This was about as bad as it could get for John Desko, and the rest of Syracuse lacrosse. Blowout losses, first-round NCAA tournament exit, and the grotesque Chase Scanlan incident marred the ’21 season. It ended up costing Desko his job. We may never know exactly what percentage of each contributed to the change, but the consensus around the program was that a fresh voice was needed. Desko had presided over a glorious first 10 years, but his second decade witnessed other coaches pass him by and the program drop in prestige.
When Desko took over in ’99 he was inheriting a Lamborghini. Syracuse was the Yankees of college lacrosse, a perennial powerhouse with a litany of legends of the sport. You could argue no program built college lacrosse more than SU. And Desko kept it functioning at an incredibly high level. He won a national title in ’00, ’02, ’04 and then the back-to-backs in ’08 and ’09. Desko took home half the national championships of the 2000s.
But the greatness of the program quickly faded. The landscape changed as the sport grew in the last decade. Upstarts like Loyola and Denver won national titles. Albany built a formidable power just two hours away. The Orange joined the ACC and now had to battle Duke, UNC and Virginia just to win its own conference. The dominance eroded. If the program was a sports car in ’99, it’s now a Toyota Corolla.
The Final Four used to be a Syracuse annual reunion. The SU lax community would mark on their calendars spending time together every Memorial Day weekend. No longer. It’s almost impossible to believe the Orange have been to only one Final Four in 12 years, and none since ’13. That’s like Alabama’s drought prior to Nick Saban.
Sitting at the top of the throne was always precarious because as more programs were built, better coaches dispersed, and more money was invested in the sport, SU’s monopoly had a time limit. But fellow historic powers Virginia, Maryland and Duke have continued to win big. Virginia has won three titles since SU’s last. The Terps have been to 5 championship games (and won a title) in that span. Duke has won three championships and been to a fourth in the last decade.
Desko didn’t keep up. When the talent was there, the results weren’t. When the other schools won the recruiting wars, SU fans wondered why. Sure, there’s been a population shift out of upstate New York and Long Island, two traditional hot spots for SU talent. But it’s still not enough to cause the Orange to go eight years without even a Final Four.
The Scanlan drama was the final straw. Desko seemed to stumble his way through the entire sequence, even if some of it was against his better judgement. In a moment where the program needed stability and leadership, it was the players who provided it, not the coaches.
Can Gait rescue the program? He’s by far the best candidate to do so. He is a living legend. His name still resonates for every young player he’d try to recruit. And he has experience building a program into a national power with the women’s team. He built a brand on charisma and flair. That’s exactly what’s been missing from SU men’s lax for so long. Let’s see if Gait can restore the glory. It’s been a long time coming.