Mike Pressler is in his ninth year as Bryant University’s lacrosse coach and he has shaped the Bulldogs into a plucky, stubborn opponent. They have won the Northeast Conference championship each of the last three seasons and last year dumped mighty Syracuse, 10-9, before falling to Maryland in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.
Pressler, 55, clearly knows what he’s doing, and he is also a man who previously paid a steep price for sticking by his players and living by his convictions. In 2006, amid trumped-up claims that three of his players at Duke raped a black female stripper hired for a team party in off-campus housing, school officials bumrushed him into resigning after 16 years as the Blue Devils’ coach.
The forced resignation, CBS reporter Armen Keteyian noted in a “60 Minutes’’ story that aired last Sunday, made Pressler the “sacrificial lamb needed to appease protesters and protect the school’s gold-plated image.’’
Everything about the woman’s story was bogus. The three players, all indicted on rape and kidnapping charges, were exonerated more than a year later. Yet when all the smoke cleared, Pressler was out on the street, out of work, a coaching pariah. He was turned down repeatedly for college coaching vacancies until Bryant officials had the courage to back a guy whose fatal flaw in Durham was telling Duke administrators that he believed his players were innocent, that he refused to abandon them, that they deserved due process of law.
He knew his players were guiltless, said the resolute Pressler, and he felt they deserved his loyalty and that of the university.
“It’s everything,’’ he told Keteyian of his sense of loyalty. “Without that, as a man, you have nothing.’’
Out of work, Pressler took action against Duke for wrongful termination and settled early in 2007 for an undisclosed sum. He then sued the school only a few months later, claiming that Duke broke confidentiality terms outlined in the settlement and further contending a school official slandered him. Some three years later, Duke settled the suit before trial, terms again confidential, and issued Pressler an apology. It took the prospect of court proceedings for Duke to start making things right with its former employee.
By then, thankfully, Pressler was already working his magic in Smithfield, R.I., transitioning the Bulldogs from Division 2 to 1. He was paving his road to redemption the way all coaches prefer, with a whistle dangling from a string attached to one hand and an eye fixed on winning.
Amid Pressler’s redemptive tale told so artfully by “60 Minutes’’ stood Chris Kennedy, virtually a Duke lifer, though he earned his undergraduate degree at Georgetown (’71) as well as a master’s there in ’74 before beginning his workaday life at Duke in 1977. Today, Kennedy is the school’s senior deputy director of athletics.
Early this year, Duke dedicated a tower on its athletic fields to Kennedy, an homage to his decades of service in the athletic department. He is a respected, remarkable guy, which came through vividly when he spoke to “60 Minutes.’’ His son, Joe, played for Pressler at Duke and captained the team in 2005, the season before the rape accusation.
Keteyian noted in the story that Kennedy commented on camera for “60 Minutes’’ even though he was advised to remain silent by school officials, warned that talking would not be in his or the school’s best interest.
Kennedy obviously didn’t care about the warning, or simply felt it was time to stop remaining silent, because silence is too often damning, even cruel. His comments made clear that Pressler had been wronged by the school. Further, Kennedy said the ordeal had been arduous on him, too, sharing with Keteyian, “Other than the death of my wife, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through.’’
“It was painful,’’ added Kennedy, “because you had 46 kids [lacrosse teammates] who were really suffering, who knew for a long period of time, that two, three, four . . . some number were going to be indicted based on no evidence whatsoever. Imagine the stress of that on the kids, their parents . . . ’’
No one had to imagine the price Pressler paid. It was all too real. A Bryant spokesperson, contacted early last week by the Globe, said Pressler would not make himself available for an interview in the wake of the “60 Minutes’’ report.
“In some quarters of the [Duke] administration,’’ Kennedy told Keteyian, “there was some belief that [the alleged crime] may have happened, and if that’s the case, they had to respond.’’
The three student-athletes eventually cleared their names and gained their lives back. The accuser was exposed as an utter fraud, the charges dropped. Nitwit district attorney Michael Nifong, who led the public’s rush to judgment with his histrionics and hearsay, was shown to be a rogue prosecutor who ignored the facts, seemingly as a cheap, hurtful ploy to try to get reelected.
And Pressler? Besmerched by all of it and forced to quit by then-Duke athletic director Joe Alleva. Prior to landing the Bryant gig, Pressler told “60 Minutes,’’ one school was so reluctant to have him on campus to talk about a coaching opportunity that it requested the job interview take place at a highway rest area in Lynchburg, Va. Ah, the bravado of academia.
Some nine years after the firing, his words measured and firm, Kennedy said that Duke officials blew it.
“I think that a lot of officials at the university have come to the realization, or came to the realization within a year or so,’’ said Kennedy, “that probably Mike shouldn’t have lost his job.’’
Good on Kennedy. He said what needed to be said, amid a climate and culture in which he was encouraged to keep his mouth closed.
We send our kids to these schools, pay obscenely high tuition rates, for them to learn how to succeed in an increasingly sophisticated and demanding world. Urging students to tell the truth, admit mistakes, correct wrongs, speak truth to injustice, and be decent, compassionate human beings are lessons all schools should be expected to teach.
Too often, as was the case with Duke, they flunk the course themselves.