Past Players, Coaches Celebrate Storied Career of John Desko


John Desko had another announcement to make at his retirement press conference.

“I want to take this time to advertise I'm going to be having a yard sale at home,” Desko deadpanned at the end of his opening remarks. “Especially for those who like SU apparel, mostly extra-large and some double-X stuff going in there. A lot of throwback stuff, new and used … I’m so scared to go in my office and try to clean up and bring things home because I’ve already got 46 years of stuff at home. It seems like there’s even just as much at home as there is in the office. I’ll keep you updated on the dates.”

The moment of levity was indicative of the legendary coach’s dry wit around his team. He also never really liked talking about himself. Desko is better known for his 46-year career at Syracuse, where he was a part of a staggering 529 victories, including the program’s 11 NCAA titles — five of which he won in the past 23 years as head coach. Yet those statistics don’t capture the full picture of the two-time USILA National Coach of the Year and 2020 inductee into National Lacrosse Hall of Fame who coached 271 All-Americans.

“John’s greatest career accomplishments, it’s not so much the wins and the championships,” Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack said before Desko took the podium. “It’s the thousands of young men that he coached, that he mentored and developed at Syracuse.”

Desko opened his remarks by joking he wished he had walked in the side door instead of the lobby. Talking with his past and present staff, he said, made him emotional and nervous like he was at his first press conference rather than his last. The emotions continued to kick in when he mentioned the “literally thousands” of messages he received since the news of his retirement was made official yesterday.

“You won’t believe how many people you’re going to hear from,” Desko mentioned Syracuse head men’s basketball coach Jim Boheim as someone who extended his congratulations.

Desko admitted it was hard for him not to shed a tear looking at his staff, from offensive coordinator Pat March to Lelan Rogers to Roy Simmons III, who’s been involved with the Syracuse men’s lacrosse team for the past 31 years.

“Get over here, quick,” Desko said to ‘Roy III.’ “Come on, get up. I know you’re going to make me shed a tear or two.”

When asked why he was retiring now, Desko replied that he almost still didn’t know the total answer. “Open” conversations with his family and Wildhack helped him reach the decision and conclusion that he described as “easier than I thought.”

“I’m even appreciating it every day the more time that I’ve had to think about it and just to be able to be with the family at home,” Desko said.

Though Desko’s last season was perhaps his most difficult due to the controversy surrounding Chase Scanlan and the team’s underperformance (7-6) that ended with an 18-8 loss to Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the theme this afternoon was one of celebration and reflection on Desko’s storied career.

After answering questions about his impact on the program, during which Desko deferred the attention, the topic of conversation turned to his successor and former player Gary Gait, who led the Syracuse women’s lacrosse team since August 2007. Desko recalled watching Gary and Paul Gait — “these two big twins” — dominating at a Canadian lacrosse festival. After Syracuse fell short in the national championship game Gait’s freshman year, Gary Gait approached Roy Simmons Jr. and Desko, then an assistant coach.

“Jeez, now that I know what this is all about, I’ll make sure we don’t lose another one,” Gait told them.

The Orange didn’t.

“I felt like we were cheating when they were playing,” Desko said of the Gaits. While he previously prescribed to several gameday superstitions, those faded by the Gaits’ sophomore year because he was so confident the Orange would win.

Desko said he had not given thought to coaching anywhere else and that he believed the transition would be “seamless.” He noted he would support Syracuse in any way he could moving forward and already had several conversations with Gait. 

“He stressed that he’d like me around the team,” Desko said. “Obviously not in a coaching way, but he thinks it would be healthy for me to stay in contact with the guys. And I’d be happy to come to practice and point out what everybody’s doing wrong.”

Below are just a few of the tributes from Desko’s former players.

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