Ex-Duke lacrosse coach finds success at RI program
By ERIC TUCKER
Associated Press Writer
Posted: Tuesday, Mar. 03, 2009
SMITHFIELD, R.I. Mike Pressler was convinced he'd never coach again after he was forced to resign from Duke University when three of his lacrosse players were accused of raping a stripper.
He was spurned by his college alma mater, denied interviews for high school positions and resorted to contacting former players for help getting work. His only offer came from a Division II program in northern Rhode Island far from the rarefied top-tier of college lacrosse occupied by Duke.
But three years later, and with the rape allegations fully debunked, Pressler is relishing a resurgent career at Bryant University. The Bulldogs are playing their first season against Division I competition, marching through a bruising schedule of Virginia, Maryland, Brown and other elite teams. His focus on building Bryant's program has helped raise the school's profile - and helped Pressler move beyond his acrimonious departure from Duke.
"I always say to the guys, 'Being at the top is great, but the journey's a heck of a lot more fun,' " said Pressler, who was hired at Bryant in August 2006. "To take our team to Division I in our third season, open at Virginia ... that's thrilling stuff, that's invigorating stuff."
His presence has paid dividends.
One of Pressler's former Duke players, Zack Greer, a three-time All-American and the all-time NCAA goals leader, used his final season of eligibility to enroll at Bryant as a business graduate student and leads the team with 13 goals in four games. Next year, Pressler will coach the U.S. team in the World Games in England.
"It's quite gratifying to see him land on his feet at Bryant," said Virginia lacrosse coach Dom Starsia, a longtime friend of Pressler's. "I think he's having a blast right now."
Bryant would have seemed an unlikely destination for Pressler, regarded as one of the country's top college coaches after going 153-82 in 16 seasons at Duke and leading the Blue Devils to the 2005 Division I title game.
But his career unraveled in March 2006 when an exotic dancer said she was raped in the bathroom of an off-campus house during a team party. The season was canceled and Pressler was ousted. Three players were indicted on rape charges that were dismissed the following year by North Carolina state prosecutors who declared the allegations fabricated.
Pressler contemplated leaving the sport. Instead, he was hired by Bryant after being recommended to the athletics director, Bill Smith, by a mutual friend and fellow college coach. Smith said he carefully vetted Pressler, clearing him with the university president and dissecting an internal Duke report chronicling the team's off-the-field behavior.
"It became very apparent to me early on that not only had Mike not done anything wrong - he had done everything right," Smith said.
Though grateful for the job, Pressler said the transition to a lower-caliber program was initially uneasy, especially for a coach who had just competed for a national championship. Bryant's lacrosse program was relatively new - it formed in 2000 - and, unlike Duke, didn't have access to the top high school recruits.
The Bulldogs won the Northeast-10 Conference's regular season title in Pressler's first year and won a school-record 14 games last season to reach the Division II tournament.
Bryant began moving its entire athletics program to Division I last fall. The men's lacrosse team, which is on a fast-track to full membership, won't be eligible for the NCAA tournament until 2011 but set up a loaded schedule this spring.
Bryant won three of its first four games after dropping its season opener, 10-4, to then-top ranked Virginia. The team's schedule will reunite Pressler with two of the exonerated ex-Duke players - Reade Seligmann, now at Brown, and Collin Finnerty at Loyola of Maryland.
Pressler said he's been approached by other schools looking for new coaches, but signed a four-year contract extension in August to solidify his presence at Bryant.
"What you're really looking for is people you can trust and people you can count on, and he may have found that at Bryant," Starsia said. "I wouldn't assume that he's only there for the short-term."
Still, it's hard to completely escape his past. Pressler has a slander lawsuit pending against Duke and a former university spokesman, accusing him of making disparaging comments to the media and violating terms of a confidential settlement the coach reached with the university. And Pressler said emotions are probably still too raw for a Bryant-Duke matchup.
Parents of his new recruits bring up the case, asking Pressler how his family got through the ordeal and how the vindicated athletes are doing. But it's nothing compared to his first season, which unfolded while the charges were still pending.
That year, he regularly discussed the Duke case with his new players and helped them navigate the unprecedented swirl of attention they received.
Now, he said, "all we talk about is lacrosse."