The old adage in sports is “what have you done for me lately”.
For John Desko and the Syracuse Orange men’s lacrosse program, the recent answer has been: not much.
The last 12 years have brought a drought of championship success not seen since Syracuse became a lacrosse superpower. As the 2010’s progressed, the postseason failings devolved into regular season failings, with everything coming to a head this past season. The Orange finished with a record of 7-6 and got blown out five times, leaving the Syracuse lacrosse community wondering if the time for change had finally arrived.
That question was answered on Sunday, when the news broke that Gary Gait would become the fifth head coach in the history of the men’s lacrosse program, and John Desko would be officially announcing his retirement.
It is an upsetting and disappointing ending to a legendary career for Desko, and now that the transition has been made, it gives us all a chance to reflect back on the era that was.
John Desko came to Syracuse in the fall of 1975...and never left.
After graduating in 1979, he immediately joined the staff of coach Roy Simmons, Jr. for the 1980 season, where he remained for 19 years. As an assistant, he played a critical role in helping build the Orange into a perennial power in the sport. When Simmons retired and it came time to hand over the reigns, it was Desko the school turned to in 1999. He held the job of head coach for 23 years, during which he continued the success and led the program to becoming the winningest (in terms of NCAA titles) in Division I history.
In his 46 years at Syracuse, Desko was a part of 529 Orange victories as a player, assistant and head coach. That means about 57 percent of the total wins in program history have in some way included him.
He went 265-92 (.742) as a head coach, winning five national championships to go along with the six he won as an assistant. He retires with the third-most national championships, 15th-most wins, and third-most NCAA tournament wins in Division I history.
However you choose to quantify or qualify his career, coach Desko is a legend both at SU and in the sport of lacrosse. Few resumes can match up with the Hall-of-Fame career that he has put together.
11 NCAA titles, including 5 as head coach.— Syracuse Men’s Lacrosse (@CuseMLAX) June 7, 2021
More victories at Syracuse than all-but 18 NCAA DI programs have in total.
Countless lives impacted.
Legendary head coach John Desko has announced his retirement.#ThankYouDesko https://t.co/93CN0Ndx4P pic.twitter.com/ZzOgdz6E7c
On Tuesday, an era in Syracuse sports officially came to an end when John Desko held his retirement press conference.
The man has been here since the mid-70’s. Basically every significant moment in program history that we all think and talk about has happened with him on the sideline. His combination of longevity, commitment and overall success stands along with Jim Boeheim and the Simmons’ in Syracuse sports history.
When coach Simmons Jr.’s own legendary career came to an end in 1998, Desko was assigned the task of replacing the coach with the most national championships to his name in history (at the time).
Speaking of old adages, we’ve all heard the one about not wanting to be the guy to replace “the guy”, right? Across the sports spectrum, you never want to directly follow a coaching legend, because it’s simply too much to live up to. But somebody always has to do it, and in replacing Simmons, Desko did it just about as well as anyone ever has.
Sure, you can talk about winning with Simmons’ recruits, at least at first, and there may be some truth to that. But the bottom line is that Desko still had to get the job done in the face of tremendous pressure to succeed, which he did in spectacular fashion.
He went to the NCAA title game in his first four seasons. He won three titles in his first six seasons. He won all five of his head coaching titles in his first 11 seasons, a remarkable string of success that helped push SU right to the top of the college lacrosse world.
Watch Coach Desko's opening remarks from today (he wants everyone to know he's chipping away at returning the thousands of texts/calls from the last few days).— Syracuse Men’s Lacrosse (@CuseMLAX) June 8, 2021
Full Press conference: https://t.co/0Wya96IR8Q pic.twitter.com/pTZ3MAVzjL
This was not the ending that any of us wanted for Desko’s tenure. His final decade or so was mostly marred by teams that were either good and failed in the tournament (‘10,’11,’14,’15,’17) or teams that weren’t all that good (‘12,’16,’18,’19,’21). The only exceptions were 2013 (title game) and 2020’s non-season.
The program fell behind its competitors in the ever-expanding and changing landscape of Division I college lacrosse. This makes for an unfortunate ending for someone who has meant so much to the Syracuse lacrosse program.
I know that the disappointment of recent years is top of everyone’s minds these days when it comes to the men’s lacrosse team, but I do hope that Desko is ultimately able to be remembered for his incredible record of achievement.
For nearly half a century, John Desko gave his all to the program that he loves so much, helping to shape it into the most successful one in college lacrosse history.
Congratulations to coach Desko on a legendary career. Can’t wait to see he and Coach Simmons Jr. sitting up in the box taking it all in next year.