The firing of Cornell University men’s lacrosse coach Ben DeLuca after an investigation into hazing threatens the future of a program that ranks among the sport’s elite, according to former players.
Max Seibald, a two-time team captain who won the Tewaaraton award as college lacrosse’s best player in 2009, said alumni he’s spoken with are shocked and disappointed by the school’s decision. In the past 10 years, the Big Red have won at least a share of nine Ivy League titles, and last year advanced to the national semifinals.
“When you remove someone for reasons that are undisclosed to all of us, it’s tough for us to swallow and tough for us to understand,” Seibald, 26, said in a telephone interview. “Everyone is now wondering why, and that will have rippling effects in recruiting I’m sure, an instant impact on the team right now, and it will be interesting to see how the alumni react based on what happens in the future.”
DeLuca, who as a student was a four-year lacrosse letter winner at the school, was dismissed yesterday, two months after the program was suspended for the fall semester due to what the school called a hazing culture and underage drinking. Cornell gave no specific reason for the firing in a statement yesterday on its website, saying a change was needed to serve the program’s “tradition of excellence.”
“This was a difficult decision, but our students are our first priority and there is no doubt now that new leadership is required,” Athletic Director Andrew Noel said in the statement.
Rob Pannell, last year’s captain and the school’s only other Tewaaraton winner, said current players were “surprised and dumbfounded” by the news. He said the feeling within the program before yesterday was that they had served their suspension and moved on from the hazing allegations.
“They had no idea this was coming and are very upset with the news,” Pannell, 23, said in a telephone interview.
Cornell spokesman John Carberry said in an e-mail that the school had no further comment on the firing. An e-mail sent to DeLuca’s school account seeking comment wasn’t returned.
According to the Ithaca, New-York, university’s hazing website, the Cornell athletic department was told on Sept. 12 that new members of the lacrosse team were being hazed by older teammates. The suspension began the following day, and included the team’s fall schedule and exhibition games. Men’s college lacrosse is primarily a spring sport.
The school says subsequent investigation found a culture of treating freshmen as less than equals. It also revealed details of a party where upperclassmen organized a “keg race” and underclassmen were challenged to drink a large amount of beer to the point that many team members vomited.
Seibald and Pannell both said they never witnessed hazing.
“Yes, there was underage drinking, and I in no way support that -- it’s illegal and a violation of team rules,” Seibald said. “Was anyone ever forced to do things that they did not want to do? Absolutely not. That’s not part of our program, that’s not something we would do.”
Two other Cornell teams have been disciplined for hazing-related incidents since 2004, according to the hazing website. The women’s ice hockey team in 2005 was cited for forcing freshmen to steal toilet paper, and the women’s soccer team in 2007 was placed on probation for an annual party that included underage drinking. Both teams were led by first-year coaches who returned the following season.
Drew Fox, a managing director at Neuberger Berman Group LLC and head of the Virginia Lacrosse Alumni Network, said former players typically rely on coaches as their link to the current team. Traditional lacrosse powers such as Virginia and Princeton both have alumni groups that support their team and find players jobs after graduation.
“We understand administrations have to manage their employees just like in our own businesses,” Fox said in a telephone interview. “But we also appreciate being able to provide input.”
Michael French, captain of Cornell’s undefeated national-championship team in 1976, said he believed alumni would continue their unconditional support of the program. He said he isn’t owed an answer as to why DeLuca, who he considers a friend, was dismissed.
“I don’t need to know all the reasons why decisions are made,” French, a former partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and owner of the National Lacrosse League’s Philadelphia Wings, said in a telephone interview. “I’m a fan, and I trust that there’s a process and I trust the people that make those judgments.”
DeLuca was senior captain at Cornell before graduating in 1998 with a degree in nutritional sciences and biochemistry. He spent 10 years as an assistant before becoming head coach in June 2010.
Assistant Matt Kerwick will take over the team on an interim basis. Both Seibald and Pannell, who play for the New York Lizards of Major League Lacrosse, said continuity should be emphasized as the school conducts a national search for a permanent replacement.
“I will always be loyal to the program because of what Cornell has done for me, but a lot of that experience came through Coach DeLuca,” Seibald said. “Who’s to say someone doesn’t come in and change the entire dynamic and the feel and the tradition? That might separate guys from what made our experience so special and so unique.”
-- Editors: Larry Siddons, Michael Sillup