It is almost a ritual nowadays for Syracuse fans to become unhappy with head coach John Desko at some point during the season. This year, those grumblings have become louder than ever, so the lacrosse writers at TNIAAM sat down to answer a few questions surrounding the issue. This is a long one, but read on and leave your comments, thoughts and hate mail in the comment section. I'm sure there are some strong opinions out there so have some fun. G'Orange!
What are your initial thoughts on Desko's coaching performance this year?
Jim: Talk to me following the Albany game, and I was truly taken aback at the offensive potential of this squad. Defensively, I was really impressed by Nick Mellen and I thought Brandon Mullins had made some big strides from 2015. Seven games later, I don't have the same feeling. For me, Desko's coaching really came to the forefront against Duke when the Orange failed over and over again to effectively cover Deemer Class from deep. The issue wasn't poor slides or losing Class on the field, it was just a lack of respect for his abilities. This was an epic failure in my eyes, and it pointed right to the coaching and defensive scheming. Other than that moment I really don't feel like the defensive breakdowns have been coaching errors. Nick Mellen is young so I can attribute some of his mistakes to just not being experienced enough and I think he will come along in time. As for Brandon Mullins, it is the same old song and dance. Mullins is a senior, he knows where he is supposed to go and what he is supposed to do and I don't think you can blame the coaching staff for his ball watching; that's just who he is. On the offensive side of the field, SU has a bunch of new weapons, but what they don't have is a true QB after the graduation of Kevin Rice. Syracuse is relying more on dodging and outside ball movement to find open players and good matchups. I have no qualms with how the offense is being run with the personnel available.
Andrew: Overall I think the offense has performed well this year and has been well coached. The only real time I was all that disappointed in the offense was against Hobart, they fell asleep in the second and third quarters, and almost cost the team the season. The defense is a different story, and I think Desko needs to take some of the blame for that. His coaching has mostly been fine, but blowing that lead to Duke and Hopkins was not a good look.
John: I think Desko has done a fine job so far this year. Let's not forget that this is a team that needed to replace 5 of 6 starters on offense, a starting close defender, long-stick and short-stick middies, and the starting goalie. Their 3 losses have all been to top-level opponents, and they probably should have won against Hopkins and Duke if not for two late collapses, which I don't necessarily think is on Desko's coaching. The only real blip on the radar for this year's team was the Notre Dame loss. While that was an embarrassing 10 point blowout at home, I'm not sure that one game should be enough to define a coaching performance for an entire year (9 games so far).
Do you believe Desko should be replaced? If so why? If not, is he untouchable and what would it take for you to switch to the other side?
Jim: No I don't. I don't think it's even close to that level. In his 18th season as the Head Coach, Desko has compiled five National Championship wins and eight National Championship appearances. Under Desko, the Syracuse Orange have only missed the NCAA Tournament one time and he holds a 32-11 Tournament record. If you are looking at this season, I don't think two overtime losses to top twenty teams, followed by a bad loss to one of the best squads in the country create a valid reason for his dismissal. Lacrosse is easily this school's best athletic program so how the heck do you axe the coach?
Not only do I think firing him is a bad idea, I do think he is untouchable (barring some sort of off-field incident). We are talking about a coach that has taken his team to the final game of the season nearly 50% of the time. Also take into consideration that Athletic Director Mark Coyle is still in his first year. He is overseeing coaching transitions in football and basketball, so for him to then unseat one of the most successful lacrosse coaches in not just Syracuse history but the history of the sport would be nearly unfathomable. For God sakes, the man has had one losing season and followed that up with back-to-back titles.
What would change my mind? 1) numerous, consecutive losing seasons, 2) a loss of the physical or mental ability to coach, 3) some sort of wildly awful off-field incident. That's it.
Andrew: I don't believe Desko needs to be replaced, but Coyle needs to sit down with Desko and find out what is going on. Lacrosse was Syracuse's sport, and I know the growth of the game and other factors have contributed Syracuse no longer being that premier team, but there is something else going on. I think the recruiting might be an issue, and obviously defense appears to be one too. I don't think Desko is untouchable, his teams have not done much of late, and I think that his recruiting over the next couple years will be crucial.
John: I don't believe that Desko should be replaced. I think that he's one of the top coaches in all of college lacrosse, and I think that getting rid of him would be a classic case of not appreciating what you have until it's gone. Desko has the highest winning percentage of any active head coach and 5 national championships to his head coaching credit. In the past 5 years, this team has had tremendous regular seasons followed by disappointing postseasons, which I believe is more a credit to parity in the game than anything. The days of Syracuse getting to 22 consecutive final fours are long over. There are far too many quality programs for that to happen anymore. Remember, back in 2007, Syracuse went 5-8. Well, they followed that up with back-to-back national championships. For me, it would take multiple years of losing records to change my belief that John Desko needs to be replaced.
