public opinion of the guys on campus?
I think the feeling on campus, and people didn’t report this and it’s a shame they didn’t, but at the very beginning there was a ton of support on campus. The student body was awesome. Signs hanging off of dorms, “Support Duke lacrosse,” t-shirts—I think the bookstore sold out of our gear four times over. I think it sold faster than basketball stuff for the first time ever. People on campus, they support us, and I think that’s been a great thing for our guys to see, just to know that there are people out there standing behind them. That’s a great thing.
The women's lax team and Coach K have come out and publicly supported the team. How much does that mean to you guys? How do you think that will affect the team going forward?
It means the world. Those are the people you spend the most time with. My office is two doors down from Kerstin Kimel. My office is 100 yards away from Coach K’s office and the basketball staff. We’re all very good friends, and we all support each other through thick and thin. We support each other through the good times and through the tough times. For me, to see Coach K, and Kerstin, and Ted Roof the football coach, at my press conference in support of me and Duke lacrosse, that meant the world, and I think that’s a great thing for us and Duke lacrosse. It’s a great thing for our kids to see. Like I said, it shows what a great place Duke is and Duke athletics, and I think it speaks volumes for the people who are involved in it.
Do you think you will see more people in the stands next season?
Definitely, I think so. Even this year, just with the caliber of the team, that’s going to be a big thing. Also, people are just going to want to see how we react. I think it’s going to be a fun thing to watch on the field. We’re going to bring a great product, and I’m excited about that. As soon as we can get all the guys back together and get back to work it’s going to be a fun time.