Item: It was one of those rare “wow” moments when it comes to head coaching changes within Syracuse athletics. Monday afternoon brought the official word from the school that all-time great Gary Gait is moving over from the women’s program to the men’s team succeeding John Desko, becoming just the fifth coach in the upcoming 107th season of the program’s storied history.
In Los Angeles Daryl Gross is smiling.
Six years after departing Syracuse following his tenure as SU athletic director (2004-2015), Gross (now the AD at Cal-State Los Angeles) is still leaving his mark in central New York. The news that Gait, whom Gross pursued relentlessly until he finally said “yes” in 2007 to return to his alma mater to coach the women, is also the star of current AD John Wildhack’s first major coaching hire in his five years on the job.
It was Gross who did the heavy lifting to pry a content Gait out of Denver where he was coaching the Colorado Mammoth in the National Lacrosse League, offering a staggering high six-figure salary and the lure of being able to coach his daughter Taylor (2013-19) on the Dome field.
There’s a lot to digest with this Syracuse coaching transaction:
1. Respected lacrosse website editor/publisher Terry Foy of Insidelacrosse.com got word of the impending change and broke the story Sunday night. This prevented the university from lining everything up exactly the way it wanted to control the message before it became public by:
- Announcing Desko’s retirement and providing advance notice of a proper sendoff press conference, which it promptly did Monday and will occur at 12:00 p.m. ET Tuesday at the Ensley Athletic Center where Desko will eloquently capsulize his Hall of Fame career including five national championships.
- Setting a date/time for an introductory press conference for Gait in which he will salute his predecessor and pronounce his vision for the men’s program moving forward.
- Naming Gait’s successor for the women’s program, and schedule that subsequent press conference.
In the dominant age of social media and message board forums providing the 2020s version of instantaneous news, ‘Cuse fans and the media that closely cover SU lax like no other program, went crazy Sunday evening with speculation, facts, and opinion.
2. It’s suddenly the end of the legendary Desko era, and what a 23-year run he had, although objectively the last eight seasons have been tough for a program of Syracuse’s status with no national semifinal appearances. Hand-picked to succeed his boss, the legendary Roy Simmons Jr. (six NCAA titles) after the 1998 season, former athletic director Jake Crouthamel (1978-2004) pronounced at the time of the hiring, “there is no better candidate to succeed Slugger (Simmons) than John Desko.” Desko’s teams proceeded to play for the NCAA title in each of his first three years, winning once, before adding four more championships, the last two in 2008-09. He’s third on the all-time list behind Denver’s Bill Tierney (seven NCAA titles) and Simmons.
3. The incomparable Gary Gait, by far the most well-known lacrosse player in the NCAA Tournament era dating back to 1971, is a home run hire. From the two incredible “Air Gait” goals in the 1988 NCAA Tournament against Pennsylvania, to winning championships in every possible major lacrosse entity; NCAA Division I men’s/women’s (Maryland assistant), NLL, MLL, Mann Cup, Heritage Cup, and the International Lacrosse Federation World Championship. Playing for Canada in that 2006 ILF championship against Team USA, Gait scored four goals in the fourth quarter to stun the American team 15-10, a squad that was coached by…John Desko.
4. The women will have just the third coach in program history following Lisa Miller who started the program from scratch in 1996 before leaving for Harvard in 2007, opening the door for Gross to entice Gait. Miller departed Harvard in 2018 and now coaches at UMass-Lowell. Gait’s replacement will likely come down to a couple of current coaches with SU backgrounds (think Katie Rowen or Regy Thorpe), or an outsider such as Stony Brook’s successful women’s coach Joe Spallina, whose son Joey (attack) is a ‘Cuse commit and top-ranked 2022 recruit. What number did the younger Spallina wear at Mount Sinai on Long Island? You guessed it, No. 22.
5. Give Wildhack a ton of credit for moving forward in another direction. In a scenario that resembled what Dom Starsia (Virginia) and Dave Pietramala (John Hopkins) went through at the end of their tenures both with Hall of Fame and national championship backgrounds, Desko’s glorious career was starting to dim a little with no NCAA victories since 2017, and the fan base was getting restless. Coupled with the awkwardness of the Chase Scanlon suspension and arrest saga over the latter part of this past season, caused Wildhack to ponder what had to be done to jump start the program. He delivered.