Desko fits in as coach at Syracuse

He's first non-Simmons with job since 1931

April 10, 1999|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- John Desko points at the framed photograph of Jim Brown's last lacrosse game at Syracuse University that dominates the left wall of his office.

"Roy doesn't like this picture because the ball is here and everyone is looking the other way," Desko said. "But I like it."

That's a typical scene between Desko and his mentor, Roy Simmons Jr.

Different tastes. Different styles. Same passion for winning.

So when Simmons announced his retirement, he only wanted to hand the job given him by his father to Desko, a longtime assistant who became the fourth head coach in Syracuse's 83-year lacrosse history.

Al- though Desko is the Orangemen's first coach not named Simmons since 1931, he can hardly be considered an outsider to the Syracuse family: He's the only fixture next to Simmons during an unprecedented 16 straight Final Four appearances.

"They have an extremely strong relationship, almost a father-son type of relationship," said Simmons' son, Roy III, who is an assistant under Desko. "It is that strong of a bond."

Desko, 41, played under Roy Simmons Jr. for four seasons and assisted him for the next 19 years. He has shared in building up what was a mediocre program in the late 1970s, winning 264 games and six national championships.

Simmons is the godfather of Desko's daughter, Casey. During his single years, Desko would eat dinner over at Simmons' house so often that Roy's wife, Nancy, had hoped their daughter would marry him.

Despite their closeness, their personalities didn't rub off on each other.

Simmons, who took over as coach for his father in 1971, is known for waxing poetic about philosophy or art, steering conversations off on tangents with his off-handed wit. Desko delivers his message in three or four sentences.

On the sidelines, Simmons sauntered carefree. Desko yells.

In the locker room, Simmons motivated the Orangemen with emotional hellfire and brimstone speeches. Desko preaches executing his well-devised game plan.

"We always played that game: the good guy and the bad guy," Simmons said. "I always accused John of being the black hat, and I wore the white hat. He was the disciplinarian; I was the shoulder."

Yet this cohesive relationship occurred accidentally.

After Desko finished his playing career as a converted defenseman, he still needed a few credits to complete his degree and didn't have any immediate plans after college. At the same time, Jay Gallagher, the assistant who switched Desko from midfield to defense, decided to leave Syracuse, prompting Simmons to offer Desko the job.

Since Desko made only $1,000 a year as a coach, he had to bartend and wait tables in his spare time.

Nearly two decades later, Desko is married with four children and in his first year of one of the most coveted lacrosse programs. Playing a major hand in constructing Syracuse from a possible playoff contender to national power, he received several head coaching offers but never followed up on them.

Desko remained the loyal soldier.

"I really didn't feel the need to go somewhere else," Desko said. "I didn't want to go to a small program or back to a high school where I really would have to develop the individual skills of players. I got spoiled by the players here."

Yet the first year of his dream job has caused some sleepless nights as a result of some off-the-field incidents.

Desko had to dismiss a freshman goalkeeper from the team in the fall and then had to deal with three players being arrested after athletic equipment was stolen from a campus field house days before Syracuse's first spring scrimmage.

"That was difficult," Desko said. "I think, over a 20-year period, you see these situations. But I don't think we have ever had the number of situations we had this year. It threw us off a little bit. But I'm happy to say how the team adjusted. I think it's behind us."

So during the week of preparing for top-ranked Loyola, Desko can focus on what he loves, dissecting game film in his office. Behind the television, he has a pressure-filled backdrop of national championship and semifinal plaques crammed along his window sill and file cabinets.

"I certainly enjoy this role," Desko said. "But in Syracuse, if you win and have success, you have good players. If you lose, then the coach screwed up. It's a no-win situation. But we expect to win, expect to go to the playoffs and expect a shot at the national championship."

Pub Date: 4/10/99

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