Mike Pressler, head coach of lacrosse at Bryant University, with his players during a practice. A scandal tested two university presidents.
It was the kind of Cinderella victory that belongs in the pantheon of underdog moments.
The unranked Bryant lacrosse team beat mighty number-two Syracuse in the nationals — but something was in play that day that transcended sport.
The win was also a flash of redemption after a shameful American lynching known as the Duke lacrosse scandal. For at the helm of the Bryant team was the coach thrown to the wolves in 2006 by Duke’s president — then given his only comeback offer by the president of Bryant.
Coach Mike Pressler embraced that offer, stepping down from Olympus to take on a no-name college team in Smithfield, R.I., and eight years later, two weeks ago, for one triumphant moment, he brought it to the peak of the lacrosse world.
But perhaps the real heart of this story is how the scandal tested the character of two university presidents.
One was Richard Brodhead of Duke, considered the Ivy of the south. The other was Ron Machtley of the emerging but still regional Bryant University.
The behavior of Brodhead will forever stand as a profile in cowardice.
By contrast, Machtley was the only school leader in the nation to stand up for the falsely accused.
Pressler had spent 16 years building Duke into the top-ranked team it continues to be today. But in March of 2006, an exotic dancer was thrown out of an off-campus lacrosse party after an argument and told police she’d been sexually assaulted. Despite the “victim’s” questionable account, a district attorney running for reelection pounced on the volatile case and charged three lacrosse players with rape.
The DA was eventually disbarred for misconduct, and the charges dismissed. Today, the accuser is in prison for a murder she committed afterward.
But at the time, the case was so volatile that protesters demonstrated against the team. It left Brodhead with a choice. Would he do the hard thing and stand by his students as innocent until proven guilty? Or play to the angry crowd?
He chose the most pandering possible course. He canceled the entire lacrosse season. Then he handed one more body to the mob, forcing coach Pressler to resign.
The publicity left Pressler so radioactive that even high schools wouldn’t return his calls.
Only one institution made him an offer — Bryant.
Let it be said that President Machtley was not acting on virtue alone. He wanted to take Bryant’s middling Division-II lacrosse team to D-1 and saw a chance to get perhaps the best coach in the country.
But it was still an enormous risk. The North Carolina DA was out for blood. If he got rape convictions, any president who touched Pressler would be tarnished. So none did.
But Machtley looked into the case, talked to those involved and felt the team had been railroaded. So he took a chance. He brought Mike Pressler from North Carolina to Rhode Island.
He did so knowing it would be a long road for the program. Even with a top coach, Bryant didn’t have the reputation to lure the best recruits. Building a new D-1 lacrosse team takes time.
Which brings up how one other man’s character was tested. Pressler agreed to a five-year contract. By the time it ended in 2011, his image was rehabilitated. He got offers from the most prestigious lacrosse schools in the country.
Yet he couldn’t say “no” fast enough. Machtley, he says, gave him his life back, and he will never forget that. Mike Pressler is now in Year Eight at Bryant.
After the case against the Duke players collapsed, President Brodhead admitted he got things wrong, but said the facts were unclear at the time. It was a disingenuous apology. Pressler remembers that as he was forced out, Duke’s athletic director told him, “It’s not about the truth.” Indeed it wasn’t. It was about President Brodhead’s cowardice.
In certain mythical stories, a fearful king banishes a knight who returns years later to the castle gate at the head of a great army. Bryant’s lacrosse team was on track to face Duke this year in the national championships if both teams made it. Duke is still in it, but Bryant fell to powerful Maryland in the Elite Eight round.
Yet in beating second-ranked Syracuse two weeks ago, Pressler showed recruits everywhere that he now captains a formidable force.
Bryant has risen.
Because of a coach who persevered.
And a president who risked for principle.
While his counterpart at Duke bears the shame of having sided with the mob.