Are the defensive issues Desko's fault?
Jim: I think I somewhat addressed this already, but the answer is yes and no. Defensively, I blame the Duke loss on the coaching staff. In the Notre Dame beat down I saw better athletes on the midfield for the Irish, a tough Notre Dame defense, and Syracuse long poles who forgot where they were. It is very tough to change a player's mental game, and you cannot coach a player that does not want to be coached, and what I am referring to is Brandon Mullins continuing to revert back to his ball watching ways. It really is almost as if he forgets his assignments. As for the goalie situation, I won't blame Desko for starting Warren Hill, and I think if you watched him in the 2014 FIL World Championships you would agree. So in sum, I don't think Desko's had a great year coaching the defensive side of the ball. Other than the addition of Mellen, this is basically the same defensive unit that lacked the same field awareness that we saw in 2015. Some of that is coaching and getting players focused, but I think most of the blame for that rests on the players.
Andrew: I don't think the defensive issues are Desko's fault, but I will say that he has to ask Lelan Rodgers just what is going on out there. The defense has been absolutely pathetic this year, and I know we all thought that Hill would look he did when he was on the Iroquois National team, but that hasn't been the case. However, not much can be blamed on him as the defense has just allowed guys to be wide open all year long. The communication of defense is atrocious, and guys have no idea what the slide packages are.
John: I point in the direction of Lelan Rogers first when discussing this team's defensive issues. While Desko certainly oversees and has input with every aspect of the team, Rogers is in charge of the planning/execution for the defense. The schemes and defensive game plans are his, and he is the one being the most hands-on with the players. What have been this team's biggest issues on D? Poor off-ball defense, poorly-timed defensive switches, weak play from the shorties, and mediocre goaltending. The play of the goalies and the shorties is really more just lack of ability than anything coaching related. The off-ball defense and the defensive switches are aspects of the D that can be more controlled by the coaches, but again, I would say that is more the responsibility of Rogers as the defensive coordinator than Desko. I'm not saying Desko is without blame for the defensive shortcomings, but if I have to assign top blame to someone, I'd start with Rogers.
Has recruiting really become an issue, and if so, is a change in the coach the answer?
Jim: Recruiting has become an issue in the respect that it has become more competitive. That being said, Syracuse is still pulling in top rated recruits. Under Desko, the only season in which a recruiting class was not ranked by Inside Lacrosse was 1999, his first year, and in that year I believe only five teams were ranked. What may be hurting this team right now is the 2014 class. I believe only player from that class did not redshirt last year, but still, as group they have been underwhelming. When you talk about recruiting, you also have to look at the transfers. This year's team features transfers Nick Mariano, Nick Piroli, and Ben Williams as well as OCC transfers Warren Hill and Tim Barber. Is there any other team in division I that is benefiting more from transfers than Syracuse right now? I don't think so.
The one thing I will say is that Syracuse was embarrassed in the recruiting of Myles and Lyle Thompson. I always think of that quote from Lyle Thompson: "Syracuse honestly didn't recruit both of us too hard, I think they just expected us to go there." When I read that I was stunned. It should be noted, however, that SU still had the second best rated recruiting class for Miles' class and the sixth best class in Lyle's year. Still, the Native American recruiting scene has historically been DOMINATED by SU, and in the recruiting of Lyle and Myles we saw a big chink in the armor.
While SU is certainly getting after new recruiting grounds in the southeast and in Texas, the program may be letting its roots wither a bit.
Andrew: I absolutely believe that recruiting has become an issue. If it were not for Ben Williams falling out of the sky into Desko's arms, Syracuse still might not have a decent face-off guy. The juniors and sophomores have not produced at all and the main guys that are producing out of those classes are transfers. Westin, Simmons, Lane, Carlin, Ford, McKinney all of those guys have been disappointing. They could really use some of the guys that transferred out of the program like Forkin, DeJohn, and obviously McGinley was kicked out but still.
John: I think if you went back and looked at the last half dozen years of recruiting, say by looking at Inside Lacrosse's Top 100 seniors, you would see that Syracuse has fallen behind some other top programs in securing top level recruits out of high school. Jordan Evans, the #1 recruit three years ago, has been more the exception than the rule for Syracuse as of recent. Thank goodness for the OCC transfers, who have made a big difference over the last decade. Cody Jamieson, Jeremy Thompson, Randy Staats, and Tim Barber all came to the Orange from OCC. Also, Dylan Donahue started his career at Air Force. And let's not forget about Ben Williams, a godsend who came to us from Holy Cross. Many of the most important players in recent Syracuse history did not choose to come to Syracuse out of high school. I'm not sure what the answer is to Syracuse being able to attract more top tier recruits out of high school, but I don't think that firing Desko is the answer to that idea.
