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Commentary: If You Love Him, Let Him Go

On the state of Syracuse lacrosse

Army v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Well, it’s happened again. Another Syracuse lacrosse season ending in an unceremonious thud. This time at the hands of hated Georgetown in embarrassing fashion. For the third straight tournament, never mind the goal of Memorial Day with a trophy or bust, it’s not even a trip to the quarterfinal in the cards. A senior student at Syracuse has gone their whole college life without even getting a quarterfinal men’s lacrosse game with the Orange in it. At least there’s the women’s team with a good shot at making Memorial Day Sunday, and if they fall short they get their injured stars back for another run next year.

But for the Syracuse men, it’s much of the same. Back in the day, that would’ve been a great thing. 22 straight Final Fours. 11 national titles. But these days, it’s been one-and-dones. Sure, last year could’ve been special had it not been for COVID-19 derailing everything. But on that same token, that could’ve been a quarterfinal loss to these Hoyas, or maybe a Penn State or Penn, or god forbid an underseeded Cornell team or allowing Princeton back into the final four for the first time in forever after playing them for the first time in forever.

Perhaps some Syracuse fan in Cicero or DeWitt sold their soul the final five minutes of the 2009 national title win, when the Orange had their miracle comeback victory against Cornell. Since then, the Orange have made every NCAA Tournament, but one final four (thankfully in my senior year as a student), four quarterfinal exits, and now six first round exits. Sure, there were some exits due to faceoffs dictating everything (Bryant 2014) or second half surges that couldn’t be stopped (Army 2010/Loyola 2019) or stall ball (Maryland 2011) or bad matchups (Towson 2017) or just simply being the lesser team (Duke 2012/Maryland 2016). But in the end, it’s all kind of the same now, isn’t it?

Since that Final Four run, Syracuse’s rivals have been racing ahead. Virginia’s got another two titles since the wildest 23 seconds in lacrosse history. Cornell’s been to more final fours since losing to Cuse. Syracuse is in better shape than hated Johns Hopkins, but Hopkins themselves took out Syracuse to get to a more recent final four. Notre Dame’s been a consistent Final Four bid. Even Albany finally got their final four run in. And what’s worse, Syracuse had better regular seasons or expectations more often than not compared to almost all these teams I listed.

Something’s gone wrong here.

This isn’t a shot at the players and coaches and who they are as people. As has been well documented, the stand the players on this team against allegations of domestic violence by a suspended teammate should be greatly praised. These young men have made their message clear and should be commended for what they did there. And even though it didn’t go well on the field, and their frustration took control at times, they still left it on the field and gave it 100%.

But the fact remains this team was supposed to be national championship contenders. Instead, we’re ending another season with a first round exit, a 7-6 record, and five humiliating blowouts racked up along the way. After all the disappointments that have come on The Hill in recent years, they don’t come close to matching this one given all the expectations this squad had this February. Duke and Maryland and North Carolina lived up to theirs– Syracuse did not. Could have it been the COVID factor, or the off-field issues bubbling up, or something us in the general public don’t know about? We’re not sure. But this is still going to go down as the most disappointing season in a long time at Syracuse, which is saying something given some of Jim Boeheim’s flops through the years or even this year’s women’s hoops team not living up to expectations a bit.

What it comes down to is that one of the fears I’ve had the first five years is coming to roost. Things are getting stale. It’s time for a refresh. And what that comes down to is a changing of the guard.

Now, longtime readers of this site know that in my early days I wrote articles in a similar vein to Spencer Hall and EDSBS in its glory days with some satire. One of my running gags was Syracuse fans upset with not making a Final Four in 3 years (how quaint) looking for head coach John Desko to be fired. Obviously, this was completely outrageous, but was kind of a nod to how insane the Syracuse fanbase on the message boards can be.

John Desko’s forever going to have a legacy at Syracuse, with the national titles he’s won and the success the program has gained, with a seamless transition from the days of legendary coach Roy Simmons Jr. The Syracuse machine didn’t lose a beat. And even with the changing of how lacrosse has been played in the past decade, for the most part the Orange have held their own in the regular season.

But championships are won in May, not in February, March, and April. And this is a results based business. And the facts don’t lie. Syracuse has been involved on the wrong end of some of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history in the past 10 or so years, with Army and Bryant in the first round while the Orange were a 2 seed are at the forefront. Syracuse is now going 8 years since a Final Four, and and unheard of 4 since a Quarterfinal. I’m not sure if I’d go as far as saying the game has passed John Desko by, because the guy can still make adjustments with the best of them, but it’s clear something’s amiss.

The recent track record’s also unsettling. Syracuse has lost a lot of players to transfers, with Desko’s redshirt policy being a big reason for it. The result? A heck of a lot of ex-Syracuse guys putting up big numbers elsewhere. Notre Dame-Drexel on Saturday had two of them scoring on each team. There’s another one for Maryland that played Sunday that you’ve probably heard of. That’s after another Syracuse guy went to Maryland and lit it up, by the way. And the recruiting track record hasn’t been too great, either, though the upcoming class does look a bit promising.

Two things can be true: John Desko has been a great coach for Syracuse and it’s time to move on from John Desko. It’s time to go in a new direction and give someone else the keys. It’s better to stop the struggles now before they manifest to something worse. There will be plenty of promising names that will be thrown around in the coming weeks if AD John Wildhack indeed pulls the trigger, and we’ll have those discussions when the time comes. But what Syracuse lacrosse needs is an overhaul and a revamp.

But of course, this shouldn’t be seen as tarnish Desko’s time at Syracuse. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out towards the end. Just ask Dom Starsia and Dave Pietramala, two great coaches that in the past five years have seen their reigns come to an end. What I hope in the end is that it isn’t a firing, but rather a mutual parting, or perhaps a retirement with a nice goodbye. But either way, it’s time to look to the future.

You know the saying “if you love them, let them go?” John Desko’s meant a lot to Syracuse lacrosse fans. He’s had his days in the sun, and he’ll always have a place in the family. We’ll always love our coach that maybe will finally get John Goodman to play him in a biopic (okay, we can dream). But at this juncture, with Syracuse lacrosse once again in the crossroads, it’s finally time to let him go.