What are the potential repercussions of replacing Desko?
Jim: Whenever a team's fanbase starts grumbling about replacing a successful coach, I think back to the 2008 Tennessee Volunteers. I'm sure there are other examples, but I'm a big UT fan so this is the one we'll go with. Just a year after finishing tied for first in the SEC East and winning the Outback Bowl, then Head Coach Phil Fulmer was released following a 5-7 2008 season. The Vols replaced its National Championship winning coach with none other than
the devil Lane Kiffin, a man who was hailed by many fans as the next great Tennessee coach (but now known by many other names in the state of Tennessee). Fast forward to the end of the 2009 season when Kiffin had to be snuck out of Knoxville after stepping down to take the USC job. Derek Dooley then replaced Kiffin. Dooley went 15-21 over nearly a full three years with a 4-19 SEC record before he was axed in what proved to be a disastrous hire that took the program to the brink. It took four, very forgettable, seasons before Tennessee finally got back on track. I always refer back to that coaching move because we always forget that you never know what, or who, is around the corner. The potential negative repercussions of replacing Desko FAR outweigh any positives. If you bring in another coach and there isn't instantaneous success or improvement, the program takes leaps backwards. Remember, Syracuse has had only four coaches in 100 years, that says a lot.
Andrew: Replacing Desko would obviously be a huge deal, coaches with the wins and championships that he does, don't just get fired. I will say that Syracuse lacrosse was essentially the Alabama football of college lacrosse. If Nick Saban were to only wins 9 games for the next 3 seasons, I think Alabama is going to look at that with concern and see what the problem is. All I'm asking is for the Athletic Department to take a serious look at the dip of this program.
John: This is the scary question for me. What happens if we let go of Desko and things don't go so well for a few years afterwards? Will we have made a huge mistake by getting rid of him? I said it earlier. I believe Desko to be one of the top lacrosse coaches in all of college lacrosse. The man has had nothing but success for a decade and a half in charge of this program. Can we expect to win 5 national championships in a decade like we did in the 2000s? No, the reason for which harkens back to my comment earlier about parity in the game, which is very real. But John Desko continues to win. I'm not going to let a three game losing streak against Hopkins, Duke, and Notre Dame, two of which were overtime losses, scare me into wanting to make any move on Desko...partially because I'm afraid of what happens if we get rid of him.
Are there any real candidates out there who could replace Desko?
Jim: Uhh, I hear Chris Bates is available? Just kidding. I think the only person who could come into that position and make the necessary splash is Gary Gait. That being said, I really don't buy into the somewhat popular idea that Gait is waiting in the wings. He has put together a very successful women's program and other than the current grumblings from the fan base, there is really no indication what so ever that Desko is on his way out, so I don't know why he would be waiting. There are plenty of schools that would take him instantly if he wanted to coach on the men's side. If you are looking outside of SU for a candidate, one name I would throw out there is Joe Amplo, the head coach at Marquette. Amplo played his college lacrosse at Hofstra and went on to serve 10 years on the Pride's staff. He is the first coach in Marquette history bringing the Golden Eagles to a ten win season in its third year of existence. This season, Marquette continues to rise with a 7-1 record including an 11-3 win over Villanova last week. He's not the only candidate out there, but I think Amplo is definitely a rising star in the game I can see him becoming a very hot commodity in the near future.
Andrew: In terms of candidates I don't think there are many. Maybe Gary Gait, you could ask him to slide over to the Men's side and see how he does. Also I would definitely put a call in to Mike Pressler at Bryant. I know he has said in the past that he wants to stay there, but I think it would be hard to turn down the Syracuse job. I would also put a call into Lars Tiffany from Brown. They play an up-tempo high scoring brand of lacrosse, and it could bring a return of old school Syracuse lacrosse back.
John: And this right here is the key question for me. If you want to get rid of Desko, who exactly do you think is going to replace him? You want Casey Powell to take over the program? Move Gary Gait over from the women's game? Bring back Roy Simmons Jr. at 80 years of age? John Desko is the lacrosse version of Jim Boeheim. He got to campus as a student in 1976 and hasn't left. He became an assistant coach after he graduated in 1980, and took over as head coach for Simmons in 1999. He's been with Syracuse lacrosse for 40 years, and he probably knows more about how to succeed with this program than anyone outside of maybe Simmons. I don't see who the candidate would be to replace him, but I also don't think he needs to be replaced.